How do we take our tourism to the next level has been a part of the national discourse for some time now. It is generally accepted that the present state of growth will continue unabated, that there is a natural momentum to the economy and that travel will grow commensurately.
However, if we are aiming at a quantum leap, a game changing scenario, and we are looking for solutions, it may make sense to examine the ingredients behind Kerala’s tourism growth story.
It is an interesting coincidence that for the first-time possibly in the history of tourism in India, we have key positions at the centre taken up by people belonging to the same state – Kerala. The tourism minister belongs to Kerala. We have the DG from the same state and a joint Secretary. And that state is also the most successful model of case study for developing tourism, not only in India but the world over.
Some twenty odd years ago, the state was not in the reckoning among the more significant tourism destinations in the country. Backed by a pro-active stance, the state has outperformed and outgrown many of the more established states in the country.
Finding solutions to India’s tourism could well lie in understanding what made Kerala the success story, adopting and adapting what is possible at the national level.
It must be kept in mind that Kerala is only a comparatively small coastal state while India comprises of 29 states and 7 Union Territories; some states are way larger in area and have a much more diversified tourism bouquet. Therefore, not all of it can be adopted verbatim.
A closer look at the components that went in to the making of Kerala as a successful tourism destination suggests that several considerations came together to make Kerala what it is today.
First and foremost – identify the product. Understand it, nurture it and strengthen it. Stay steady with it, and don’t keep tinkering with it. Specify what works for international markets and what works for domestic. At the national level, given the much larger diversity and scale of tourism products, compared to Kerala, it would be a most difficult task to identify just a few, but therein lies the first challenge in making it work. Important therefore to identify a few verticals and take them up one at a time. Far too many times, the product has been tinkered with – to each his own, and every successive team has shifted priority, and so have ministers in charge. Once the product is identified, there must be consistency in adhering to the product definition which essentially means that there is continuity in strategy despite changes at the helm. With the product defined, a detailed activity calendar comes next and thereby removes chances of adhocism which remains a perpetual problem.
The second element would be a pro-active private sector. The private sector in Kerala did not come from nowhere. Also, the business acumen in Kerala is no different than elsewhere in the country. But what happened in Kerala is that the state reached out to the private sector, empowered them to take initiatives, invest capital and acquire expertise upfront. This has not been happening at the national level, though some measures have been suggested in recent months.
Experiences around the product were built by the private sector, with active government help. There must be a genuine PPP (Public-private partnership) where the state encourages private partnership and involvement. There is no contesting the fact that the private sector, at the national level, has shied away in recent years. The sector has witnessed massive transformation and has been hit hard by the advent of online industry with global players waging a bloody battle, backed by institutional funding and enviably deep pockets. There has been substantial diversion of tour business to FITs.
The other component is the sustained marketing that has gone into ensuring Kerala’s growth story. Kerala was the first state which decided to come out of the India Pavilion at leading international travel marts to showcase their offerings in a standalone manner, averting a cumulative fate. It is marketing that is essential, once we have a product in place. At the national level, we have some regimes as having done more than others; some have shown no inclination to spend!
Perhaps, it would be most opportune to study what worked for Kerala and what did not. And then to see how much of it can applied to the national level, in taking the India story forward.