Today’s travellers are looking for a rich ‘smorgasbord’ of experiences of the nature and cultures of the places they travel to and holiday in. They look for meaningful and memorable experiences of places, experiences which generate memories, memories co-created when hosts and guests meet and interact. Back in 1997 when I was working on heritage trails in Slovenia, working with businesses and communities to create memorable experiences for travellers and holidaymakers, we noticed that around the parliament building Ljubljana that a Swedish NGO had fly posted, in Slovenian, “Your everyday life is their adventure.” And so it is.
Jost Krippendorf writing in the 1980s recognised that holidaymakers would develop an increasing desire for self-actualisation while holidaying and he called for “rebellious tourists and rebellious locals.” Kerala was amongst the first destinations to experience overtourism, even before the term had been coined. In the early years of this century there was mounting concern in the communities in the backwaters of Kerala about the large numbers of tourists coming to experience their everyday lives staying on houseboats or new resort hotels. This generated rebellious locals. Kerala was amongst the first destinations in the world to address the issues causing concern to communities and to engage them positively in tourism creating world class experiences.
Dr Venu V, then Tourism Secretary in Kerala, invited me to bring the 2nd International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations to Kerala in 2008. There was a demonstration against the conference, some fearing that Responsible Tourism would be used to exploit still further areas of rural Kerala, continuing to exclude local communities. Over 500 people attended the conference from Kerala and around the world and we shared what we knew in 2008 about how to make tourism better for local communities, their cultural heritage and their environment.
Kerala determined to address the two most pressing concerns of local communities, pollution of the backwaters and the exclusion of local communities from benefitting from tourism. Working in Kumarakom, and with the benefit of the pioneering work of Jose Dominic at Coconut Lagoon, one of the CGH Experience hotels, Rupesh Kumar was able to demonstrate that when tourism businesses, local communities and government worked together they could both improve the livelihoods of local communities and create great experiences for domestic and international visitors.
From the experiments in Kumarakom with village experiences and locally sourced food, craft and soft furnishings for hotels came the Village Life Experiences and Producer Groups which evolved rapidly through field testing and product development. Challenged by the then Minister of Tourism to prove that local communities were benefitting we undertook a census in Kumarakom. The evidence of livelihood benefits at the household level was overwhelming and in 2017 the Ministry of Tourism launched the Responsible Tourism Mission which led by Rupesh Kumar has created a ‘smorgasbord’ of Village Life Experiences across the state offering visitors opportunities to engage respectfully with the community numbers and experience their culture and purchase their craft and art. Those visited by tourists on Village Life Experience tours are recompensed for their time – tourists do not feel hassled to purchase, although many do.
Kerala has become one of the worlds’ two leading destinations for Responsible Tourism.