Community owned and managed travel experience in Kerala, India

Posted by Madhavan Namboodiri:  The Coastal Wetlands area of Kerala is one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world. The beautiful natural water bodies such as estuaries and tidal canals supported a sustainable livelihood and navigation system. For this reason traditionally local community have maintained these water bodies regularly in good condition. But over the past many decades, modern development concepts have destroyed the traditional water bodies resulting in their stagnation and heavy pollution leading to serious health hazards and loss of traditional livelihood avenues. One major culprit in this ecological disaster is the tourism industry, causing  unchecked growth of tourist resorts, built on lands reclaimed from the water bodies, houseboats polluting the estuaries and canals with liquid and solid wastes and oil spills. While there was enough hue and cry against this onslaught by the Industry, efforts in pursuit of finding ethical and sustainable alternatives did not come forth. Finding and establishing an ethical alternative of tourism is not a cake walk. It takes its own time to break the mindset of the community and the politicians. But the persistent and dedicated action of the local communities in a small fishing village in Alappuzha (Allepey) District of Kerala, did succeed to create a sustainable, ethical and socially just tourism model as an alternative to the current model of socially, ecologically and ethically exploitative mass tourism model. The story starts way back in 2004, when the notorious Tsunami, that shocked the entire world hit Kerala coast. A small fishing village named Arattupuzha in the west coast of Kerala in the south India was the second worst hit areas in Kerala. Although relief and aid started pouring into the village from all over the world, obviously they lacked long term perspectives. This is when, with the help of a French NGO, a project named Punarjani, meaning regeneration in Sanskrit was evolved, and implemented with the active participation of the local Government, community and the Civil Society. The programme started in April 2006 and was completed by end of December 2014. Punarjani initiated and implemented many environmental and livelihood regeneration programmes which got very high social and political acceptability, so much so, that it became a socio-political movement in this region. But the major issue of difficulty in maintaining the water bodies and the environment clean on a sustainable basis remained unresolved. So the community organised themselves into self-help groups under Kudumbashree and started several income generating activities that not only checked environmental pollution but also created income generation avenues and a corpus fund that can be used for maintaining the water bodies and environment clean. While eco friendly coir based crafts and traditional inland aqua-culture prevented pollution, community managed tourism (CBT) prevented the environmental pollution and onslaught on the local culture. In May 2014, a pilot CBT project called Snehatheeram (meaning love shore) was launched on an experimental basis in Ramanchery village of Arattupuzha Grama Panchayat. The women group built a small eco-cottage on the shores of a backwater lake to entertain travelers who are seeking candid experience of their village life. The profits are partially used for the common development activities of the village and the rest is shared amongst the women group who is running the enterprise. With launching of the eco-lodge on 5th June 2014, the world environment day Snehatheeram, the ambitious community managed tourism initiative owned and managed by a group of local women came into existence. It was a festival day for the entire village community. Local politicians praised the initiative and accepted the need to evolve a more eco-friendly, culture friendly tourism policy that also ensures equity and community ownership as opposed to the investor friendly, industry friendly concept of tourism. As the luck would have it, a young student from France Élan, happened to be the first formal guest to occupy the lodge. Although he is not strictly falling into the category of tourists, he did look at Snehatheeram from a tourist’s point of view and gave his frank opinions and feedback to the CBT Team. He mingled with the community so well that he was considered as a member of the community and women and children shed all their inhibitions about foreigners and freely exchanged stories. Norbert is a French expert in CBT, stayed in the CBT eco-lodge nearly for 10 days to help the group in setting up and operating a CBT. His critical inputs about the need for simplicity, spontaneity and authenticity removed the common belief that tourists look for luxury.  The boatmen, village craft units and the Chinese Fishing net operators, for the first time knew that their work is appreciated and enjoyed. Norbert was not a tourist. He was the beloved guest of the village. The best observation he made about the eco-lodge can be summarized in his comments “although I have been here for quite a few days, I never felt bored and time has just disappeared when I relax with a book in the balcony facing the lake”. The moral of the story is summarized as below:

  • It is one thing to express the concern about maladies of mass tourism but quite another to invent and implement a sustainable, ethical alternative.
  • The ecological and cultural heritages of destinations are not ‘products’ to be ‘sold and bought’ but vital assets nurtured by the local community.
  • Traveler is not a ‘client’ but a conscious ‘participant’ in a change process, a process that revives, and conserves the ecological, cultural and social heritages of the destinations.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is the editor and co-founder of Travindy. He is a writer and communications consultant working for a more responsible and sustainable tourism industry. He is the author of two books, writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market, and provides consultancy to a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from National Parks to individual hotels and tour operators.

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