On the occasion of World Tourism Day, the Minister for Public Works and Tourism, P A Mohamed Riyas, spoke to Manorama Online on the possibilities of tourism in Kerala, the problems faced by the sector at present, and the importance of creating a good tourism culture. Excerpts from the interview.
There are complaints that many of the tourism centres in Kerala lack basic facilities. As you know, the long queues of visitors wanting to walk on the glass bridge at Vagamon and the lack of toilet facilities have made news. Aren’t such problems deficiencies in the tourism sector?
The tourism sector in Kerala is on the verge of making a giant stride. Our chief achievement is that we could etch Kerala on the world tourism map with more clarity in the post-COVID period.
International journals such as Time magazine and the New York Times branded Kerala as a tourism destination after studying the projects that we have implemented in the sector. The progress we have made in welcoming tourists from other States will find a place in history. The year 2022 witnessed the largest number of domestic tourists visiting the State in its history.
Going by the data for the first six months of 2023, indications are that this year is set to break the records of previous years. We have the capabilities to make greater progress. A piece of news that appeared in the media comes to my mind. It was about the Tourism Minister of Goa appealing that his State must model its tourism activities along the lines of Kerala. The nation and the rest of the world have begun minutely assessing the tourism activities of Kerala.
We have gained such achievements through diverse activities such as implementing novel projects, launching new products, and developing basic facilities. Many new projects have been initiated. A host of different projects such as caravan and cinema tourism, utilising the space beneath bridges, floating bridge, surfing academies, literary circuits, glass bridge, streets, water street, women-friendly tourism projects, food streets, nightlife tourism, festival tourism, and agri tourism networks were conceived by us in the past two years.
All such projects are aimed at developing the basic tourism infrastructure. The policy of the Tourism department is to identify new tourism centres and develop them by providing basic facilities. It does not mean that everything has been perfected but that we are developing the sector in phases, depending on the prospects.
Since you have mentioned the Vagamon issue, let me answer that too. Vagamon gained national attention as a centre for adventure tourism days after the glass bridge was opened. Visitors began to throng the place beyond all our expectations. Over 13,000 people visited the glass bridge in the past two weeks. When I went to inaugurate the glass bridge in Vagamon, a special meeting was convened to review the material facilities there.
Amenities such as a waiting shelter and toilets were specially examined. As a follow-up to that, a waiting shelter has already been built at Vagamon. The construction of the toilets is going on. The schedule for tourists to enter the glass bridge is mentioned when the tickets are issued. Directions have also been issued to check the stability of the bridge periodically.
There are complaints about the admission timings at places such as Rajamala, Illikkal Kallu, Ponmudi, and Athirappilly. Can't the admission times be advanced at these places?
In some of the tourism centres, the timings are fixed in coordination with other departments. Some centres mentioned in your question come under the Forest department. The timings in such places should be decided by also taking into account the need to preserve our environment. However, we will hold discussions with other departments to see what practical arrangements can be made at those places.
Is Kerala utilising the possibilities of tent tourism in the most optimum manner?
Tent tourism is gaining popularity in Kerala. But it cannot be said that it has made major progress. Despite that, tent tourism is a field that we can explore further. There are many private investors who are entering the sector. The tourism department will extend the necessary support to them.
The Chinese are travel bugs. Most of them visit Sri Lanka. What can be done to attract them to Kerala?
One of the main reasons being cited for tourists visiting Sri Lanka in large numbers is the role played by Sri Lankan Airlines. We are projecting the tourist attractions of Kerala to the global audience to the maximum extent possible. Our effort is to expand our tourism market to countries other than the existing ones.
There are a host of people out there who love Kerala. We will put in place projects that will help them to experience our land. We will examine the possibility of devising a special marketing strategy to attract Chinese tourists.
Could you elaborate on Kerala tourism after the G-20 summit?
We took care to utilise the opportunity presented by the G-20 summit in the best manner possible. We arranged facilities in Delhi for dignitaries from various countries to experience Kerala. We can be proud that all of them returned after lauding Kerala tourism. The arrival of foreign tourists is slowly returning to normal. In comparison with 2022, the number of tourists has doubled. We expect that the experience at G-20 will give a fillip to the arrivals.
But, even before G-20, we had begun paying attention to post-COVID tourism. On different occasions, the organisers of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament and Chelsea and Manchester City Football Clubs highlighted Kerala's uniqueness on their social media pages. Today, Kerala has become a place that gets imprinted in the minds of the people in the field of tourism. In this context, G-20 has contributed to strengthening Kerala as a destination for conference tourism. Conferences are also increasingly returning to Kerala.
Local tourism destinations are also proving to be major draws. One example is Malarikkal in Kottayam district. Can't the government declare such destinations as tourist spots and provide basic facilities?
Identifying unknown tourism destinations in Kerala and opening them up to visitors and developing local tourism centres are important projects of the government. A special plan has been formed for this purpose. Tourism centres are being developed in coordination with local self-governments under the tag of “Destination Challenge”. A part of the expenditure will be borne by the Tourism department.
Earlier, local self-governments were not allowed to spend funds on tourism projects. But now, the Local Self Government department has given permission to the local bodies to do this. Currently, projects are being sanctioned under the Destination Challenge scheme. It has also been decided to allow the utilisation of the MLA constituency development fund for this purpose. Through this, the project can be expanded to more areas. Over 100 places have been identified under the project and they are being developed after allocating funds.
People, including tourists, face exploitation at tourism centres on many occasions. What steps are being contemplated to prevent such trends that tarnish the fair name of the State in front of the global nations?
The important thing is to develop a good tourism culture. The New York Times marked out Kerala, especially mentioning the exceptional character of the people of the State. Our chief attractions are our culture of hospitality and the atmosphere of religious harmony.
Tourism must impact our lives. Efforts are being made to ensure that. We are trying to create awareness among all the stakeholders. We are also using modern technology to prevent exploitation in the sector as much as possible. Facilities such as the Maya chatbot have been launched for tourists to contact the authorities in case of need. The tourism website has also been upgraded. Tourists can learn more about Kerala’s uniqueness through them. They can also travel to Kerala by making use of these facilities. A general status of vigilance is being maintained on the issue of security. The surveillance systems will also be made more efficient.
Projects such as night walks have not progressed. What steps would be taken to make our tourism spots women-friendly and safe during the day and at night?
We are exploring the possibilities of night tourism. Preparations for this are being made at Kanakakunnu in Thiruvananthapuram. After the security arrangements are put in place in a foolproof manner, this project can be launched. We are experimenting with nightlife tourism as a part of festival tourism. The lighting arrangements in the capital were extended till 12 midnight during the last Onam season as a part of this. We can turn nightlife tourism into a reality in phases.
In the contemporary era, women travel single and in groups. We have planned women-friendly tourism projects for safe travel by women.
Wouldn't it be ideal to offer the tourists, who arrive to savour our culture and sights, Kerala-style accommodation and food in a professional manner but without diluting our identity?
The current trend among tourists is to go for experiential tourism. We are trying to use that in a fruitful manner. Responsible tourism projects are being implemented as part of this. Such projects enable the tourists to experience our land. There are opportunities now for tourists to experience our food, accommodation in homestays in rural areas and other places, our work and culture. We have also implemented special projects like Street. There are also special tourism packages in these fields. Tourists, including visitors from abroad, are arriving at such centres with all enthusiasm. Our policy is to expand such projects. Even as these projects are expanded, care will be taken to ensure quality.
Persons who travel to our neighbouring States face different types of exploitation. Can steps be taken at the government level to end such practices and ensure security during domestic travel?
Let us examine what can be done on this front.