Houseboat cruises are a wonderful way to experience the beauty and tranquillity of the Kerala backwaters, and to get glimpses of the lives of people who are shaped by them. They are a unique travel experience and could/should be a sustainable form of tourism which provides real economic benefit to local people. In recent years, however, concerns have been expressed – including by tourists, tour operators and in a number of academic reports – about a range of issues that are threatening the sustainability of the industry and adversely affecting local communities and environments. These include pollution being produced by houseboats, health and safety issues, and disturbance of local peoples lives and livelihoods, not least due to the large number of boats now operating in the region.
It is of course important to recognise that some operators – including some used by UK Tour Operators – do already behave responsibly. I met with a few of these whilst in India. Some have their own high standards whilst others are responding to concerns; these operators will have a vital role to play in helping inform our project. Nonetheless, it is difficult for tourists to know whether any particular operator is behaving responsibly or not. The intention is therefore, not only to establish guidelines for best practice, but also to seek ways of monitoring compliance… and to support and promote those operators who sign up to the Code of Conduct.
I was heartened by the enthusiasm shown for the initiative amongst all the stakeholders, including government departments and many of the houseboat operators. We are confident that the ongoing consultation process can result in a meaningful yet practical code of conduct being launched later this year, with a credible monitoring process to help ensure compliance.
A lot of preparatory work took place during the first three months of 2015, investigating the issues in detail, looking at possible solutions, and also at potential challenges to their adoption. It was vital to talk to all concerned parties and ensure that their views were taken into account. We are extremely grateful to our partner organisation – the Environmental Collaborative – whose Director Sudha Soni has worked hard, including to establish trust in the process and in the ultimate goals of the project. On Monday 13th a highly successful meeting was held in Alleppey, attended by over 40 people, including the Director of Tourism – who presided over the meeting – the Chairman of the Pollution Board of Control, the Disrict Collector, the Department of Tourism Planning Officer,
NGO representatives and more than 25 boat owners and leaders of Boat Owners Associations. There was broad agreement to support the initiative and on the ten principles it seeks to address (see below). Discussions included provision of additional sewage pump out and treatment facilities; ways of collecting and recycling waste, including composting facilities; classification of boats; training of staff; enforcement of existing Port Authority rules on health and safety; and provision of information (do’s and don’ts), including an orientation video, for all guests.
In its current form the proposed code seeks to address the following ten issues:
- Avoiding pollution of waters by sewage
- Disposal and recycling of general waste
- Avoiding engine oil and other effluents polluting the waters
- Restricting the total number of boats and alleviating congestion
- Objective assessment of the condition of each boat
- Ensuring there are adequate health and safety measures
- Training of staff
- Zero tolerance of drug use, sex tourism, drunkenness and abusive behaviour by guests
- Ensuring guests are given adequate information prior to departure
- Fair pay and working conditions for all staff
Importantly there were detailed discussions about setting up a monitoring committee under the auspices of the Department of Tourism and including representatives of government departments; NGOs representing fishing and farming communities; houseboat operators; as well as the project partners: Tourism Concern and the Environmental Collaborative. There are also a wide range of specific issues faced by individual boats and their owners. The government has promised to have a lok adalat – a large meeting where houseboat concerns and disputes can be resolved in a court-like forum, where redressal should be immediate. This will further help develop trust and confidence in our project and the good intentions of the Tourism Department in supporting it.
We are very grateful to everyone who has contributed to this campaign so far – however there is still a lot of work to do, especially in Kerala; we need a further £3000 to help pay our partners in India to continue their excellent work engaging with all the community, government and boat operators.