Responsible Tourism Brings Alive North Kerala Backwater Village

There is a flurry in community-based tourism activities in upstate Kasargod and Kannur districts, where Kerala government is encouraging local people to initiate eco-friendly hospitality ventures. The results are excellent.

Clearly, responsible tourism has got successful takers in North Malabar — far away from Kumarakom in south-central Kerala, where a path-breaking project won the state government a coveted United Nations Award recently for global leadership in creating innovative initiatives for sustainable tourism.

Sprawling and serene Kavvayi, which is the south Indian state’s third-largest backwater, has of late found a spurt in community activities around its cluster of 15-odd coastal islands along upstate Kasargod and Kannur districts, catapulting its lush greenery into a notable territory on the tourism map of God’s Own Country.

The flurry of private enterprises for combined benefit over the past seven years across the sandy strips that teem with coconut palms goes to prove the lofty ideals of ‘responsible tourism’ which fetched Kerala Tourism the UNWTO award for linking the local community with the hospitality. “What’s more, it is creating a model for empowerment and development of the people in the area,” points out a top official with Kerala Tourism.

Gul Mohammed, for instance, runs a theme village in a scenic spot in Kasargod district which borders Karnataka. A cluster of cute little cottages painted in different colours blend distinct looks to his entrepreneurial venture on 6.5 acres of land in Thekkekadu near the small town of Padanna.

Gul Muhammed runs 'Oyster Opera' a theme village
Gul Muhammed runs a theme village, ‘Oyster Opera’

A Gulf returnee, 69-year-old Mohammed owns the 2007-founded ‘Oyster Opera’ but has no qualms about chipping in his bit of manual labour with the hospitality operations while simultaneously overseeing them. “I started with five cottages; now the number has doubled — besides a houseboat. We modify some of them over time,” he says, holding out a wooden log to a labourer who is pitching it.

A little away, a yuppie-looking tourist paddles a sleek red canoe lazily under the bright sun.

Diminutive Mohammed notes tourists on stay at his enterprise are dished out ethnic food cooked on the spot by local people. “I have my team — some 25 of them — all from the neighbourhood. Carpenters, painters, boatmen, masons, room-service boys and, of course, chefs,” he says, flicking up his off-white mundu tied round the waist. “Rice, predictably, is the staple food, though we also serve rotis. Curries are all typically Kerala-style and predominantly marine stuff made from fish, prawn and lobster. We serve them on banana leaves.”

Geetha B, who does much of the cooking at Oyster Opera, is a graduate. “I double up as an accountant as well,” gushes the lanky woman, wearing a housecoat and scouring vessels in the verdant backyards of the kitchen. “Karimeen (pearl-spot fish) fry and shrimp masala are among our delicacies here.”

German couple enjoying the warm weather

A foreigner couple in Bermudas and T-shirt take a stroll across a grassy pathway. The middle-aged husband and his wife are from Germany.

“This is my third visit to India. It’s nice to be out here in warm weather when it is snowing in Berlin,” says Janich Klaus with a grin, removing his sunglasses. Adds his wife Cathrin who had a visit across the 13-km tour that Oyster Opera operates in its houseboat on evenings: “But the first to Kerala. I, for one, had never seen coconut trees.”

Theyyam – traditional art form

The European couple are here to also get a feel of Theyyam, a colourful traditional Kerala art that has brought in another pair of guests — from within India. Photographer Nakul Vengsarkar and his artiste friend M Narayan are from Mumbai.

“At night, we go out for a while to the nearby temple to watch the fascinating figures moving in the light of country torches,” says Italy-trained Nakul, who is, incidentally, son of cricketing legend Dilip Vengsarkar. Chips in Narayan, who is originally from Karnataka: “I am currently working on a book on certain performing arts of Kerala.”

Theyyam performer collecting pay (Photo courtesy: Mitchell K)
Theyyam performer collecting pay (Photo courtesy: Mitchell K)

Close to where they enjoy the breeze, a group of young visitors frolic over a game of volleyball. The same compound has a couple of girls quietly playing table-tennis in one corner.


Just outside Oyster Opera, Rajan V K checks out the growth of the rows of mussels he has sunk into the backwaters opposite his modest home. Kallumakkaya, as the edible saltwater bivalves are popularly known in the region, is of late being cultured in the salty expanse of water into which they are dipped after being attached to ropes.

“The kallummakkaya takes almost three months to mature for us to take it out and sell in the market,” says Rajan, who is originally from downstate Kollam but has been living in Thekkekadu. “We have to ensure that the water level doesn’t dip too much during summer season.”

Into a more adventurous trip is O V Krishnan of the locality. A Gulf returnee, the middle-aged man has inherited a fish-trapping trick from his father. Inter-locked with coir and a small arecanut-tree stem at its mouth, the handy bamboo-piece devise is smartly employed to catch ‘chemballi’ variety of Anabus fish.

Mussel farming

“On a good day, you get as many as 40 chemballi,” he says. “You need to know the spots that can fetch you best results. That comes only with years of familiarity with the backwater.”

Not far from Padanna is an island with a population of 350-odd families. The 312-acre Idayilakkad is also called Monkey Island because it has a forest grove with a human-friendly band of apes.

Sensing its tourism potential, a pair of youngsters has opened an information-cum-entertainment centre in the island. Plans are afoot to host more cultural programmes at the conference centre, informs K Dasan and A Akbar Ali.

“We had been raising oysters,” says Dasan. “This has come in as an encouraging profile change.”

The endeavour, being carried out in association with the Bekal Tourism Development Corporation that has provided the land and building, is showing its results.

Overall, there is a rise in the tourist inflow to the scenic locale.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi.)