Talk of the town

EVERY DAY at the crack of dawn, there is a clamorous mob trooping out of Philip Mathew’s home in Thekkady. “It’s like a tornado,” says Mathew’s wife Jayamol about the boisterous exit. She is talking about the worker bees that leave the 40 boxes kept in their home everyday to descend on flowers for food. It’s through these bees that Philip’s Honey, as the family’s enterprise is called, gets the raw material that keeps it running. Honey is extracted from the boxes once every week.

Less than 2 km away, 26-year-old Priyamol Rajeev is busy flattening the flour her husband Rajeev TV has just kneaded to make what they believe is the best papad in town. “I think there is a special taste in our papads,” beams Rajeev. As soon as the products are ready, Jayamol’s honey and Priyamol’s papads head for tourist resorts in Thekkady to serve clientele from around the world.

The honey and papad might be small offerings, but they symbolise Thekkady’s bigger efforts to promote responsible tourism that involves the local community. Famed for its rolling hills, tropical forests, a famous lake cruise and national tiger reserve, the town in Kerala has made big strides in this direction.

In November last year, the hill resort became the envy of the country’s other tourist destinations when it received the tag of the ‘Best Emerging Destination’ in the world at the World Travel Mart, an exhibition for the travel industry, in London. The spin-off from the honour, shared with Albay in the Philippines, was a purse of $1 million for the two towns to develop digital marketing campaigns to attract tourists. As per non-profit travel trade organisation, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), which gave away the award, emerging destinations across the world need protection from rampant development leading to degeneration of the environment.

What’s next for the small town is the country’s first digital marketing campaign to promote tourism, which is being developed by the Kerala government in collaboration with TripAdvisor to reach out to discerning travellers worldwide. The campaign, which will be conducted via TripAdvisor, the state government website and roadshows abroad, will roll out next year.

It will be designed based on, among other things, analysis of data on online searches on Thekkady by potential tourists across the globe. The aim is to address these travellers, informing them of responsible and sustainable tourism initiatives being undertaken in the town. As part of the digital campaign, tourists will also get a chance to mingle and interact with locals.

Linking the local community with tourism and the contribution of women to Thekkady’s tourism and hospitality sectors, plus the benefits the local community derives from this would be the main features of the campaign, as per the state tourism website. The ground work for the campaign is expected to be over by November this year.

“Responsible tourism is a game changer,” says G Kamala Vardhana Rao, tourism secretary, Kerala. “When visitors come to a place, they usually sit in a hotel, see the place and go back. Here, they can mingle with the local people and the community takes care of them. That provides the real feel of a place for a tourist.”

The sentiment is echoed by Abraham George, managing director of the Kochi-headquartered Intersight Tours and Travels. “Our clients increasingly prefer village experiences because when they look at our people, they see a lot of hope,” he says.

Needless to say, there are a lot of expectations riding on the campaign. “We hope that it will make Thekkady a destination that could offer options beyond wildlife and boating to tourists,” says Jose Abraham, executive director of Thekkady’s Tree Top Hotel, and chairman of the local tourism development and promotion council.

Already, there are several signs of community participation. The district panchayat office in nearby Kumily, which oversees Thekkady, houses the local branch of a women’s group, Kudumbashree. Sally Jacob, chairperson of Kudumbashree, says there are six groups of women who supply vegetables to resorts in Thekkady.

Many members also run spice shops in the town catering mainly to tourists. “Our next plan is to train women as tourist guides,” says Jacob, who also has a woman-driven taxi service in mind.

In a bid to give tourists something extra, many of Thekkady’s resorts are already working closely with locals, as they know that’s where the future of tourism lies.

Spice Village resort (part of the CGH Earth group, which develops and operates travel experiences in multiple locations across the country), situated close to the Periyar Tiger Reserve, for instance, has roped in 15 women to provide them culinary ingredients, which are used by the resort’s chef to prepare dishes for guests. “It was delicious. We had it with the traditional Malayali meal for lunch,” says Roy Mohanan, an Indian expatriate who lives in London, about the vazhappoo thoran (a stir-fried preparation of banana flower with grated coconut) he had with his partner during their visit to Thekkady recently.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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