Kerala is one of the most striking states in southern India, with sandy beaches, lagoons, and cultural traditions that are magnets for travelers. But 15 years ago, tourism was taking its toll. It’s a story that could’ve been a downward spiral, and yet it wasn’t. In this week’s episode of Unpacked, journalist Paige McClanahan—host of the Better Travel Podcast—travels to Kerala to learn how the government responded and to witness the radical changes that followed.
Aislyn Greene, host: In some ways it can be so easy to travel. And yet it’s not always easy to understand the impact of our travels on the place or places that we’re visiting. How does the local community feel about tourism? Who’s benefiting from our visit? Well today, we’re going to journey to a place that’s figured out how to do tourism right.
I’m Aislyn Greene, associate director of podcasts here at AFAR, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks a tricky topic in travel every week. And today you’re going to hear from Paige McClanahan, host of the Better Travel Podcast. Paige is a journalist based in the French Alps who has spent a good chunk of her career, exploring the very issues we’re going to dig into today. Issues like overtourism, sustainability, and much more. Last year, she traveled to Kerala, a state in southern India, because she’d heard that it had radically transformed its travel industry. Her story is part travelogue—you know, the kind that makes you just immediately want to buy a ticket, jump on a plane—and part how-to guide for building a better travel world. Easy stuff, right? So let’s get to it.
Paige McClanahn, host: Welcome to the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple in Vaikom, a small city in the state of Kerala. I’m here on the southwest coast of India, near the country’s southern tip. This temple, which we’ll return to later in the episode, is just one of the many sites that attract visitors to Kerala—a region known for its lagoons, sandy beaches, cultural traditions, and a cuisine so rich and fragrant I feel I can taste it even now.
For all of these reasons, and more, Kerala—which is known as “God’s own country”—attracts travelers from all over the world. In 2019, 16 million travelers visited the state—that’s more than the number of people who visited Denmark or Iceland or even New Zealand in the same year. Kerala isn’t a big place—it’s about half the size of South Carolina. But it has a population of 34 million—roughly the population of California—and tourism here is big business: it accounts for more than 10 percent of the state’s GDP. But until recently, tourism wasn’t working for many of the people who live here.
I’m a travel journalist, and I’ve come to Kerala because I’ve heard that, over the past 15 years or so, the state has radically overhauled its tourism industry. I’ve reported on problems and damages associated with travel in places like Pompeii, Barcelona, Hawaii, and in my own backyard in the French Alps. But here in Kerala, I’ve been told, they’re getting tourism right: they’ve figured out a way to make the industry work for visitors and for residents. So I’ve flown all the way from my home in France to come and see for myself.
Paige: I’m cruising down a wide canal in a low-slung boat called a shikara. I’m with my tour guide, Sabu, a fifty-something man with short-cropped hair and a thick mustache. Sabu is joined by Suresh, our driver, a soft-spoken man who is quick to smile at me from his perch at the back of the boat. Both men wear polo shirts paired with lungi – cloth wraps that they have folded so they hit just above the knee. Together, the three of us are heading toward a neighborhood called Aymanam, where I’m going to have what’s called a “Village Life Experience” – a popular tour for visitors that will take up most of the morning. But for right now, I’m enjoying the view from the boat: the canal is lined with dense, jungly forest that occasionally breaks for a view of a family home, or a temple. When we cruise past a cluster of water lilies, Sabu picks one of the flowers and deftly weaves its long stem into a necklace that he places over my head.
At our first stop, we pull up to a low dock and the three of us climb out of the boat. Sabu leads me down a short path to a single-story family home that’s painted a deep shade of pink. This isn’t just any house – it’s the home of Suresh, our boat driver, who beams as he introduces me to his wife, Ajitha, who has stepped out in the yard to greet us. A few healthy-looking chickens are pecking around in the dirt by our feet, looking for a bite to eat. All around us, the family garden is overflowing with flowering plants, shrubs and trees that I don’t recognize. Sabu starts to show me around, plucking leaves, crunching them in his fingers, then holding them up to my nose for a sniff.
Paige: Wow, what is that smell?
Sabu: Nutmeg plant
Paige: Nutmeg, plant. Wow.
Paige: Nutmeg, wild ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, tamarind. Sabu shows me all of these and more. And of course there are palm trees, and lots of coconuts. At one point, Suresh passes me a pair of small bananas that he has just picked, then plucks a coconut from a nearby tree and starts hacking away with his machete – he opens a hole in top of the coconut, then passes it to me so I can drink the sweet water inside.
Sound effect: Machete hacking into a coconut
Paige: Amazing, thank you.
Paige: We go back to the yard in front of the house, where Ajitha, Suresh’s wife, is sitting on a burlap sack on the ground. In front of her, there’s a pile of rough brown fibers – all from coconut husks. Ajitha shows me how she spins the rough material together between her hands until it winds away from her, forming a thin, sturdy rope. Ajitha then takes my hands between her own, and helps me make some of the rope myself – which appears from between my palms like some sort of magic.
I don’t speak Malayalam and Ajitha doesn’t speak English, so we communicate through smiles and gestures. Sabu sometimes jumps in with a translation, but we seem to understand each other just fine. After showing me the ropemaking, Ajitha leads me inside the house, into the family’s living room. Grinning, she picks up one of her saris, a cream and burgundy one with sparkles of golden thread, and begins to wind the thick, rich fabric around my waist, then over one of my shoulders. She smiles at me, pleased.
Ajitha and her husband, Suresh, are sharing their home with me. It could be a show, of course, but the warmth and delight that I see in their faces as they show me around feels genuine. It feels more like I’m visiting a new neighbor than participating in a tour. And thanks to the government of Kerala, Ajitha and Suresh are also earning money by doing this.
Later that day, I head to a nearby village called Maravanthuruthu. The village has seen how nearby communities have benefited from this new tourism, and now the residents here want to get in on the game. Kayaking as a travel activity is still in its pilot phase here – I’m actually the very first visitor to try it. Together with my kayaking guide, Ajmal, I paddle down narrow canals that are overhung with vines and branches, and filled with water lilies. Over the course of our hour in the water, Ajmal and I spot long-necked black cormorants, white egrets, slender gray herons, and eagles that screech from their perches in the trees high above us.
At the end of the day, as the shikara boat putters back to my hotel, I ask Sabu what he thinks about tourism. He tells me that it’s created jobs in his community, which has made a big impact. Sabu is 56 years old, and he’s been earning his living as a tour guide ever since he left the Indian Army more than a decade ago – which means he was one of the first people to join Kerala’s experiments with responsible tourism. These days, Sabu sees young people getting jobs in tourism, and he thinks this is a good thing: it means they can get a job in the village, and don’t have to move away for work the way they used to. Another benefit, Sabu says, is that it gives young people a reason to learn about and preserve their heritage and traditions.
Paige: I come away from my Village Life Experience absolutely fascinated. I want to know more about how and why this type of tourism developed here in Kerala. Fortunately, I’ve timed my visit with Dr. Harold Goodwin, the founder and director of the International Center for Responsible Tourism. Dr. Goodwin is also an advisor to the Kerala government, who reached more than a decade ago, when it became clear that the tourism industry needed to change.
Harold Goodwin: When they held the first international conference on responsible tourism in destinations here in 2008, it was clear that there were two major issues from the point of view of the communities. The first was the fact that they were gaining nothing economically from tourism, and the second was the rubbish and so on which the tourism was leaving behind.
Paige: So just 15 years ago, tourism wasn’t a win-win situation here in Kerala. In fact, local communities were so upset with some aspects of the industry that they protested in the streets. But here’s the thing: the government listened.
Harold: What they did, which was incredibly smart, was that they decided they’d have an experiment: in four different villages, they would try four different ways of increasing the benefit to local communities. And as a consequence of that, they learned a great deal about how to do it well. Kumarakom, where we are recording this, was the village that did it best.
So what’s happening in Kerala is an exemplary example of how to make tourism benefit local communities, in part through the Village Life Experience, and secondly by creating producer groups --so bringing together groups of small producers, of soft furnishings, food, bringing them together in small groups so that they could provide the volume of produce which the hotel needs.
Paige: Dr. Goodwin tells me that the local village councils, called panchayats, have been deeply involved in setting the terms for how travelers experience their communities. This kind of a set-up—where communities dictate the terms—is actually a pretty exceptional way of managing so-called “community tourism,” Dr. Goodwin says. In too many instances, he tells me, rich tourists pay to visit a village, but the residents aren’t compensated, let alone consulted on how or even whether they want to open up their communities to visitors. In those cases, “community tourism” can look a lot like exploitation.
But here in Kerala, there’s good news to report, Dr. Goodwin tells me. The community-based tourism they pioneered in Kumarakom more than a decade ago is now in practice throughout Kerala—and beyond. In 2017, the state government adopted Responsible Tourism as its official tourism policy. They even set up an entire office to manage that work across the state. Dr. Goodwin tells me that the person who now leads that organization—Rupesh Kumar—actually used to be one of the tourism industry’s most aggressive critics. In fact, he was one of the citizens who—more than 15 years ago—protested the negative impacts of tourism in Kerala. Before long, the government hired him to help fix the problems.
Rupesh Kumar: The history of Kerala responsible tourism movement is actually the history of confrontation to cooperation.
Paige: That’s him right there: Rupesh Kumar, the director of the state of Kerala’s Responsible Tourism Mission. Kumar was born and raised in Kumarakom—and he still lives here in the backwaters, now with his wife and teenage daughter. Kumar tells me that he’s seen a lot of changes to the state’s tourism industry over the years.
Rupesh Kumar: Kumarakom witnessed a lot of confrontation in between tourism, industry, and local community. During the year 2007, the local self-government, that means the local panchayat, passed a resolution that informed the government that we cannot continue the support for the tourism industry.
Paige: Kumar explains that, at that point, tourism in Kerala seemed to operate in isolation from the local communities: They didn’t hire local people, and they didn’t purchase their supplies from local producers. As Kumar tells me, not a single vegetable or egg or even a drop of milk was sourced from the farmers of Kerala—everything was imported from other parts of India. At the same time, rice paddies were being filled in to make more space for tourists.
Rupesh: So people were agitated that they became the victims of tourism development. For example, the whole waste created as part of tourism was deposited in the same place and there were no serious scientific mechanisms for waste management by the industry. So they became the victims. At the same time, the Kumarakom people lost their traditional livelihood activities like agriculture and fisheries because paddy fields were pulled for the creation of hotels and resorts.
Such issues created a very serious conflict between the tourism industry and the local community. We never fought against tourists. We have a demand that we, the local people, need some involvement in tourism.
Paige: The people spoke out, and the local government responded. They held that first conference on responsible tourism in 2008, which led to those first pilot projects for community tourism. They also set up producer groups to link local farmers and craftworkers to purchasers in Kerala’s tourist restaurants and resorts. And they reached out to Kerala’s tour operators and travel agents, and convinced 70 percent of them to actively promote the tours and activities of the Responsible Tourism movement—things like the Village Life Experience that I got to try in Aymanam. Rupesh says that this has really worked: a 2015 survey found broad community support for the tourism industry. Of the more than 2,000 local families who were surveyed, only six reported that tourism had a negative impact on their household. Now, Rupesh is working to help other governments in India to learn from Kerala’s experiences.
Rupesh: We can replicate this model anywhere, any part of India and the world. This is a process, but with various types of experiments, some of our experiments failed. That is also a case study. That’s also a reality. So we never tried to replicate that failure experience to any other part of Kerala. But there are a lot of positive stories, success stories that can be replicated.
Madhya Pradesh tourism board already have signed with us. We have an MOU with them and they are implementing it their own way very well and we are supporting them for the cause of mutual benefit. For the cause of transparency in tourism. So we can support anybody. We can replicate anywhere in the world [what’s happening in] Kerala.
Paige: The more I see of what’s working in Kerala, the more I ask myself: can this model of tourism be replicated in other places? The answer, it seems to me, is yes. Governments in South Africa and the Gambia, are already exploring similar approaches: the village life experiences, the producer groups, the partnerships with hotels and resorts, travel agents and tour operators. But one thing seems to be underpinning it all, which might not be that easy to replicate: effective and responsive government, all the way from the state level down to the local panchayat, or village council. With tourism—just like with any industry or any kind of human activity, really—it’s just a matter of time before problems crop up. The important thing, and what happened here in Kerala, is that leaders listened to residents’ complaints—and then they took action.
Paige: For my last day, I’ve signed up for another Village Life Experience. This time I’m heading to Vaikom, a small city that takes about half an hour to reach via tuk tuk. And it’s here that I get to visit the Hindu temple—the one we heard from at the top of the episode. The whole complex covers eight acres in the center of the city—it’s made up of a massive gravel-covered courtyard, surrounded by high walls on all sides, with the temple building itself—and its fat white pillars and orange-tiled roof—sitting right in the middle.
My guide here is Sundarasen, a short, lean man in his fifties. He meets me at an appointed spot on the side of a busy road, just by the temple’s north gate. But we’re not ready to walk inside just yet. Sundaresen first leads me to where he has parked his motorbike, and pulls out a heavy cloth wrap from a well under the seat. I’m wearing a dress that falls below my knees, with black leggings underneath—but I need a longer wrap to enter the temple, he says, so I use the cloth to make a skirt so long that it grazes the wet road. Then he tells me to take off my shoes, which he stashes inside the seat of his motorbike alongside his own. And then we walk, barefoot, along the wet, mud-spattered road to the entrance of the temple.
Inside, a paved walkway leads across a broad, sand-covered yard and toward the temple itself. Clusters of people are hurrying along in the rain, which is falling heavily. Sundarasen tells me that I’m not allowed to take photos or videos inside, but he says a discreet audio recording is not a problem.
So I turn on the recorder and keep it running as we step through the temple’s grand entrance hall. We walk past bare-chested men playing drums and a type of long, reeded instrument that I’ve never seen before. We pass into a sort of inner sanctum, where men and women worshipers cluster in small groups—some near a golden statue of a deity, others next to a towering structure of lamps. Sundaresan leads me to the edge of the square inner courtyard, to a man who dips his finger in a bowl of ash, then leaves an imprint on my forehead. This mark, Sundarsen tells me, will protect me from evil.
As we move through the temple, I learn that it’s famous for more than its connection to Hindu deities. Back in the 1920s, it was the site of a non-violent protest that lasted for 603 days—that’s more than a year and a half. Sundaresan tells me that the protestors were demanding the protection of basic rights, regardless of one’s caste. Because a hundred years ago, many residents suffered severe discrimination.
Sundarasen: The lower class were not allowed to enter temple, worship God, or even get educated, or were not permitted to walk through the public roads of Kerala. So against this, under the leadership for some spiritual leaders—an agitation, a nonviolent agitation, Satyagraha. Satyagraha is a mode of agitation based on nonviolence. They succeeded in attaining freedom to use this road for our men, irrespective of caste, color, or race. That was the first agitation in Kerala against human discrimination.
Paige: It strikes me that the people of Kerala are ready to speak out when they see problems and abuses—in the tourism industry and otherwise. And they stand their ground. That kind of action can make a real difference—and change people’s lives for the better. I believe that Kerala can offer an important lesson to tourist destinations around the world—including the French village that I call home.
As Sundarasen and I make our way toward the exit, I take a final moment to absorb the sounds and scents of the temple—and the lessons of Kerala, a part of the world that I’m sure will stay with me, long after I return home.
Aislyn: And that’s it for this episode. Thank you, Paige. To learn more about Kerala’s tourism initiatives, including the village life experiences, visit keralatourism.org. And to hear more from Paige, you can follow her on the Better Travel Podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts, or on her website, paigemcclanahan.com. As usual, we’ll link to it all in our show notes.
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