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A true crusader of responsible tourism

Monday, February 27, 2017, 10:35 Hrs  [IST]

Behind the success and global appreciation of the Responsible Tourism programme at Kumarakom, the unsolicited and crusading efforts of grassroots-level leaders like Rupeshkumar was instrumental. A strong antagonist of unbridled resort development in his village in Kumarakom in Kerala once to an equally ardent votary of Responsible Tourism and its State coordinator now, Rupeshkumar still believes that left to themselves, the tourism industry would not care for local people or environment at all. P Krishna Kumar met with this unassuming leader who contributed immensely in bringing a drastic mindset change in the tourism eco-system in Kumarakom.

People had high expectations when tourism started blossoming in Kumarakom, a tiny hamlet surrounded by backwaters and natural greenery in Kottayam district in Central Kerala in the beginning of the new millennium. Resorts started coming up one by one kindling hopes of an image makeover for their village, better livelihood opportunities, and also economic development in the area. But their hopes were shattered sooner than later when resorts started alienating the local people by erecting huge boundary walls around them. Those benefited from the development were a few land-owning lots. Farmlands were converted into commercial land overnight, and resorts started mushrooming everywhere. People who depended on farming lost their livelihood. Mangroves were destroyed in the name of resort development; draining hotel waste directly into backwaters, dumping of plastic bottles, etc. into the canals by tourists, affected the livelihood of fishermen community. The privacy people enjoyed while washing, bathing, etc., in the canals nearby was snatched away by the zooming camera eyes of tourists.

People’s resentment with the tourism industry started brewing slowly. While the industry snatched away their livelihood opportunities, it also tried to create barriers between local people and tourists. The flashpoint came when a fisherman tried to swim to the closest bank when his country-boat capsized in the middle. The sentry posted at the rear gate of a resort pushed him back into the water rather than giving him a helping hand.

“People wanted tourism to prosper and bring positive changes into their lives. But when they became mere victims of tourism, resistance started. In 2007, even the village panchayat adopted a resolution against resort activities in Kumarakom,” says Rupesh. As a progressive youth leader, Rupesh was in the forefront of the agitation against the resorts at that time. When agitation became a mass movement in Kumarakom, the government of the day and the Tourism department of the State interfered.

A dialogue process ensued at the behest of the Tourism department and the idea of Responsible Tourism shaped up. “On May 14, 2008, a meeting was convened with 1500 villagers in attendance. The concept of Responsible Tourism was put forth at the meeting,” Rupesh said digging out the landmark date from his memory. Despite resistance from a section, people by and large welcomed the initiative. “There were attempts to portray RT as a CIA programme initially,” he reminisces.

Around 900 women came forward to associate with the programme initially. A farm calendar was formed and groups were formed and assigned farming responsibilities of different vegetables required for hotels and resorts. The resorts also agreed to procure farm produce from the local RT Groups. Rupesh remembers with gratitude the steadfast leadership of the local panchayat President then, GC Damodaran, in conceiving the farm programme. “Panchayat stood guarantee for getting farmland on lease from owners for farming for self-help groups,” he said.

Farming went full steam and the self-help groups got good harvest. However, the hotels backtracked from their procurement promise raising questions on the ability of the RT groups to make steady and seamless supply. “Purchase Managers’ lobby which lost their commission avenues was behind the move,” Rupesh said. Left with no alternative, Rupesh and other RT activists sold the entire farm produce sitting in the Kottayam market.

With matters back to square one, the Tourism department once again put their foot down on the resorts formalising a contract for local procurement with 19 resorts. In spite of efforts on the part of resorts to derail the process from time to time, things started looking up eventually, with at least half of the resorts falling in line. Committees comprising Chefs from resorts and RT groups were formed to assess the quality of the produce; a committee of GMs of the resorts and the community leaders was also set up to build synergies, Rupesh says. “Such forums made a big difference. Even issues of open sewage to backwaters, etc., were addressed with resorts setting up STPs within.” Joint initiatives have also helped in addressing environmental issues. Over 2000 mangrove saplings were planted in two phases; around 22 different varieties of mango were regenerated in the village. Village ponds which became waste dumping centres were cleaned up and converted into fish ponds. Lotus flowers were also cultivated in these ponds, which are high in demand in resorts.

“Today, the RT cells are quite active and the system is working well in Kumarakom,” he said. The initiative has now gone beyond just production and procurement relationship. The Village Life Experience that was introduced in Kumarakom has become a big hit by now; with Tourism department itself is marketing it through all channels. “Tourists had nothing to do after the backwater cruise and bird sanctuary tour. In order to engage them, we introduced Village Life Experiences. Through this, we have been able to revive many traditional jobs which were getting extinct.” Coconut palm weaving, coir making, toddy tapping, coconut climbing, etc., are once again started thriving in the village, with the package fee going straight into the villagers.

Even lot of cultural groups sprung up in the village over the years, as opportunities to present their performances at hotels and resorts during various events. The economic benefits Responsible Tourism initiative delivered is not small. “There are artists and craftsmen who earn more than a high ranking official in the government in Kumarakom today,” observed Rupesh, commenting on the kind of change that the initiative has delivered to the local economy. Around 1,200 families are directly benefited in Kumarakom alone.

The active support of the local self governments and the tourism department of the State government have been invaluable in making the eco-system of RT vibrant and kicking, Rupesh said. “Kerala Tourism might be the only tourism board in the world which apart from doing the usual marketing and promotions through brochures and videos, take active interest in skill training of people under RT today,” he states.

The success story of Kumarakom is now replicated in other tourism centres like Thekkady, Kovalam, Wayanad, etc., with equal vigour. “RT has brought a mindset change in the tourism industry. Local people are no more considered uncivilised or inferior by tourism industry,” Rupesh said. However, it requires continuous engagement and monitoring system to keep the momentum going, Rupesh said, citing how the system collapsed when the RT Cells were withdrawn for a brief period after the completion of its first phase in 2010.

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