Kasaragod: An innovative destination development drive is drawing more foreign tourists to Kerala's northernmost districts of Kannur and Kasaragod, largely benefiting local communities.
The project, Small and Medium Industries Leveraging Experiential Tourism (SMiLE), has so far created 93 entrepreneurs offering homestays, resorts, houseboats and other tourism services, a press release said.
They played host to 4,488 foreigners, mostly Europeans, so far and the authorities expect that the new year would bring more cheer to them.
SMiLE had targeted 25 per cent foreign tourists arrivals in 2018 in the destination, but it already crossed 72 per cent in North Malabar; 199 per cent in Kasaragod district and 44 per cent in Kannur district, the release added.
Not only its beaches, backwaters and hill stations but folk and martial arts, traditional systems of healing and newly introduced watersports also attract visitors.
"The region has some unique attractions, and the SMiLE entrepreneurs introduced some exciting products adding value to it," managing director of the state-run Bekal Resorts Development Corporation (BRDC) spearheading the campaign, TK Manzoor said.
"Some were so thrilled that they extended their holidays, thanks to their hosts who had undergone training under the SMiLE in leveraging experiential tourism.
In the process, they were inventing new products attractive to the visitors."
One of the attractions in Kasaragod was Suranga, the unique water harvesting system of a horizontal tunnel in the laterite hills existing in the region for years for drinking water and irrigation.
In Kannur, the holidaymakers are taken through the rich mangroves ardently preserved by the environmental activists, and performance of Theyyam, the dancing gods of north Malabar.
Now there are facilities for accommodating 400 tourists a day under the SMiLE, spread across the two districts.
The BRDC helps them not only in developing the facilities but marketing globally.
Early this month, BRDC brought some 40 tour operators from across India and introduced them to the SMiLE entrepreneurs and their products.
Excited by the unique experience, they filmed them and posted it on social media.
Many of the tourism facilities they visited, some run by women entrepreneurs, are in remote villages.
Some of their video stories are attracting a lot of visitors, and there's a spurt in enquiries since.
BRDC has also launched a virtual tour guide mobile app, SMiLE VTG for the holidaymakers to create their itinerary and book destinations of choice.
"Despite having so many attractions, the tourists were so far turning away from the region.
That trend is changing. The sector will see more activities with better air connectivity," Manzoor said.
"We link these entrepreneurs, who have become real ambassadors of the regions unique culture and cuisine, to tour operators, and the growth so far was exponential. It also creates a lot of jobs."
Some tour operators even suggest that Kerala should replicate the model across the state, he said.