A labyrinth of backwaters with shimmering water, the brilliant green of mangrove forests, coconut palms lining the embankments, blue skies, flocks of migratory birds skimming the water – that is Kumarakom, a veritable dreamland! Every year, more than seven million tourists visit Kerala, a place that the National Geographic Magazine has described as one of the must-see places in a lifetime. Kumarakom is an important stopover for a majority of these tourists. This famous tourist backwater hub is a cluster of islands on the eastern banks of Lake Vembanad. Compared to adjacent villages, the lake has its maximum length and breadth near Kumarakom - about eight km. With the huge lake on one side and with a network of calm canals running through it, Kumarakom, a masterpiece created by man and Nature together, enjoys a unique position on the map of Kerala.
Kumarakom is part of Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala, which lies a few feet below sea-level. It is a cluster of islands about 14 km from Kottayam. A two-hour journey from the Cochin International Airport or a half hour boat ride from Muhamma of Alappuzha district will take you to this fascinating land.The village sprawls over an area of 51.67 sq km, which is inclusive of 24.13 sq km of the lake. The lush paddy fields below sea level are spread over an area of 15.75 sq km. The remaining portion of 1253 hectares is dry land. This is the inhabited area – patches of land criss-crossed by canals and streams – of about 1179 hectares. Records from the early 19th century reveal that the area was only sparsely populated. The census of 1891 shows that a population of only 8332 existed in the village and that the number of houses built at the time was about 1700. The latest survey conducted in 2001 shows that the population has increased to about 23,000 and the number of households is about 5,120. The sex ratio, like that of the State, is in favour of women. As of 2001, the ratio was 1026 females for 1000 males.
The Ramsar Convention, named after the venue, was an international convention on the wetlands. It came out with an inter-governmental treaty for “the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”. The Vembanadu – Kol wetlands, one of the richest wetland habitats and the largest on the southwestern coast of India, has been identified as a Ramsar site as per the guidelines of the Ramsar Convention of 1971. It was declared as a Ramsar site of international importance in 2002. Laypeople as well as those in power have begun to understand the relevance of wetlands as the life-support systems on earth. Apart from sustaining a variety of flora and fauna, they also play a key role in the prevention of floods and droughts.The area of the Vembanadu- Kol wetlands is divided into two zones – the freshwater dominant zone and the salt water dominant zone. This distinction can be seen in all wetlands. About 10 rivers feed the wetland system. Among these, four rivers – Meenachil, Manimala, Pampa and Achankoil – are the ones which enrich Lake Vembanad which stretches for about 60 km from the Thanneermukkam bund to Alappuzha. Studies show that the depth and surface area of the lake have reduced gradually due to land reclamation. As such, its declaration as a Ramsar site was a timely initiative.
One of the main activities of the villagers is shell mining as there is an abundance of black clam (Villorita cyprinoides) in the backwaters of Kumarakom. The villagers, mostly women and children, stand knee-deep in water and pick the shells from the water bed. The backwaters are an ideal habitat for Villorita. The shell has great commercial value as it is used as raw material for manufacturing cement, fertilizers, pesticides and some medicines. The heat technique is used to facilitate shucking and the clam meat is cooked and eaten or used as shrimp feed in shrimp farms.
You have gone on the wonderful houseboat ride and have done some great bird watching. You have wandered along the tranquil roads, tasted the delicious native cuisine and seen much of the charming village life. But there is one thing left, best left for the last – a session of Ayurvedic rejuvenation therapy Ayurveda, Kerala’s age-old system of medicine, is a science of holistic living and longevity. The Ayurvedic spas and healthcare centres attached to almost all the resorts offer various stress-relieving and rejuvenating packages. These work to renew the body’s balance by eliminating the toxins that are byproducts of an incorrect lifestyle. Tourists generally go for a standard oil massage which removes the aches in the muscles, relaxes the body and mind, and makes the skin glow. When the expert masseurs work on your body after applying warm herbal oil, you will feel yourself entering a zone of perfect relaxation and will come away revitalized.The monsoon season – the time of Nature’s rebirth, when the very air is cleansed by the purging rain - is the ideal time for Ayurvedic rejuvenation treatments. The monsoon package includes head, face and body massages with herbal oils and a medicated steam bath.The Ayurvedic centres usually have therapy rooms and steam bath facilities, as well as Yoga and meditation centres. Some also have an area for recreational activities.Multilingual Ayurvedic doctors and masseurs, both men and women, are employed in most of the Ayurvedic spas at Kumarakom.
The local administration of Kumarakom village is carried out by the Kumarakom Grama Panchayat. There are 15 wards in the Panchayat, with 15 elected ward members. They, along with the executive arm of the Government and the Grama Panchayat Secretary constitute the administrative machinery. The Panchayat members meet at least once a month to discuss administrative and developmental issues.
As mentioned earlier, the backwaters and the scenic beauty of Kumarakom attract millions of visitors from all over the world to the village every year. Hotel and hospitality industry giants have secured land in the village and they reap the economic benefits that tourism has brought to Kumarakom. In short, Kumarakom has grown in an unmatched way as a tourist destination. But the question remains: how far have these benefits of growing tourism reached the residents of Kumarakom?The ideal approach to tourism is that it should be an industry that acts as an instrument of socio-economic growth while minimizing the negative impacts on the environment. To meet these aims, the government follows the guidelines and the vision of Responsible Tourism, which “creates better places for people to live in, and better places to visit’’ (as per the 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations).The State Government has selected Kumarakom, Wayanad, Kovalam and Thekkady as pilot destinations to implement the Responsible Tourism initiative. Among these, Kumarakom has come up with many innovative projects and initiatives which ensure the active participation of local bodies, industries, communities and Kudumbasree units (self-help groups of women) to meet all the goals envisaged in Responsible Tourism.
Responsible Tourism (RT) activities focus mainly on three areas – the economic, social and environmental aspects of the destination. The RT authorities of Kumarakom have planned and implemented various projects with these focus areas in mind.It was in March, 2008, that the Responsible Tourism project was officially inaugurated in Kumarakom. The project has been a big success. The local bodies and the self-help groups are very receptive to its plans and initiatives. The project has also been successful in assuring the villagers that tourism can give them a livelihood. The project helps the natives reap the benefits of the new industry by offering their products and services to visitors. It also provides opportunities for interaction with tourists giving the natives exposure to new ideas and cultures, and also gives them a platform for showcasing their talents. To sum up, the RT project makes the natives an integral part of the growing tourism industry in the village and promotes pride in their land and culture. Owing to all this, the village won the National Tourism Award for Best Responsible Tourism Project for the year 2008-2009.