Kumbalangi, a fishing hamlet about 25 kilometers off Kochi in Kerala, will soon be the first eco-tourism village in the country. This quiet village has none of the hallmarks of tourist Kerala - cottages, four-lane roads or walkways - but it is full of visitors, mostly from the US and Europe from September through March, the tourist season.
The tourist information centers and tour operators pass on the information. The project is more work-bound than time-bound. So some fund is allocated for some work, when that is done next tranche is given. Now the panchayat elections are due this month-end, so naturally the work will slow down a bit.
"The Kumbalangi project was set in motion in 2003 to help the local people, the economy and the locality through tourism," says M C Sivadathan, President of the Kumbalangi panchayat (village council). "And in order to achieve this, we have done away with many concepts typical of tourism elsewhere. Our idea is to create job opportunities for the villagers, while also ensuring that tourists have a good time seeing and experiencing real village life,' he explains. The panchayat - with financial assistance from the state government - is implementing the project.
Nearly 30,000 people live in this seven square km village. The main occupation in Kumbalangi is fishing, and there are over 100 Chinese nets in the backwaters that face the village. The region - once rich in fish and mangroves - was losing its ecological capital.
So, when the project came up, the full panchayat - 13 members - sat together and discussed what could be done. Several big players in the tourism industry were interested in building cottages and walkways. However, the panchayat felt that the ambience of the village must not be disturbed. So, the panchayat decided that home-stay arrangements would be much better than building cottages for tourists. The panchayat itself identified some such homes.
Currently, there are about 10 houses that offer rooms to visitors. This facility is generally within a residence, where two or more rooms with attached baths are set aside for guests. The per day charge is about Rs 900, inclusive of breakfast. Lunch and dinner are also provided at an extra charge. The tourists sit with the host family and eat the same food they eat. They can walk through the village, watch fisher folk at work, fish themselves, go canoeing and visit the farms, among other things. They can also contact the panchayat if they require assistance.
Initially, many people were skeptical about the home-stay concept. They were proved wrong in no time; during the tourist season, these places are almost full. "We broke even within two months of starting up operations," says Rocky Lawrence of Kalanchery Retreat, which has been offering home-stays for the past one and a half years.
Many people also wondered whether Kerala food would be palatable to foreign taste buds. The result, though, has been extremely satisfactory. "Other than making the food less spicy, we do not deviate from traditional cuisine," says Lilly Lawrence, who supervises cooking in the Retreat. "There is a huge demand for fish and seafood, such as prawn and shrimp. Everything is available locally," she says. Lawrence recalls, "Initially, we were worried about whether guests would like the village and its rustic ambience. But we realized that this is a novel experience for them. We have had tourists who stayed with us for weeks, reading books, fishing or simply watching the backwaters." Tourists also find that there is no huge communication gap, because at least one member in a family, if not all, can converse in English.
Tourism has also bolstered employment prospects in the village. The fisher folk used to have a harrowing time due to fluctuating prices and an unsteady market. Now, with the tourists, there is assured sale through the year. (While foreign tourists visit from September to March, the domestic tourist season is April-May due to summer holidays.)
The increased requirement for food has also meant that more hands are needed to prepare it - thereby employing more women. While hotels and resorts seeks technically qualified people for food preparation and service, the home-stay arrangements employ neighborhood people. This also holds true for cleaning and washing. The increased demand has also given poultry farming a boost.
Another occupation that's seen quite a revival is that of boatmen. The village is well connected by road to the mainland, and the local community did not patronize them very much. However, tourists are keen on cruises. Fisher folk and boatmen also demonstrate various fishing techniques for the tourists.
Under the Kumbalangi project, Kalagraamam, an artists' village, is also being set up. The initial plans were to erect a cottage in the middle of the backwaters. Later, the panchayat members, tourism secretary and the tourism minister were all agreed that this would disturb the backwaters ecology. Kalagraamam, therefore, will now stand on four acres of land inside Kumbalangi. It will showcase the traditional fishing equipment and handicrafts of the region.
Another goal the project has is to bring the village back to its ecologically glorious days - about 25 years ago. Towards this, pokkali farming, a crop pattern that alternates between rice and fish (each for six months a year), is being brought back in full form. Also, mangroves that were once in abundance in the region are being planted once again. So far, about 50,000 mangrove saplings have been planted in the area. "We used to have plenty of fish here because of the mangroves. The planting of mangroves will lead to a better environment for the fish to live in.
(Mangroves grow in marshy areas, where fish also find comfort.)," says Sivadathan.
The Kumbalangi panchayat is well aware that being a tourist destination also brings with it greater responsibilities. "Tourists will not come unless there are proper roads and lights. So, the roads and canals have been strengthened, CFC lamps have been installed, and 600 biogas plants have been set up for waste management. Kumbalangi is also the first panchayat in the state to set up such a waste management system. A park has also been constructed for visitors to relax in. The most remarkable thing about this project is that what we do for the tourists also directly benefits the local population," Sivadathan says.