Stretching north from the southern tip of India, between the country’s tropical Malabar coast and neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Kerala is a unique travel destination offering sprawling beaches, beautiful backwaters and intriguing national parks. Carried out conscientiously, it is easy to make a trip to Kerala as responsible as it is relaxing, contributing to the sustainable growth of the economy and local communities.
For the past decade, Kerala has been one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in the world. Kerala Tourism received the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Awards for Excellence and Innovation in Tourism in 2013, recognising the state’s leading role in developing innovative projects for sustainable travel. Kerala appears to be leading the way for a similar shift towards sustainable practices in the tourism industry for other parts of India, and has many well-meaning initiatives in action that are well worth getting to know.
Kerala stands out in its pursuit of sustainability; the state’s department of tourism and service-providing locals share the vision of making tourism an opportunity for growth that should be as sustainable and inclusive as possible. For nine years running, the Kerala Travel Mart has been bringing together tourism stakeholders from across the state to discuss and design strategies to tackle issues such as waste, organic farming, use of local produce, efficient energy consumption strategies and more.
The state government has put in place an initiative called Responsible Tourism Kerala, contributing to the implementation of projects in more than ten areas of the state over the past decade. Locals offering tourist attractions in popular destinations have been encouraged to take up sustainable practices, and many have benefited from this. The initiative also measures the success and failure of these projects, getting to know what genuinely works through trial and error. While it is always difficult to know to what extent the promise of sustainability is actually achieved in practice, we’ve selected some initiatives that stand out.
Eco-friendly Backwater Tours
One of the most fascinating natural features of Kerala is its glimmering backwaters, which snake through colourful villages and bright rice paddies. The enticing green lagoons and quaint thatched kettuvallams (houseboats) draw many tourists to the departure town at Alappuzha, for relaxing two-day trips. The large flows of visitors and poor practices however mean that the experience comes at a price to the local environment. Many unregulated, motorised houseboats pollute the waters on which many locals depend for washing clothes and sustaining livelihoods through activities such as agriculture and fishing.
Set up by a self-help group in 2011 as part of the Village Ways Partership, Goodearth houseboats offer a clean alternative, fuelling their houseboat with biofuel – generating far less pollution. The biofuel is bought from an initiative named the Green Fuel Project, as a result of which, a woman’s committee converts waste cooking oil into biofuel, creating sustainable income for women in the village of Chenganda.
Experiencing Local Life
It can be difficult to get an authentic sense of the life of a community when travelling; to distinguish the authentic from the staged, and appreciate a place while doing no harm. Striking this balance is one of the key goals of responsible tourism, and initiatives like the Village Life Experience strive towards it. Part of the Responsible Tourism project, the Village Life Experience is offered in many places across the state, featuring tailor-made visits to the area. They are usually curated by local women’s initiatives and carried out by local guides, ensuring that the profits go straight back into local development.
Socially conscious initiative The Blue Yonder offers visitors the opportunity to get involved with local communities, and to learn about ancient civilisation, crafts and spellbinding rituals. The focus is on homegrown, grassroots initiatives that facilitate encounters with locals that are enriching for both parties: locals share their knowledge and traditions on their own terms, and in a way that is beneficial to them. Whether you’re looking to learn about folklore, music and legends from the area, organic farming or weaving, pottery and handloom practices The Blue Yonder website is a great starting point for a meaningful local experience.
One of the biggest attractions for relaxation-seeking visitors in Kerala is ayurveda treatment. This massage technique is specific to the area; a holistic healing method that combines gentle muscle kneading by local masseurs with warm, golden oil. The Kairali Ayurvedic Healing Village is an ideal place to enjoy the experience. It is committed to natural benefits through operating with environmentally-conscious and sustainable practices, getting involved with social programmes and supporting local charities. If you can’t get enough of the soothing setting, there are yoga and meditation classes on offer too – or you could even take a course and learn how to perform the ayurvedic method yourself.