Tourism Sector Gets a Grassroot Level Push

Destination Kerala examines how well the Responsible Tourism Mission has fared in meeting its goals since inception in 2017

Thiruvananthapuram: Tourism in Kerala has never failed to attract domestic and international visitors simply because of the uniqueness of the State’s offerings ranging from its varied landscapes and ubiquitous green cover, round-the-year tropical climate and mouth-watering delicacies, among others. But how far the State has been able to utilise its tourism potential for the socio-economic good of local communities is the moot question. However, addressing this issue to a certain extent, the Responsible Tourism (RT) Mission, launched by the State Government in 2017, has emerged as the torchbearers of change on this domain of late.

Though a unified definition for Responsible Tourism was finalised at Cape Town in South Africa during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, it was Kerala which took the idea forward by developing and implementing the first working model of RT at Kumarakom village in the State.

Until 2007 neither the State’s local self-government (LSG) bodies nor local communities were active participants in facilitating tourism promotion. With the launch of RT’s pilot project in 2008 at Kumarakom, Kovalam, Thekkady and Vythiri, this situation slowly started to change. Later, by 2011, RT was extended to three more destinations – Bekal, Kumbalangi and Ambalavayal as the second phase.

The basic guiding principle of the RT Mission is ‘local products, local procurement and local supply.’ In this system, RT Mission never receives or handles payments. “The Mission plays the role of a facilitator. Nothing more than that. We don’t receive cash or handle finance associated with the stakeholders,” says Rupeshkumar K, State Coordinator, Responsible Tourism Mission.

RT Mission 2 info

In the initial years of RT Mission, the focus was on the destination-specific model. For example, all products required at Kumarakom are sourced from there itself. RT Mission has its origins in the struggle of the local people to sell their products. RT, in a broader economic sense, brings together all stakeholders from within and outside the industry under one roof. Though the RT Mission encourages meeting the demand of tourism-related products locally, it is also aware of the fact that RT of a specific location could become a monopoly of certain local businessmen over a period of time.

RT Mission

“Take for example the case of destination panchayats. Some tourism inventories may be available beyond the limits of say, Kumarakom panchayat. So, it naturally becomes a resource for the beneficiaries of neighbouring panchayats, too and vice versa,” says Rupesh who has been at the forefront in resolving such RT issues for the last 10 years. One of the main ways for the Mission to address such issues has been to grow from being panchayat-centric to district-centric.

“Kerala’s strategy to promote Responsible Tourism is timely and it will help the State’s growth tremendously. RT is the future of product development in the tourism industry. More and more people are choosing such destinations which adhere to RT guidelines,” says Jose Dominic, Tourism Entrepreneur.

RT Mission Units

The result of the first and second phase implementations of RT in 2008 and 2011 was the formation of 160 RT units at grass-roots level. Since the launch of the RT Mission last year, 7570 RT units have been established across the State. The RT Mission hopes to increase it substantially soon.

At present, registered RT units are focussing on inventories, products and services like home stays, farm stays, tented accommodation units, local tour operators, shikkara operators, country boat operators, chauffeurs, art and cultural units; handicrafts and souvenir units, and paper and cloth bags units. Units providing perishable products like milk and vegetables, and value-added food products also function under the umbrella of RT Mission. More than 15,500 people directly and 26,260 indirectly are benefitted through the activities of RT Mission.

The strategic change in the approach to RT has helped register Rs. 5.26-crore revenue in 2017-18. Thus RT generated an income which is 330 per cent more than what it used to generate annually in the years before. Although the Mission aimed at generating revenue of about Rs. 20 crore, the flood situation adversely impacted this goal. However, the Mission is poised to help register an increase in income through RT in the 2018-19 financial year, according to the officials of the RT Mission.

The identification of beneficiaries of RT happens in two ways. One is the destination-specific way under which awareness programmes are conducted. Here, district coordinators and gram panchayats will identify prospective units through discussions and meeting with local communities.

The Mission collects data on the requirements of tourism inventories at various tourism spots. The Mission also identifies the local products which could help meet demands of a particular area. It is only after such careful analysis that Responsible Tourism units are formed. “It is a very big participatory exercise and we don’t straight away go into unit formations on a bulk scale,” says Rupeshkumar.

Online Platform to Offer Local Products

In mid-October, the RT Mission had announced that an online platform to market local products, both perishables and non-perishables, sourced from registered beneficiaries, will be launched in November. The online platform with a focus on local economic empowerment is expected to benefit tourism and its inventories in the State. According to RT Mission officials, it will have details on what products are available and at which locations. The online platform will also offer products which are exclusive to certain places in the State like the world famous Aranmula Kannadi and Karimeen (Pearl Spot Fish) which is indigenously seen at Kumarakom and nearby areas. “The economic benefits of the RT Mission units will increase once the network is up,” Rupeshkumar says.

The changes that have been brought about by the Mission, little but significant, vindicate the State Government’s determination not to downplay RT as a showcase mission. “The trial of this project, which ran between 2008 and 2010, succeeded at Kumarakom but didn’t do well in Kovalam. However, over a period of 10 years, it has succeeded at seven places in the State. In the second phase, the government is intensely supporting the Mission and that has reflected in the changes it has brought about,” he says.

Challenges and Targets

‘Creating a better place for people to visit and a better place to live’, a main guiding principle of Responsible Tourism, is idealistic. However, in practice, RT is one of the most challenging endeavors a stakeholder in the tourism industry can commit to. “For the common people of the State, RT happens when tourism comes to them and only then a tangible change will occur in the social, economic and environment fronts envisaged by the Mission,” Rupeshkumar observes. To create a better place for tourism and the people, environmental protection has to be ensured and that is why it has been the core of RT. As part of its environmental responsibility, RT Mission has been taking up initiatives to reduce plastic usage in the tourism industry, put in place proper and efficient waste management systems at destinations and protect local varieties of trees and mangroves.

“I think Kerala always had an orientation towards RT and when it actually took off, it was hailed as a welcome change. RT Mission will provide a fillip to the whole cause,” Jose Dominic observes.

Similarly, under the Clean Vembanadu Lake campaign spearheaded by the Mission, regular scientific waste management training sessions are being conducted for houseboat owners and employees in Alappuzha district. Recently, the initiative had made headlines when 55 truckloads of plastic garbage were removed from the lake.

“As part of the waste management initiatives of RT Mission, a registered RT unit is collecting plastic waste from different places of Kottayam and Alappuzha districts, processing it and converting it into plastic bricks which will be utilised for different purposes,” says the RT Mission’s State Coordinator. The awareness created by the Mission has encouraged resorts in Thekkady and Kumarakom to replace plastic straws with environment-friendly straws made from coconut leaf or bamboo.  Similarly, according to RT Mission, all resorts in Kumarakom and Thekkady have replaced plastic water bottles with glass bottles in guest rooms.

‘PEPPER’ Project

People’s Participation for Participatory Planning and Empowerment through Responsible Tourism (PEPPER) is the project introduced by RT Mission to ensure local community participation from the planning stage to the implementation level of an RT project at a specific destination.

“Without local support tourism sector cannot survive in the long term. RT practices in the pilot phases proved that industry-community harmony elevates the market value of a destination,” Rupeshkumar says. The project has been implemented at Vaikom on a pilot basis and is being extended to 10 local bodies across the State.

How PEPPER Works?

Under the PEPPER Project ‘special tourism grama sabhas’ are convened in the LSGs with an aim to discuss tourism possibilities of the respective areas.

This is followed by focus group discussions. Subsequently, resource directories will be prepared to record the details of various products, including experiential tour packages. Suitable areas will be identified for providing training and capacity building, and training will be imparted to all stakeholders before developing the area as a ‘new destination.’