September 27th marked World Tourism Day and a group of fisherwomen in the South Indian state of Kerala made their concerns known in front of the state secretariat by gagging themselves and wearing sloganed headbands.
Kerala is a well-known tourist destination for foreigners and Indians alike and is famous for its lush green treescapes, villages and fishing boats on beautiful backwaters and beaches. Politically left-standing and culturally rich, tourism is one of the biggest sectors in Kerala, but in recent years has become more and more commercialized, much to the chagrin of locals who claim that it is harming their livelihoods and the environment.
"Tourism in the state is increasingly challenging our livelihoods, environment and culture," said Magline Peter, a leader of the Coastal Women's Front that led the demonstration. Recently, they rallied with the Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation against a government initiative to alter coastal environmental guidelines that would have allowed more resorts and industries to extend along the coast. Despite the outcry, the government has already ahead to ask the World Bank for investments.
It is a scenario unfolding in many parts of the world now as local populations and habitats are coming up against the onslaught of commercial tourism. As award-winning documentary filmmaker K.P. Sasi shows his film Resisting Coastal Invasion, the resorts appropriate prime beachfronts, leaving the villages at the mercy of the sea, or fence off once-common areas with long swaths of barb-wire, blocking fisherfolk from accessing the sea.
In addition to upending the precarious balance of coastal environments, the unions say that the tourism industry is also negatively impacting traditional fishing and culture. "When we land our craft after fishing, we need access to the safest spot," said the federation's secretary Andrews Ambroze. "And we need to see clearly from land what goes on in the sea."
Magline adds that also women use these beachfront areas to dry and sell fish and as a space for community socialization. "As such there is no space to build houses here, and there are stringent regulations on housing on the coast," said Magline. "On top of that resorts take away our space to dry fish and mingle in our privacy; and the places men use to mend and dry nets, park boats and relax," Magline said. "Then the backwater tourism often brings people right into to our backyards, where women work, wash and bathe."
No wonder Magline and her associates were skeptical of the U.N. World Tourism Organisation theme for this year: "Tourism opens doors for Women".
"The opportunities offered to local women are very limited, mostly in low-income jobs," Magline said. Already, there has been an increase in sex work disguised in the form of ayurvedic massage parlours.
It is clear that tourism in Kerala is growing rapidly, from revenues of Rs. 20,000 million (502 million dollars) in 2000, to Rs. 91,760 million (2.3 billion dollars) in 2006. An estimated 500,000 foreign tourists and even greater numbers of domestic tourists travel around the state annually.
On paper, Kerala's tourism department is committed to protecting local cultures. Tourism secretary V. Venu asserted at a recent meeting that tourism programs will be sensitive to local culture and respect local traditions.
"The industry should make maximum use of local resources and tourists should be encouraged towards more local spending," he said. There are already discussion to develop eco-tourism in the state in the form of adventure fishing and other extreme-sounding ventures.
Nevertheless, Magline sees through the marketing and stands firm. "Politically correct terminologies may be misleading - we have to first know what it is all about in fine print and on ground."
Image: Kerala Independent Fishworkers Federation