Responsible tourism in Kerala

Travel right in Kerala

People often talk about Kerala being the ‘easy’ part of India. Less Delhi Belly, less in your face poverty, less culture shock. Keralites even tell you that when people from north India come to Kerala they get a culture shock, but a positive one. Keralites are proud that they are the most educated and literate in India. They have always been able to look outwards and indeed, many have travelled outwards to the Far East to work. Perhaps the time has come, however, for Kerala to start looking inwards again. To look at the poverty that does exist here, to the overdevelopment of its coastline and the lack of protection of its environment and wildlife in many places, sometimes quite simply because of a lack of infrastructure and government regulation. Time to stop resting on its laurels on being called ‘God’s Own Country’. It’s not a god on high that will save it from tourism driven by numbers. It’s the people on high at government level, but also tourists themselves. Because it is only when we highlight the issues as tourists, that the major players start to sit up and take notice. Which isn’t ‘easy’. But it is possible.

Wildlife & environment

Rocking the houseboat

We rate houseboats and we do, indeed, think that they rock. And years ago, whoever thought of tapping into tourism by renting out one of these unique rice boats or kettuvalloms, was onto a great thing. Kerala’s backwaters, its villages and varied waterscapes were suddenly accessible, and tourists who thought Kerala was all Kovalam and Kathakali began to see a whole new, exciting picture. The only problem is that word spread very quickly and houseboats started to increase from a handful to hundreds within a space of a few years. Tourism Watch, A German NGO, published a report in 2005 highlighting the extreme river pollution caused by houseboat tourism, from kerosene to condoms, and consequently, the Kerala government changed the law. Now, all owners are obliged to have less powerful , and thus less polluting engines, and there are new waste facilities at Alappuha and Kumarakom. There is also a congestion issue for many local people who still transport their kids to school by canoe, and have safety concerns due to the numbers and speed of houseboats. Some boats are realising their responsibility, and have installed solar panels to power air con and water pumps, etc. However, given that it is such an important source of tourism income, it still remains relatively unregulated, so tourists need to research carefully. We also highly recommend combining a houseboat stay with a homestay, which ensures your tourism spend is going straight into the community.
Peter Bishop, Programmes Manager, Tourism Concern: “Houseboat tourism can be a delightful way to explore the beautiful backwaters of Kerala, and can bring benefit to lots of local people. However there are a number of key issues which are threatening to make this unsustainable and even damaging. The most serious problem is the number of boats. Although many are locally owned, increasing numbers are being bought up by commercial concerns from elsewhere keen to exploit this lucrative market. Waste disposal (including pumping raw sewage into the waters, diesel pollution, plastic and other waste) is a major concern. There are waste collection and pump out stations but these are often ignored or not functional. Many local communities depend on these waters for fishing and for drinking water. Privacy is another key issue, with poor regulation (and even poorer enforcement) of mooring. Many local communities complain of tourist boats mooring alongside houses, of noise, inappropriate behaviour and invasive use of cameras etc. In 2012, working with Kabani – our local partner in Kerala – Tourism Concern consulted with several thousand people in communities affected by houseboat tourism. As a result we jointly proposed that a Code of Conduct for houseboat owners be developed, provisions of which would include compliance with regulations for waste disposal, and undertakings to respect local people. The code of conduct could be promoted via the Kerala Houseboat Owners Association and would be displayed on boats. In turn, tourists would be able choose to travel only with those signing up to the Code, and could hold their boat accountable against its provisions.”

Diana Syrett, Managing Director of one of our top suppliers, Kerala Connections: “With houseboat trips, stay for more than one night. If you just do one night, you check in at lunchtime, and check out after breakfast the next day, and so you really only get an afternoon’s cruising. And during that time you won’t get very far away from the main waterways , because there are so many houseboats on the backwaters now. So, with two or three nights you can get away from the crowds and enjoy remote rural life, hopping on and off as you go. It is also down to the houseboat operator you choose. We rate ours very highly, especially on the environmental side of things, as well as having a good fleet of houseboats”.

What you can do
Chat with your tour operator about where your houseboat is going, if it is going off the beaten track and spending quality time in villages along the way. If you take a day tour, the chances are you won’t be doing that as there will no time to escape the crowds, so you really need a couple of nights to get off the beaten backwaters. You can also ask about whether there is responsible disposal of waste along the way. Keep an eye on their environmental practices and always give feedback to your tour operator, Kerala Houseboat Owners Association, and to Tourism Concern if you feel they are not responsible. Also, act responsibly on houseboats and remember that you are going through villages which have different cultures. So, even though you are on a boat, you are still visible from the shore, and it is advised to still dress correctly, don’t show overt intimacy as it causes offence, keep the noise down and generally be respectful of the communities you pass through.

People & culture

Spirituality is not on sale

Because Kerala is seen, and indeed marketed, as being a bit more cool and cosmopolitan than other Indian states, it comes as a shock to some tourists when they aren’t given ‘open all hours’ access to cultural sights. Rather reassuringly, Hindu temples in Kerala have kept their doors closed to non-Hindus and, therefore, many tourists, preserving them as the spiritual strongholds they were meant to be. Some do allow entry, however, and if they do, there are strict codes to adhere to.

Firstly, photography is nearly always strictly prohibited. In all temples, you should use only your right hand to offer donations or receive holy water. Dress code is important. For men, this is usually the traditional mundu (similar to a sarong) without a shirt, and for women, a dress that covers the legs, not shirt and trousers. In temples that allow visitors, these are often available for hire. And always remove your shoes outside the temple. Cleanliness is also important, and Hindus traditionally wash before entering the temple. Increasingly controversial nowadays, women are not meant to enter the temple if they have their period either.

With its multicultural demographic, there are other spiritual sites to visit and it is worth noting traditions here too, of course. Some Muslim mosques don’t allow women inside and if they do, they must wear a dress that covers the whole body and cover their head. Again, no photography here please. And in Kerala, in Christian churches, men sit on the left and women on the right, although some don’t have pews. During mass, women are expected to cover their heads. The synagogue at Kochi is not open to non-Jews on Saturdays and on other days, dress code is again to cover up as much as possible.
Diana Syrett, Managing Director of one of our top suppliers, Kerala Connections
“In Kerala, apart from three temples, non-Hindus are not allowed inside temples at all, not even in the grounds, and sometimes they have security guards to make sure you don’t go through the gates. It’s really quite strict. Whereas Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are much more laid back about it, and even in major pilgrimage centres such as Madurai, one of the biggest in India, a non-Hindu can go right the way around, inside the temples and only the inner sanctum is kept private. So, a lot of people go to India for the culture, and it seems like a waste of time to go all the way just to sit on the beach, and when they hope to see temples, they will be disappointed if they don’t cross the border because the chances are they won’t get inside a temple at all."

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Kerala

  • Although less common in Kerala than some other areas of India, taking a ride on an elephant does still happen, especially around Thekkady and Periyar National Park. As you will see from our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide, Responsible Travel does not endorse elephant riding. However, we do recognise that, at Periyar, the survival of the remaining tigers is simply too precarious to risk withdrawing the funding gained through elephant rides from the park; to do so would risk an instant increase in poaching and the demise of the species. Allowing elephant back safaris is far from an ideal situation, but we believe it is the “least bad” solution to a complex problem. Read more about the use of elephants in conservation here. Instead, we are calling upon our suppliers and travelers to Periyar to demand the ethical treatment of the elephants; this means limits on the time elephants can work, a reduced number of passengers and restrictions on the way the torturous bull hook is used. Some temples also have captive elephants, as they are believed to bring good fortune. However, they are usually kept on short chains to limit their movements, unable to escape the midday sun or interact with other elephants. They also perform in processions and ceremonies, which can be stressful and physically harmful – we urge travelers not to support either of these activities.
  • Ayurveda is a wonderful, traditional form of medicine in Kerala, but there are a lot of chancers out there too, charging a lot of money for the ‘A’ treatment, when in fact you are just getting a bit of a run of the mill massage. Although many are accredited and highly recommended, remember that this is a real way of life for Keralites, and a highly respected and all-encompassing way of living, with Keralites visiting Ayurvedic hospitals and consultants for serious ailments. Not just a girls’ day out. Check out the government star ratings of Olive Leaf and Green Leaf Ayurvedic Centres for more guidance. And generally, it is worth noting that Ayurvedic massage is given by someone of the same sex. If it is being offered by someone of the opposite sex, it is possible you have definitely gone awry.
  • Land grabbing is an issue in Kerala, with the growth of resort tourism, small rural communities are offered paltry sums of money to move on from their beachfront homes. Water grabbing is also an issue according to Tourism Concern, with Lake Palace Resort, for example, diverting water from the Alleppey backwaters by using ‘bunds’ or artificial dams, to provide artificial lakes for its guests. The development of this resort was, according to research carried out by Tourism Concern, in violation of Kerala’s Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). So, all the more reason to stay with small, locally owned businesses when possible and show the government that many people are actually allergic to this rash of resorts.
  • Kochi is now being pushed as a developing cruise ship destination, with leading players such as Cunard Lines, Royal Caribbean Lines, Aida Cruises, Costa Cruises etc docking here every year. Hoping that it won’t go down the same road as Venice or Dubrovnik, which have gone well beyond ‘cruise control’ and have changed the whole nature of tourism in these precious cities for the worse.
  • Smoking is not allowed in public places in Kerala and sometimes police don’t stop foreigners doing it as they don’t want to upset tourists, but actually it is not allowed.
  • Women are advised to keep their legs covered in public places, as it can create uncomfortable situations. Indian men are not used to seeing women’s legs, they see midriffs a lot, but if a woman exposes a lot of leg in a rural town, she might get a lot more attention than she was expecting.
  • Tipping is controversial. On one hand we recommend you don’t tip too much, as the standard of living is very different, and so just because you pay a tiny amount for a meal, doesn’t mean you have to give five times that amount as a tip. It creates a false economy.On the other, some people such as local guides depend on tips. At hotels there is a service charge but drivers and guides do depend on this.
  •  Giving pens to children seems to drive a lot of our suppliers mad, and although it is done with good intentions, it has got a little out of hand. This author’s suggestion is to bring out all the pens being stored in boxes by Keralite kids and make a big installation of modern art. That might get the message across. Save them going to landfill too. If you really want to give to charity, ask your tour operator for a good local charity to support. Most responsible tourism companies will have an associated with a local charity which is sustainable and transparent.
  • As a state with a strong communist history, trade unions here are very strong, and strikes are a regular feature. Usually hitting public transport, and all registered vehicles such as taxis, this can mean that your trip can be disrupted. Generally, you are given 24 hours’ notice, however and local tour operators are on the ball about it.
Rajat Kumar, Managing Director of our supplier ExplorIndya
“Although sometimes tourists don’t expect it, you do see extreme poverty in Kerala, but you also see extreme culture, extreme education and extreme family history. So, it I it’s just that the disparity isn’t as big as you might see in other parts of India. The difference is that when we talk about the poor in Kerala, we don’t talk about absolute destitution and slum dwelling poverty. You don’t see people sleeping under bridges and on pavements. You might see a farmer with a very small piece of land who simply wants to make ends meet. He lives hand to mouth but he does live a life with the basic essentials. Which is very different to poverty in the north of India."

Vishal Koshy, general manager of our supplier Kalypso Adventures
“Most hotels have a common tip box where you can leave something extra for service, but guides and drivers do depend on tips, so please remember this on your travels."

Rajat Kumar, Managing Director of our supplier ExplorIndya
The whole idea of gifting pens to kids bothers me. I don’t diss the reasons behind it. I diss the act itself. When this started, the reasons behind it were very noble as the pen was seen as a direct tool to empower the child to study and write. But today it has become a game that locals play with tourists, and tourists encourage with the act itself. It is ironic because it actually drives children to skip school and hang out in areas frequented by western tourists because they know they will get handfuls of pens. They just keep them in boxes, where they collect hundreds of pens, and it is a satire."
Photo credits:[Tourism Watch Video: Tourism Concern]
Written by Catherine Mack
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