Last week Kerala Tourism won the prestigious UNWTO Ulysses Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance, the highest honour given to government bodies for shaping global tourism policies through innovative initiatives. Now in its tenth year, the UNWTO Ulysses Awards celebrate outstanding contributions in the field of tourism across the globe. As UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai said last week “The UNWTO Awards represent our belief that knowledge plays a central role in tourism and it is through innovation and the application of knowledge that we can advance towards a more sustainable and competitive tourism sector in line with the principles of our Global Code of Ethics.”
‘Kerala, a popular ecotourism destination, portrays responsible and sustainable tourism in an exceptional manner’, said UNWTO Secretary-General, Mr. Taleb Rifai, at the awards ceremony. “This recognition conferred upon the state is a great step towards creating a better understanding among other destinations of the principles we stand for,” he added, wishing Kerala Tourism “continued success”. The Kumarakom initiative has previously won the National Award for Best Rural Tourism Project in March last year and the PATA Grand Award for Environment.
Kerala Tourism was awarded for its path-breaking Responsible Tourism project in Kumarakom, where the Department has demonstrated leadership in working with business and the communities to make better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit. Their initiative has successfully linked the local community with accommodation providers encouraging the creation of local employment and local sourcing of goods and services for the industry in Kumarakom. The Department of Tourism in Kerala has successfully established a model which has empowered the local community to secure development and to manage the environmental impact of tourism on the farming land and the Vembanad Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Kerala, heavily trafficked by houseboats.
By 2007 it was clear that the growth of tourism in the area needed to be managed if it was to be sustainable and if local communities were to use tourism for their development rather than to be used by it. Kumarakom has been declared a Special Tourism Zone by the Kerala state Government under the terms of the Kerala Tourism Act, 2005.
Kerala approached the Responsible Tourism Partnership to host the 2nd International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations in 2008. Dr Venu Vasudevan, then Secretary for Tourism in the state, saw the potential to use a Responsible Tourism approach to address the challenge of using tourism for sustainable local development in Kerala. He and I co-chaired the conference which focused on the contribution which different stakeholders could make to the realisation of Responsible Tourism.
Dr Venu, now Joint Secretary in the national Ministry of Culture, was modest in his acknowledgment of the success of the Kumarakom initiative, but it was initiated and nurtured by him. He wrote “Congratulations to team Kerala Tourism, Kumarakom Panchayat, the hoteliers and stakeholders for this wonderful recognition. Special kudos to Sivasankar, Rupesh Kumar K and Jose Ulloppillil Varkey, whose efforts need special mention.” Kerala’s Responsible Tourism policy is now firmly established having been maintained through a change of government.
Kerala Tourism Minister Mr. A P Anilkumar said: “We are humbled by the UNWTO’s decision to confer this highest international award on our state … It is a recognition of our continuing efforts to sustain global tourism, which can progress only if we consider the local community as our biggest partner.. By building healthy private-public partnerships at the local level with the active involvement of the local community, we can create jobs locally, improve the lives of members of the local community and preserve its culture and ethos through sustainable tourism
Kerala Tourism Secretary Mr. Suman Billa, who received the Ulysses Prize at the awards ceremony said: “We are delighted that Kumarakom has become a model for sustainable tourism to the world … Our ‘Responsible Tourism’ model shows that the future of tourism lies in initiatives at the grassroots level. ” adding that “The UNWTO award also bestows upon us the added responsibility of working even harder in the future by achieving higher standards in practicing tourism.”
Kerala Tourism Director Mr. S Harikishore said “The Kumarakom project has become successful because of the hard work by all its partners, from the local community to local hospitality organizations and local government departments to the state tourism department staff, and above all the support of our esteemed travellers from around the world.”
Launched in 2008, the Kerala Tourism’s ‘Responsible Tourism’ initiative in Kumarakom involves the Gram Panchayat, Kudumbashree, District Tourism Promotion Council and local hospitality industry besides the government departments of agriculture and health, to achieve sustainable tourism by creating job opportunities and practicing eco-tourism objectives.
Kerala is pursuing Responsible Tourism initiatives in four main tourism destinations Kumarakom, Wayanad, Kovalam and Thekkady. It has been most successful in Kumarakom. The reasons why Kumarakom has emerged as a leader are complex, and will doubtless be debated. But amongst the reasons are the support of the Panchayat, the local government, and of hoteliers like Jose Dominic of CGH Earth’s Coconut Lagoon.
When Mrs. M R Dhanya, Panchayat President for Kumarakom spoke at WTM in November 2011 she said that before the Responsible Tourism initiative by the state government the local panchayat had never been involved in tourism development activities: “the tourism industry considered Panchayat as their enemies as panchayat often had to fight with them on the issues of non tax payment, unauthorised constructions and polluting the backwaters. The local population also was considering the industry as intruders in their territory.”
Things changes with the initiative of the Kerala Department of Tourism, in Mrs Dhanya’s words: “Panchayat responded very positively by preparing a supply calendar for the supply of locally available materials like vegetable, fish, milk, meat and other non-perishable items to the hotels and resorts. We have also initiated activities to increase the production of these items and enhance quality. Part of the plan allocation in agriculture is utilised for distributing seeds and manure for vegetable cultivation. Last year we have used about 250,000 Indian Rupees for this purpose. We have also supplied chicks, lambs etc to the women in the panchayat to enable more meat, milk and egg supply to the hotels and resorts. Women self-help groups were formed under Kudumbasree to support production and supply systems.”
She concluded “I feel very proud in stating before you that the RT initiative at Kumarakom has proved the potential of tourism to provide sustainable livelihood to the local community. The success at Kumarakom is the result of team work and the commitment to work together…. This model can be effectively used in making destinations more sustainable.”