Kerala offers answers to post-pandemic tourism demand, says state’s tourism minister

Blessed with natural beauty in abundance which has earned it the sobriquet ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala is inviting more global tourists to explore its nook and corner

A houseboat travelling on the backwaters, near the city of Alappuzha in the Indian state of Kerala.

Vishnu Rageev R

SEVERAL states in India nowadays take the initiative to hold investors’ meets in a bid to lure investment in a competitive federal system. Irrespective of the ruling party, the states have made it a policy to hold such summits, particularly keeping in mind the areas where they can capitalise on. 

The southern state of Kerala has been no different. India’s only communist-ruled state held its inaugural Tourism Investors Meet (TIM) in Thiruvananthapuram, its capital, in November last year and there, investments for travel and hospitality ventures worth ₹15,116.65 crore (£1.4 billion) were registered, reflecting the state’s post-pandemic recovery. 

Blessed with natural beauty in abundance which has earned it the sobriquet ‘God’s Own Country’, Kerala is inviting more global tourists to explore its nook and corner. 

Eastern Eye recently spoke with the state’s tourism minister, PA Mohamed Riyas, about his government’s plans about growing Kerala’s tourism sector and he outlined strategies such as recovery plans, promotion of lesser-known destinations, unique offerings in tourism, emphasis on responsible tourism and collaboration with the private sector.

PA Mohamed Riyas (L), tourism minister of Kerala , and an aerial view of Kerala’s Marari beach.

When Riyas was asked about the plan that Kerala conceived to expedite post-pandemic recovery in the tourism sector, one of the major pillars of its economy, he said Kerala has historically focused on select established destinations such as beaches, backwaters, hill stations and signature offerings such as houseboats and rejuvenation packages. But for the recovery from the pandemic blows, a broader strategising was required besides capitalising on the assets that were already there, he said. 

“The evolving global tourism scene, particularly post-Covid-19, demands a broader strategy. Today’s travellers seek more than traditional tourism; they prefer immersive experiences and carefully compare various options before choosing a destination,” he said, adding that Kerala offers a unique opportunity to cater to the evolving demand with its diverse landscapes.  

“Each village, town, beach, and riverside across the state holds surprises for visitors, making Kerala an ideal year-round experiential tourism destination. This shift towards exploring the unexplored not only extends tourism throughout the state but also embraces a sustainable and inclusive model. Local communities actively participate, reaping significant benefits alongside the travel and hospitality industry,” he told the publication. 

Riyas said the success of the approach as underscored by Kerala’s globally acclaimed Responsible Tourism initiative, aligns seamlessly with the government’s vision.  

“It serves as the linchpin of the Kerala model, driving the state’s emergence as a leading destination that combines responsible tourism with a rich and diverse experiential offering,” he said. 

Rise in Kerala’s domestic & foreign tourists 

Sharing data to drive home the point that Kerala’s tourism sector is playing a key role in its economic uplift, Riyas said domestic footfall of 10,683,000 was seen in the first six months of 2023, which is more than the pre-pandemic level. 

“Additionally, the arrival of 287,730 foreign visitors during the same period underscores the paramount importance of the tourism industry to Kerala. Beyond its contribution to state revenue, the industry plays a vital role in employment generation, particularly benefiting the youth and women. Moreover, it serves as a catalyst for the emergence of numerous ancillary and auxiliary enterprises,” he told India Weekly 

“Kerala will never disappoint—visit, enjoy, refresh, create lasting memories, and return for new experiences. God’s own country awaits you,” he said addressing the foreign tourists.

The minister, who hails from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said Kerala’s tourism faced serious setbacks during the pandemic like several prominent global brands. But it managed to bounce back quickly due to the government’s steadfast support, he added. 

“The government acted decisively, providing extensive relief and assistance to prevent the industry from succumbing to complete collapse. Key initiatives included confidence-building marketing campaigns to portray Kerala as a safe destination, collaborative efforts with the tourism industry to ensure widespread vaccination among service providers, and the establishment of a revolving fund to sustain both the industry and its employees,” the minister said, adding the stakeholders in the industry expressed gratitude to the government for the timely support it gave to keep the sector afloat. 

A Kathakali artiste from Kerala

On Kerala’s initiatives to attract foreign tourists and his expectations from the tourism sector in 2024, Riyas said the state has seen big success in domestic tourism in 2023, both in terms of domestic and foreign tourists. In terms of domestic tourist footfall, the state saw more than 20 per cent rise compared to the same period in the preceding year. 

“These figures also signify a 19.18 percent growth in domestic tourism compared to the January-June period of 2019, a year when Kerala recorded its highest visitor numbers,” he told India Weekly 

In terms of foreign tourists, Kerala saw a mammoth 171.55 per cent growth in the first half of last year compared to the corresponding period the year before. 

Riyas also said that while these figures represent a 52.42 per cent decline compared to the first six months of 2019, the consistent rise in international footfalls over the past couple of years showcases the resilience of Kerala’s tourism sector in mitigating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“To further boost international tourism, we are intensifying our global marketing efforts, positioning Kerala as an experiential destination and a top choice for conscious travellers. Despite the negative growth in 2019 comparisons, we are optimistic about surpassing those foreign tourist arrival figures soon,” he said. 

Kerala’s tourism can also be categorised into sections such as health tourism, eco-tourism, village tourism and the likes. Does the government have a plan to promote these distinct sections of tourism? 

To this, the minister said the government’s current focus is on key areas such as wellness tourism. He said plans to fortify the sector have been outlined by providing support to stakeholders. A recent productive session with industry forums such as Confederation of Indian Industry and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry underscores the Kerala government’s commitment to advancing medical value tourism. 

“Positive outcomes are anticipated from these collaborative initiatives in the near future,” he said. 

“Significant developments are underway, with major wellness service providers launching projects in promising destinations, particularly in the northern regions of Kerala. These ventures aim to establish comprehensive medical facilities, offering multi-speciality, cross-discipline health services staffed by highly qualified medical and para-medical professionals, equipped with state-of-the-art scientific and technical expertise. These facilities will provide treatments encompassing both traditional and modern medicine streams. 

“Within the scope of our Responsible Tourism initiative, a key focus is on eco-tourism, emphasising the ecological conservation of our natural assets. Destinations like Munroethuruth in Kollam and Kavvayi backwaters in Kannur, located in the northern part of the state, are being developed to attract more tourists to these scenic destinations. 

“Our rural tourism endeavours are guided by Kerala’s State Responsible Tourism Mission, actively involved in conceiving and developing the Kerala model in rural tourism. Success stories like the village stays in Maruvanthuruth in Kottayam and Kanthalloor in Idukki districts serve as examples, promising more such enriching village tourism experiences for discerning travellers. Kerala Tourism’s recent recognition at the ICRT awards for the best rural tourism project in Kanthalloor is a testament to Kerala’s leadership in this segment.” 

Rowers on traditional wooden boats from Kerala known as snake boats participate in the Champions Boat League held at the backwaters of Kochi in Kerala.

‘Kerala tourism doesn’t rely only on awards’ 

The year 2023 has been particularly eventful for Kerala since it won a number of prestigious awards. Even The New York Times featured the state among 52 places to visit in 2023. Has the state capitalised on these developments to serve its tourism sector better? 

Riyas said while these awards have improved Kerala’s position as a must-see tourism destination and they have been included in the state’s promotional campaigns, the state’s tourism doesn’t solely depend on them. 

“Instead, each accolade reinforces our commitment to work tirelessly, aiming to provide our visitors with the best experiences and hospitality.” he said. 

The leader also pointed out that Kerala hosts a series of regular special events throughout the year to boost its tourism sector, including the Nisha Gandhi Dance Festival in Trivandrum held in January, Utsavam—an extensive folk arts festival showcasing various dance and music traditions in multiple venues, MTB Kerala (Mountain Terrain Biking championship), the Malabar River Festival, the Beypore International Marine Festival, and the Champions Boat League. 

In addition to these annual events, Kerala Tourism has plans to introduce many other compelling events in 2024, he said when asked about the state’s roadmap for the current year. 

Riyas also emphasised that if required, Kerala can also come up with a new policy in tourism. 

“Currently, our focus is on consolidating the gains of the past decades, building upon them with new visionary initiatives, strengthening infrastructure in destinations, preserving ecology and heritage, and empowering the local populace to actively participate in the tourism sector. Our aim is to achieve greater success in making Kerala a more holistic and experiential destination. Together, we are better!” he said.