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ISSN 1108-8931


 Year 8 - Issue 97 - May 08

"...the natural environment and the multicultural social environment coupled with a progressive political environment and an enterprising people are responsible for making Kerala a unique destination"

The ECOCLUB Interview with
Babu Varghese
Director, Tourindia
Index of Interviews

Babu Varghese was born in Kerala, India in 1951. He obtained an M.Sc in Zoology and an M.Phil in Behavioural Science from the University of Kerala. In 1972, when Tourism was a still a minor sector with only a few hotels in Kerala, he saw far ahead: together with two more 'educated & unemployed' students, they set up a 'tourist guidance' office and Tourindia was born.

Within just ten years Tourindia had become a leading tour operator with a young and committed team, who looked upon tourism not only as an economic activity but as a 'challenge to do the impossible'. Thanks to the constant interaction with travellers as a guide, Babu understood that visitors wanted to get a glimpse of the real Kerala, and thus looked into the possibility of converting authentic Kettuvallam cargo boats, which were then being phased out from the backwaters displaced by roads & trucks, into tourist boats. After many trials and errors, so that the boats could be made both viable and environmentally-friendly, the first Kettuvallam cruises in the backwaters of Kerala were launched in 1991 and promoted by Tourindia in trade shows all over the world. It was a runaway success, to the point that the 'house-boats' are now iconic, and central to the Kerala 'tourism brand'. Today over 500 boats allow tourists take in the unique Kerala Backwaters experience, directly employing over 2,000, and thousands more in repairing, maintaining and support roles.

Since the early 1990s, in cooperation with the Kerala Department of Tourism, Tourindia provided support, including travel & research to travel writers and television teams from major stations visiting Kerala and thus became instrumental in promoting Kerala to the world in the 1990s. Another great inspiration came in 1996, when Babu spotted two huge ficus trees suitable for supporting tree-houses at the top, and the Green Magic Resort in Wayanad was born. By 2002, when he deservedly represented his region at the 1st World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec, GMR was a multi-award winning resort. However, it was built on leased land and the lease would not be renewed...Undeterred, in 2007, Babu Varghese and the Tourindia Team went on to create Green Magic Nature Resort II in Kalladi, with 3 tree-houses, 4 eco-lodges and a cave house, this time in 30 acres of their own land. GMR II improves on the original, by also applying the ecological principles of reducing, reusing and recycling, featuring renewable energy - solar, bio gas and hydroelectric - and it is currently one of the hottest ecotourism projects in India.

Beyond his award-winning work in Tourism, Babu Varghese is also involved in various development programmes empowering local community members.

 (The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: You are one of the pioneers of Ecotourism in India, and represented your region at the 1st World Ecotourism Summit in Quebec in May 2002. What is your evaluation of the progress of Ecotourism worldwide, in India, and in Kerala ever since?

Babu Varghese: Ecotourism all over the world has become the keyword used and misused for the vested interest to see a destination. Eco washing is becoming more damaging to those who practice the principles of ecotourism.

Fortunately the movement among the actual and serious ecotourism practicing properties are coming under an umbrella to weed out the pseudo resorts is one of the pleasant changes I have noticed. So many voluntary organization has been formed to assist these genuine ecotourism practitioners.

In India especially in Kerala, we have been worshipping rivers, mountains, trees from time immemorial as part of our religion and culture. The Banyan trees where sages would always find shelter and a local administrative unit called Panchayat are examples. The river Ganges is worshipped as mother nature. The natural resources are respected and used with reservation - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – the basic principles of ecotourism are practiced from the origin of the land itself.

In Kerala the sacred snake groves called 'Kavu' adjacent to living quarters is a classic example of how we practiced balance of nature. A place is left done with a pond, a lot of trees creepers, shrubs are allowed to grow without any interferences of agriculturalist. An ecosystem with a water body, plant, animals, snakes, rats, frogs, birds, butterflies are allowed to live without any kind of disturbances from humans. Snakes are revered as symbol of fertility and prosperity at many places they are worshipped and feed regularly. The honey hunting tribals knew how to protect the gene pool of honeybees without the basic knowledge of genetics. Agriculturalists always kept the stock of seeds for the next season before the era of terminator seeds. Keeping drinking water clean and without pollution and saving it for the next generation are clear cut example of how we do water harvesting even where the modern technologies have failed to learn lesson from them.

In Kerala, Mother Nature has been too benevolent to bless us with misty mountains, gurgling rivers, golden beaches, cool lagoons and the blue seas. The swaying coconut palms in the coastal region and the green network of backwater canals are examples. The people of Kerala are the most literate of all other Indian states. Our rulers in ancient time were quite different from the other ruler of India. They were great connoisseur of art, literature, painting etc… In stead of hunting animals and birds they were lovers of nature. Planted shading trees along the sides of the roads, created wildlife sanctuaries and even started hospitals for animal about 400 years ago. The permission of the trees are obtained before cutting down any tree in olden times as part of tradition. Thus Kerala became nature blessed area from very olden times. Planting trees were routine after the cremation of the dead bodies, a coconut tree is planted at the site. The state government has started a project – My Tree. All the children in the school will plant and nurture a tree which has caught up and now extended to colleges.

The forest cover in Kerala has shown considerable signs of improvement after 50 years. The conservation measure of forest department aided by the UNDP, The Periyar Tiger Trail has became very popular among the very serious ecotourists.

ECOCLUB.com: Kerala is recognised as the most successful Indian state, in terms of attracting international Tourism, and touted as a leading Ecotourism destination. Is this mainly due to the attractive & varied & unusual natural environment, the colourful and multicultural social environment, or its 'progressive' political environment?

Babu Varghese: The most important reason for Kerala being the most popular is the blessings from mother nature for a variety vacation land. The second important reason is the social environment. Unlike other states, we are the most literate and political awareness and social commitment are greater. Our independent nature is because we have never been ruled by any forces. At the time of the British occupation also, we had our own kings ruling us.

The colourful multi-cultural social environment is another reason for Kerala to become the favourite of visitors from India and aboard. The Jews were persecuted and driven out even from their 'promised land'. In Kerala at Cochin, the local King allowed them to build a synagogue right next to the palace and gave them power to collect taxes. This synagogue is still one of the best-kept synagogues in the British commonwealth. Islam spread in other parts of the world with the flaming sword. But in Kerala, Islam came through the silken sails of Arab traders. The local king went to Mecca and embraced Islam. The first mosque in Kerala is a temple converted for the same at the time of the prophet. The Hindu, Muslim, Christian and the Jew live in close harmony. There are many example of Hindu temple and Muslim mosque sharing a common wall, sharing water for the prayers and oil for lighting the lamp, while the members of opposite religions are not even allowed to walk in front of mosques or temples in Northern India.

The progressive political environment is the last reason. Kerala is the first democratically-elected communist ministry in the world, where land ceiling, minimum wages for the workers were implemented for the first time in India. The temple entry proclamation were effected, whereby the low-caste members of the Hindus are equally allowed inside the temple. A good level of education, modern leadership and entrepreneurship among the people are the greatest advantages of Kerala. Thus the combination of all these diverse forces, the natural environment and the multicultural social environment coupled with a progressive political environment and an enterprising people are responsible for making Kerala a unique destination attracting domestic and international visitors.

ECOCLUB.com: Today, every other company claims that they are doing their best to minimise their environmental impact (e.g. 'we recycle') and maximise the social benefits of their tours and facilities (e.g. 'we employ local people'). How can a genuine company such as Tourindia stand out as award-winning material?

Babu Varghese: Tourindia, the originators of Kettuvallam Houseboats were practicing environmental friendly methods, where ever possible, renewable energy is always used for minimum purpose. Solar panels are used in trapping solar energy and stored in batteries to provide energy for the C. F. lamps and the fans. A specially designed bio-toilette is used for solid waste disposal. A beneficial bacteria is grown in the Water Closet 12 hrs before the use with a catalyst actizyme imported from New Zealand, the multiplied bacteria consume the human faecal materials to non-toxic by products. Hence the backwater canal system is not allowed to be polluted. The other solid wastes are taken to the mainland for disposal. All our boats are not air-conditioned. We do not use generators that pollute the atmosphere as well as produce noise.

In our boats, the previous owner of the boat is always employed. Our purpose of bringing back the Kettuvallam is also to rehabilitate them. In the operations only local men are employed. Our office only does the marketing to attract visitors. The cooks are local men trained by us and the guides are local youngsters whom we have given extensive training in guest handling.

In our Green Magic Nature Resort II, the energy source is only renewable, solar panels, biogas and hydro-electrical power which we generate at our resort from the water brought from uphill by high density pipes, which through a jet turns the turbine and the dynamo to make electricity which is stored in batteries. The natural resources are used with extreme care.

1. We support community development programme from the revenue of the resort. 2. We are undertaking the expenses for educating tribal students who are unable to support themselves. 3. We are in the process of starting a day clinic for the local community member at our base-camp for small ailments and health awareness. Medical camps were conducted, where free medical checkups are done with the help of local doctors.

ECOCLUB.com: So, what share of tourists actually choose your tours - and other Kerala ecotours - because of their eco & social elements, as opposed to other features such as novelty or price?

Babu Varghese: We are happy to note that more than 50% of our customers choose our tours because of our social commitment, our rehabilitation projects and for empowering the local community members. By our Kettuvallam project, we shared our knowledge and expertise with any interested local men. We have prompted many of our own previous staff to became proud owners of Houseboat, which we use for our clients. Our prices are always on higher side due to our operational costs in order to maintain our high standard of services. Even now after many years many magazines article have recommended our services for an authentic backwater experience.

ECOCLUB.com:  The Indian Ecotourism Society was recently launched. What pitfalls do you believe it should avoid, and what obstacles should it overcome, so as to be able to effectively promote the philosophy and practice of Ecotourism in India?

Babu Varghese: Unfortunately in India political interest, wire pulling and manipulation are common. The ecotourism society has been formed without the involvement of people who have actually promoted the philosophy of ecotourism to the core. We do not see much scope for it with the present setup. Personal interest or boosting vested interests will not last the test of time.

ECOCLUB.com: Some believe that in India and other countries which are key to world stability, environmental conservation needs to take a back-seat in the face of more-pressing problems such as extreme poverty and inequality, which can only be solved by massive and rapid development, in all sectors including tourism. Can small scale tourism projects involving local communities be a realistic proposition as the mainstay of tourism development, or should the government and private sector think in terms of a compromise, such as 'green' mega-resorts?

Babu Varghese: Tourism is one way of transferring money from the rich to the poor and needy. The high expendable amount of money once used is the best possible way without damaging the nature but at same time conserving it should be promoted especially in a developing nation like India.

It is wrong to think that more problems like poverty eradication, inequality can be solved with massive projects. Poverty eradication can be achieved by community development programmes with responsible tourism practices. Small-scale tourism projects involving the local community are always the building blocks of tourism. Large-volume movements of tourists is not ideal for Kerala, where the infrastructure is minimal. Mass movement will always upset the delicate balance of nature.

ECOCLUB.com: Domestic tourism is already huge in India and it is very likely that with the increasing prosperity of its middle-class, India will soon become a huge outbound tourism market. What percentage of Indian travellers are environmentally-aware in your view, and how can tour operators increase that awareness?

Babu Varghese: In Kerala, the domestic market is very big. It is producing more revenue than the international tourism. Upper-middle-class people are much aware of responsible tourism especially the younger generation. They are becoming a bigger section in the last few years. Better living conditions as well as more expendable money with the young people especially in the IT sector, more occasionally visit nature resorts with limited down to earth facilities than of the high end of the market. The tour operators should prepare attractive packages enabling the visitors to experience nature without any frills.

ECOCLUB.com: Do you feel there is a need for Ecotourism certification in India? And if so, should it be administered by the federal tourism ministry, by state governments, NGOs, the private sector or associations such as the Ecotourism Society of India?

Babu Varghese: Ecotourism certification is ideal for a smooth operation. Self-regulation is more preferable  than policing the operators, stakeholders should wholeheartedly follow the philosophy & practice of ecotourism. We believe that state government is competent enough for the certification rather than the new-born Ecotourism Society of India.

ECOCLUB.com: Are working conditions in Indian Tourism significantly different (better or worse) than that those in other sectors? And what measures, if any, should be taken to improve them?

Babu Varghese: The Indian tourism sector like all other tourism sector in the world is controlled, manipulated by a couple of vested interests. The private sector, hotel industry is quite powerful in India. The condition of the state level tourism department is equally pathetic. Even if the department of tourism is closed down, nothing will happen to the tourism industry in Kerala. Only a few advertising agencies, who monopolize the media advertisement and a few file pushers in the bureaucracy will be affected.

I am the living example of survival without the puny little pennies from the Department of Tourism for the last 36 years. We have even refused to accept the 20% subsidy allowed by the government for our 12 Houseboats. The Department of Tourism is totally incompetent to guide the professionals in the tourism. The private sector entrepreneurs like me has more experience, expertise than the ever-changing bureaucrats, who heads the Department of Tourism.

Possible improvement measures are many:

1. Incorporate more tourism professionals into the department.
2. Outsourcing is another way to improve efficiency
3. Constitution of a Tourism board with like-minded professionals
4. Technocrats at the decision making levels rather than file-pushing bureaucrats

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, if the prime minister had your full attention, and promised to fix 1 key problem in Indian Tourism, what would you propose?

Babu Varghese: Abolish the Department of Tourism and the Minister for Tourism!
The United States is an example of a country without tourism minister and where there is tourism progress every day.

ECOCLUB.com:  Thank you very much.

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here

Disclaimer:  Any views expressed in this magazine belong to their respective authors and are not necessarily those of ECOCLUB S.A. Although we try to check all facts, we accept no liability for inaccuracies - which means you should not take any travel or other decisions based only on what you read here... Use of this magazine is covered by the Terms & Conditions of the ECOCLUB.com Website and by your uncommon sense and good humour.


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