Why Kerala fail to attract top tourism dollars?
During a recent trip, traveling through parts of Kerala, and elsewhere in India, I see many new tourism-oriented initiatives. There are new roads, highways, hotels, motels and restaurants in line with the international standards. I see positive changes in the hospitality sector that are conducive to tourism development. Changes in education and global awareness due to an interconnected world are bringing out an attitude that provides a welcome mat to foreign tourists.
While rest of India is on a fast pace to accommodate the valued tourists, tourism in Kerala is inching upwards with hiccups. In spite of the concerted efforts by the tourism organizations, private interests, and public sector the industry is suffering stagnation. Inability to get a political consensus to start any major project is always an issue in Kerala. Thus, many of the infrastructure projects just drag on forever. There are tremendous opportunities to develop the state into a tourist magnet, but the incessant problems with roads, traffic, and labour unrests hamper all such efforts. Any new initiative takes years to materialise due to cumbersome procedures and red tape delays.
Yet, visitors trickle down from far and wide to the state due to her sheer beauty. They come to explore newer places, experience the culture, culinary treasures, inherent natural beauty, backwaters, hill stations, and other historical and iconic temples and other artifacts. However, given the situation and the negativity towards tourists (deliberate or otherwise) and the hazards (mosquito and water-borne diseases, food and water quality, sanitary issues, risky roads, social behaviour towards visitors, etc.) they face, we should appreciate their audacity to undertake a trip to the land that radiates great tourism potential. There is a marked improvement in domestic tourism, but that alone will not sustain a viable hospitality industry. The foreign tourists are the key to success.
On every journey, I visit many establishments, new and old, catering to the tourists. Year after year, I see changes in them: a few stayed on top with quality service, some disappeared, others changed the name and adopted a new format, and many took a downward spiral due to loss of clientele. Like all other areas of the economy, the hospitality industry is also market driven. The main reason behind the disappearance of many such entities is the deteriorating service level. They all stay nice and clean and keep up the initial quality for a few years, and then take a nosedive. Then, to sustain a business life they opt for shortcuts that invariably kill the quality of service.
Physical conditions of the many tourist places and attractions are another story; lacking maintenance, and with antiquated facilities. To reach these places, due to poor roads and bridges it takes a while. Vehicle numbers are growing exponentially, at the same time the road conditions are deteriorating, and traffic enforcements are lagging behind. We see world-class traffic jams in Kochi and other cities and towns in Kerala. The beaches and the surroundings are ill maintained, trashy, and unhygienic. The houseboat industry attracts a huge portion of the tourists. Even though the industry is organized, and somewhat regulated by the government, there are unscrupulous and shoddy operators tainting the industries’ reputation.
It looks like; cleanliness and sanitation are somehow not at all a priority issue for authorities and people of Kerala. Garbage is everywhere; rotting, stinking mess pollutes the once pristine land and becoming a health hazard. Unfortunately, there is no concerted effort to cleanup. Household and industrial garbage, plastic, hospital wastes, waste from abattoirs, markets, and even human wastes are dumped wherever possible with no qualms: along the roadsides, beaches, rivers, and ravines. Even places supposed to be the sanctum sanctorum for ‘cleanliness and godliness’, temples and other pilgrimage places, are sites of wanton acts of garbage dumping.
Visitors are often faced with another major hurdle. It is the disruption of life by wildcat labour strikes. In Kerala, it can happen anytime thus bringing life to a standstill. On few occasions, I experienced local/national strikes organised by various trade unions, and political parties. Tourists, travelers, and ordinary people are stranded at railway stations, bus depots, and airports as cars, busses, and taxis stopped running. These strike actions inconvenience public and tourists alike.
The onus is on the government, and the tourism industry vendors to provide a safe hotel room, an untainted meal, and a congenial environment without harassment to all our visitors. It needs a fundamental change in our thinking, a top–down mindset revamp. A serious culture shift is warranted to make things happen.
We have seen public service announcements on television promoting the ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ theme exemplifying our common-sense virtues to promote tourism. They are meant to create awareness among the people about the benefits of treating our guests, tourists, with respect, truthfulness, and friendliness. Once upon a time, these qualities were part of the traditional value systems of our great culture, but at some point in time, they disappeared from our daily conduct. Reiterating their benefits and practicing them make good sense not only to promote tourism but also to our cultural rejuvenation.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)