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.
award-winning work in Tourism, Babu Varghese is also involved in various
development programmes empowering local community members.
(The Interview follows:)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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'
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
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
improvement measures are many:
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
Finally, if the prime minister had your full attention, and promised to
fix 1 key problem in Indian Tourism, what would you propose?
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.
Thank you very much.
complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here