Eco- tourism is the ga-ga word in Kerala now. It tops the oft-repeated comb words in the vocabulary of young and old Kerala intellectuals of 21st century looking around for a bit of revolution and finding no scope in the political or ideological arena enter the fresh green environment of nature preservation and connected ecological kaleidoscope. It is a self-satisfying phenomenon for the activists and quite an easier way for achieving wide publicity which in the present competitive world, it is difficult to attain without extremely high ability and dedication.
I have a doubt, a genuine one for which I think I will not get a direct answer. Still I feel we should ponder over it. What is meant by eco- tourism? Is it the tourism connected with ecology or with economics. May be both. Just as in the cases of other pious organized activities in the fields of education, medical services and religion, the strong undercurrents of economics overpower everything else. Worldwide, tourism generates annual revenues of nearly 3 trillion dollars and contributes nearly 11% of the global GNP (Gross National Product), making it the world's largest industry.
But the die-hards will not agree. So let us see it in the historical perspective.
Let us just try to find out from our past. And where should we start except from our God’s own country, Kerala? Who was the first tourist to Kerala? No doubt. Lord Mahavishnu’s fifth incarnation, the first in real human form, Vamana himself. Vamana was so enticed by hills and rivers, the greenery and soft winds of this land that after completing his mission of removing Mahabali from the throne and packing him off to the nether world, he didn’t wait much. He came as Parasurama in his next incarnation, first as a tourist, but found the land so fertile and the people so friendly that he decided to colonize the land with his followers from the arid poor hilly tracts of Deccan plateau. But he had problems. Fortyfour perennial rivers and hundreds of streams, thick woods and deep lagoons and no roads or pathways. And worse still the land was infested with snakes, hundreds of varieties, most of them poisonous. Parasurama threw his axe wildly, cut down trees, reclaimed marshy lands, elevated the snakes to the deity ’ s level with special sarpakavu in every household and declared that the entire land belonged to the temples. The Keralites were given in return the blessings of God, the weather forecasts for cultivation and celebration of innumerable festivals to forget their downtrodden existence. In Kerala, every household had their serpent shrines where they grew all types of medicinal plants and herbs. Most of the illness in the household were cured by the herbs from their own backyard. The vegetables and even foodcrops were cultivated in the compound around the dwellings. A unique eco-friendly society grew up. But it was ecology and economics combined which motivated Parasurama. You may laugh at this stating that it is only a legend. OK. Let us leave it and come to the recorded history.
The first real tourists to Kerala were the Jews. In 587 BC, when Nebudchasnasar freed the Jews from the Babylonian prisons, a large batch among them fled the country and came to Kerala shores traveling in the merchant vessels plying from Egyptian shores to eastern ports. In 370 BC, Titus Vespasian destroyed the sacred temple of Jerusalem and many were taken as prisoners and sent to Mayokra. A large batch of their descendants came and settled in Kerala.
In 52 AD, St. Thomas, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus Christ came to Kerala and was received at the port by the leader of the Jewish community Habban. St. Thomas had come to save the souls of these fallen Jewish communities. He converted many of these Jews and also many local influential families to Christianity. He established seven places of worship, called Palli, the name for the Buddhist temples in the local language.
Marco Polo in the 13 th century had recorded. The great province of Malabar is the best of all the Indus (the name India was derived from Indus, the great river now in Pakistan) and it is on the main land. There is in this kingdom a great quality of pepper and ginger and cinnamon and nuts. The travelers came to Kerala enamored by the aroma of the black pearl. The Chinese, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Jews. The Chinese concentrated at the port Kollam, 60 miles south of Kochi, and the Phoenicians at Musaris, 20 miles north of Kochi. The Arabs were the traders and middlemen. The major commercial land route, the caravans originating from the Gangetic planes in north passed through the eastern mountains and plateau and ended in Kerala ports after traversing 2000 miles.
It was all sheer commerce. But unfortunately the locals had very little voice in the matter. The local rulers received meager tax revenue. The tradition is still religiously followed. Only one more mode of transport is added. By air. Now Kerala boasts of three airports, all of international specifications with direct flights to east and west. Few more would come in a decade.
Keralam was perhaps the flag bearer in the eco-tourism idea from time immemorial. Here tourism was always eco-friendly and economically attractive.
So let us shout: Eco-tourism is ours to stay.