Forum Kerala, A collective of civil society movements, people's groups and individuals urged Kerala Government to withdraw its move to introduce Special Tourism Zones within the state. The group also asked Kerala Government to appoint a commission, where representatives of civil society organisations and people's groups should be part, to assess the environmental, social and economic damages caused by the tourism industry within the state before initiating new projects, plans and marketing strategies. The forum also demanded that the tourism industry should give compensation to the affected people in the tourist destinations for its damages.
The Kerala Tourism Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan recently announced that the creation of STZs would be considered if private parties having large tracts of land approach the State Government. He also declared that government would change the rules relating to acquisition of land for tourism projects in the State.
According to The Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, the STZs will be on the line of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and also offer the same facilities and incentives to the investors. The STZs are proposed to be located in the major tourist destinations, cities as well as along the coastline.
The state government's move to introduce Special Tourism Zones has to be opposed because it will increase the pressure over natural and other resources such as land, water, forests and it will lead to environmental destruction, revenue losses and lack of real economic development of the state, breakdown of governance systems especially of the Panchayats, with the creation of enclaves and lack of equal and non-exploitative employment opportunities for local communities in STZs. Kerala Government should withdraw this move especially in the context of the recent controversies on SEZs.
Currently government and tourism industry says that Kerala has an upper hand in tourism, since it is now a much sought after destination. It is in the profiteering interest of the tourism industry to set up projects in Kerala. The state should not provide further incentives and subsidies to attract investments. Instead, the state should cut down existing incentives and subsidies and introduce new taxes for the people of Kerala to benefit from tourism.
Kerala tourism has a strong record of proving that planning, policies and regulations to date have not effectively addressed major problems caused by tourism. These include the unsustainable extraction of ground water in tourism spots such as Kovalam, which is causing a serious lack of drinking water for local communities. Problems also include the land speculation activities related to tourism especially in the coastal and backwater areas, and pollution of the backwaters by the tourism industry. The tourism industry has a significant role in spoiling the mangrove belt and the breading areas of fishes in the Vembanad Lake. The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations by hotels and resorts are a serious concern in the state, and so is the uncontrolled tourism development in Kovalam and Kumarakom, which has lead to many environmental and social problems. Sustainable waste management systems are lacking in the state. There are disturbing indications that prostitution including the commercial sexual exploitation of children is happening in tourist destinations in Kerala.
Forum Kerala asked Government to amend the Kerala Tourism (Conservation & Preservation of Areas) Act 2005, passed by the previous government, which effectively strips Panchayats of their powers by constituting a committee dominated by bureaucrats.
The statement issued by the forum also strongly criticised Kerala Tourism's move to use "Responsible Tourism" for its marketing. The forum views it with concern that in the recent workshop organised by Department of Tourism discussing the responsibilities of various stakeholders in further development of tourism within the state,issues such as the constitutional rights of the Panchayat Raj Institutions, Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) violations by hotels and
resorts, backwater pollution by the houseboats and tourism industry, child abuse and child labour in service industries in the state and various other social issues have been completely ignored. "Who is responsible for these damages? – And for effectively addressing these problems?" the Forum asked.
Recent media reports revealed that "success stories" of responsible tourism in Kerala would be presented at the World Travel Mart,London. Foreign consultants with dubious credentials have either been approached by the government or have volunteered to showcase Kerala as an example of "Responsible Tourism" while no serious steps have been taken to remedy the environmental and social damages created by irresponsible tourism development in State in the past four decades.
It has a come as a surprise to us that Mr. Harold Goodwin is announcing through the media that cases of "Responsible tourism" exist in the state!" Harold Goodwin, faculty at the Britain-based International Centre for Responsible Tourism, reportedly announced to the press in Thiruvananthapuram that "Since the World Travel Mart 2007 is being held (in London) in November, the biggest beneficiary would be Kerala tourism because there would be a separate session on responsible tourism and a few success stories of Kerala in this aspect would be showcased" (Source: Indo-Asian News Service, 3/2/07).
How can he announce the presentation of such case studies now? If he can, he should reveal which are the case studies. The Forum asked Harold Goodwin that he should make clear how governments' proposal for the STZ would match with his theory of "Responsible Tourism"? The forum pointed out that neither the Tourism Department nor industry lobbyists can use such ploys to undercut the growing resistance to indiscriminate tourism projects and irresponsible tourism practices that negatively affect the local communities and their livelihoods in Kerala. The forum decided to continue the campaign to democratise tourism practices to ensure people's participation in the decision making process and to seek compensation for the victims of displacement, environmental destruction and loss of livelihood systems caused by tourism industry practices and policies in the state.