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The Indian economy is currently judged to be growing at a faster rate than China’s. According to the Office of National Statistics, it is now the fastest growing major economy in the world.
Growing alongside it is the nation’s tourism industry. The WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council) calculated that in 2012 tourism generated INR6.4 trillion or 6.6% of the nation's GDP. It supported 39.5 million jobs; 7.7% of the country’s total employment. Between 2013 to 2023 the sector is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 7.9%.
India’s booming hotels sector is testament to the strong growth and future confidence of the tourism industry. But, many are beginning to understand a growth in tourist numbers needs careful management and regulation to ensure the knock-on effect to local people remains positive and not damaging.
This concern has been particularly highlighted in Kerala. One of the most popular destinations in India, tourism is growing at a rate of 13.31%. Located in the south-west of India on the tropical Malabar coast, its beaches, backwaters and countryside have seen it named one of the ten paradises of the world by National Geographic.
Touring the 900 km network of Keralan backwaters; a system of interconnected canals and rivers including five large lakes, has become increasingly common among tourists who take to houseboats to holiday in the often peaceful and picturesque region.
But a survey among local people who live and work in the area has discovered the impact has not always been positive. In 2012 a study revealed that 37,741 foreign holidaymakers had visited the district of Alappuzha on the Vembanad Lake, the largest wetland ecosystem in south India. The study detailed 604 houseboats being operated in the district by 18 companies, plus 308 private motorboats and 33 speedboats. Sadly the houseboats were found to be dumping 23,160 litres of waste water and sewage into Vembanad Lake every day, slowly killing the wildlife and fish species upon which many local people rely.
Unrestricted growth of operators in the region led to several operating illegally, no fixed routes for the houseboats, no speed restrictions and poor infrastructure impacting those local people who relied on ferry services as well as the fishing.
The issue came to the attention of Tourism Concern who had been in the region since the 2004 tsunami, and began working with local partners in Kerala to make a business case for a code of practice for houseboat operators which would help to identify best practice, and encourage tourists and tour operators to choose holidays with those boat operators who adopt the code.
Peter Bishop of Tourism Concern told us, “Tourists hire the thatched houseboats to explore the tranquil palm-fringed waters and picturesque villages. It is a lovely thing to do which often brings economic benefits to local people. However, there are mounting concerns about the environmental and social impacts of these holidays. Local people use the backwaters of Alleppey for cooking, drinking and washing as well as for transportation, fishing and agriculture. Unregulated expansion and unsustainable practices are threatening these rural communities and their environment.”
The impacts include the disposal of waste, including sewage into the waters; pollution from use of outboard motors, including oil and fumes; increasing numbers of unregistered boats; local people in smaller boats being endangered by houseboats; and social issues, including the sometimes poor behaviour of houseboat guests.
Bishop said, “We are currently working with local organisations and tourism stakeholders in Alleppey to develop a meaningful code of practice for houseboat operators to encourage greater sustainability. We feel that the Kerala Ministry of Tourism, the Kerala Houseboat Owners Association and others will respond positively to this initiative if they see it as important to tourists, so we are seeking the support of ABTA, AITO and the 70+ tour operators we have identified as sending guests there.”
Kerala is particularly noted for its responsible tourism practices and Tourism Concern has a good track record there having helped the region to manage its post-tsunami tourism growth. They ran a large Department for International Development funded project called Empowering Coastal Communities for Effective Tourism Policy Engagement, which ran from 2009 to 2012. The project worked closely with local communities and was particularly effective in the Alleppey region where, working with local partners, they developed a comprehensive network for in-depth engagement with grassroots level groups, particularly women.
Now they want to ensure the backwaters remain a beautiful place for visitors and residents alike. Bishop said, “Islanders have been provided with clean city water, but the supply often runs out, leaving them no other option but to use the lake’s water for all their needs. Tourists enquiring about the problem are assured that the boat they’re on is certified, has a sewage tank on board and doesn’t contribute to the filth that can be seen around. This is the law; a boat is not allowed on the water if it doesn’t have a tank, and every boat must stop by the nearby sewage plant before disembarking its passengers. However, although it is claimed 90 per cent of the boats abide by the rules, we have discovered that in reality only about 15 to 20 per cent of the boat drivers make the trip to the sewage plant.”
One operator keen to encourage eco tourism to the area is the Goodearth houseboat. The Goodearth aims to be a more cooperative tour service and was created by residents of four villages south of Kochi. The houseboat takes visitors on trips along a route less travelled by other operators through beautiful scenery, making sure not to add pollution to the waters.
Constructed by local fisherman, the Goodearth was launched as an enterprise with grant and loan support from ecotourism specialist Village Ways. The same locals work as the crew and guides, manning the boat and providing services to guests. Tips are shared equally amongst all the workers.
As the Goodearth is small, it has a smaller environmental footprint. It does run on an engine, but it does not run less sustainable add-ons like air-conditioning. The team has made sure that all used water and toilet waste stays held in tanks until it can be properly disposed of on shore.
Tourism Concern is urging would-be visitors to the region to sign their petition calling for a Code of Practice for houseboats, and to seek out responsible operators in the region, like the Goodearth.