Trikkaipetta / Wayanad: Mary Eldo, 43, is not too worried about having lost her pepper crop to disease. She has started a homestay, renting out one, and sometimes two of the bedrooms in her house, to foreign tourists. The income from the homestay has helped in mitigating the bad crop loss.
Eldo’s homestay in the nondescript village of Thrikkaipetta, Wayanad, in north Kerala, is, in fact, part of a larger project launched over a year ago by a local non-profit, Uravu Indigenous Science and Technology Study Centre, which has adopted the village of 1,500 families that has been struggling because of falling farm incomes.
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Many farmers were forced to commit suicide because they couldn’t repay the bank debt. The centre is using tourism, one of the biggest industries in Kerala, to augment the villagers’ income.
Titled Bamboo Village, the ongoing adoption initiative by Uravu, which in Malayalam means a spring, comes in the backdrop of the state government carrying out the so-called responsible tourism drive which, among other things, aims to bring locals into the tourism business and help them earn a living.
“We encourage all these kinds of initiatives by non-profits. We are trying to establish more such linkages to the hospitality industry so that locals benefit out of tourism,” says U.V. Jose, CEO of Thiruvananthapuram-based Great Indian Tourism Planners and Consultants International (Gitpac), the consultant appointed by the state for the responsible tourism project.
According to Gitpac, though Kerala scores high as a tourist destination in the country, less than 5% of revenue generated from tourism flows into the hands of the local population. The lion’s share goes to luxury resorts and hotel chains.
All that is green gold
“Our aim is to make the village (Thrikkaipetta) a self-sustaining one.... Through homestays, a large part of the income goes to locals.... A visitor here will be the guest of the village,” explains T. Sivaraj, secretary of Uravu.
The non-profit that started 12 years ago initially focused on providing the locals employment opportunities by exploiting bamboo for making products such as blinds and ladles. Also known as green gold, bamboo is abundant in hilly districts of Kerala such as Wayanad.
“Initially I was scared to host guests in my home...but after the training from Uravu and some experience, I’m very confident.... I just hope to get a steady stream of visitors,” says Eldo, who runs one of the four homestays in the village.
Over the past one year, she has hosted guests from Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France in her modest three-bedroom house.
The homestays such as the one run by Eldo offer 50% of their revenue to the other initiatives that are part of Bamboo Village. The project has helped set up and market a bamboo pickle unit and a bamboo bag unit—each employing ten local women. It has also helped villagers start vegetable and fruit gardens so that people running homestays can source from their own backyard.
There are other interventions as well. Says P.P. Daniel, village coordinator of the Bamboo Village project: “Banks fear that farmers will not repay loans so we give a reference and help villagers get loans.”
He was referring to the Rs6 lakh loan that recently helped ten men of the village buy an acre of land and ten cows to start a dairy unit. “We also advise borrowers on the need to repay loans on time.... Many farmers (here) had committed suicide when their debts had mounted.”
The scope of Bamboo Village is fast expanding from economic to social and cultural benefits as the project is busy identifying children to be trained in neglected and forgotten folk songs and performance arts.
In 2002, Ladakh saw a similar initiative when the Sonoma, California-based Snow Leopard Conservancy, an organization which aims at conservation through local population, started the homestay concept in Ladakh; until then tourists used to travel to Leh and make day-trips to Ladakh. With these homestays, the local population in Ladakh became direct beneficiaries of the growth in tourism.
Kumbalangi, as island village off Kochi in Kerala, is another example of how an underdeveloped fishing village has become a thriving tourist destination over the past few years, benefiting the local fisher folk who run homestays.
Dotted with homestays famous for coastal delicacies, the island gives tourists a peak into the local way of life and living. “The local people were initially sceptical of tourism...but it has clicked,” says Jose of Gitpac. Kumbalangi was developed as a tourism destination as part of Kerala government’s rural development efforts.
Gitpac is engaging with artisans, farmers, local communities and non-profits in many ways. Local artisans and non-profits in the state are being enlisted to make eco-friendly souvenirs. Resorts and hotels are being encouraged to source vegetables, milk and meat from local farmers rather than from distant towns and neighbouring states.
It is also set to tackle mounting garbage in tourist destinations. For instance, last month Gitpac cleaned the 14-acre Kumarakom bird sanctuary in the state and cleared four tonnes of plastic waste. It has now appointed a team of local people to ensure that plastic bottles and carry bags that are taken into the sanctuary make their way out as well.