Last month, I took a break from work and went on a trip to Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. As we were exploring the park, once the hunting ground of Jaipur Maharajas, I came across an American photographer, who comes to India every year. This lady was staying at Ranthambore for almost a month, had hired a Jeep to go around, and was spending substantial money to shoot wildlife pictures. When I told her about Kerala, she had no idea that we have some of the best forests and wild life in the country!
It's time we took a relook at the way we promote God's Own Country. Rather than wooing a large number of tourists, we now need to start focusing on the kind of visitors we should attract. We must realize that ours is a small state that has only a certain carrying capacity. Already most of our tourism spots are under tremendous stress. About 15 years ago, when Kumarakom was emerging as a key destination, I said at a seminar in Kochi that the backwaters in the area would become a cesspool unless we curb the mindless expansion. See what is happening now: that destination is fast losing its charm because of the damage being done to the environment by the large influx of visitors and myriad numbers of houseboats.
Some recent statistics underscore that foreigners are beginning to overlook Kerala. In 2014, the annual growth in foreign tourist arrivals slowed to 7.6% from 8.12% a year earlier. The national growth average of tourist arrivals also exceeded the state growth rate in 2014, the first such instance in a decade. Actually, Kerala tourism's annual growth has been slowing down since 2010, and as per available data, the growth is even slower at 6.3% during January-October of 2015. Kerala ranked only seventh for foreign tourists arrivals in the country in 2014. (Our neighbor Tamil Nadu topped the list.)
Kerala has huge potential in attracting high-end tourists. We need to start focusing on certain areas as high end tourist destinations. Perhaps it might surprise you that there are already properties in the state that charge about 100,000 rupees per night. Such resorts don't advertise as they want to stay very exclusive. Many celebrities from around the world have vacationed on such properties, some which offer only vegetarian food and don't even allow wearing shoes.
(Tiger at Ranthambore National Park)
Many high net-worth individuals love that experience. And if that experience is unique, they will talk about it, which eliminates the need for you to advertise. Jose Dominic of CGH Earth Group is one entrepreneur who has re-written the rules of Kerala tourism. In his words, "you pay for not what you get, but for what you don't get." That's what he had done at CGH Earth's Bangaram Island property in Lakshadweep where visitors got a unique, local experience. Dominic replicated this strategy in many of his other resorts.
Forest tourism is one area we should explore to attract high-end tourists. There is tremendous business potential for this, without causing any negative impact on the environment. We need to demarcate some areas where we can allow a minimum number of tourists. The Forest Department can join hands with the Tourism Department, providing guides and patrol for the tourists who would like to explore our forests. You can keep the facilities to a bare minimum: sleeping bags, eco-friendly rooms and simple food. By keeping the tariffs high, we can prevent a large influx of people. I am sure many people like the American Photographer I met at Ranthambore would pay top dollars for such an experience. That money can also be used to create a fund for the environment, tribals, and forests in our state.
(Photo credit: Prabhu B Doss via Small Kitchen / CC BY-NC-ND Kerala Tourism via Design Blog / CC BY-SA & G. Vijaya Raghavan)