Rani George, Secretary of Tourism of Kerala, is wooing Middle East tourists and investors to the state's palm-lined beaches, and looking at Dubai for guidance
Rani George talks like an entrepreneur rather than a typical bureaucrat. As she outlines the potential for developing tourism in Kerala and lists the various initiatives she is working on in order to achieve her plans for the sector, she speaks with the passion of, well, a young and dashing start-up promoter.
The fact that travelling is also her passion only adds to her excitement in our conversation about her goal to woo more international travellers to the southern Indian state, especially from the Arab world, with which Kerala has had centuries-old trade and travel relations.
As Secretary of Tourism of Kerala, her department’s role is that of a facilitator, she says. But less than 10 minutes into our free-wheeling conversation, it is more than clear that she is the primary driving force behind the current makeover of the state’s tourism focus: ‘to feel the place’ rather than ‘to see the place’.
“Experiential tourism is what we want to offer to the millions of tourists coming to the state, especially from the foreign shores,” she says.
Reflecting the change in focus, Kerala Tourism has come up with a new promotional campaign for this year titled Human by Nature. The initiative is set to launch soon in the Middle East as part of a major global marketing campaign aimed at attracting tourists from around the world. It will run across all media platforms including print, television and social media, as well as through roadshows and trade meetings in select cities across the GCC.
While the print campaign will be launched in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman, the TV ad campaign will be distributed across the entire Middle East region. A billboard, in fact, has already been placed at Dubai International Airport.
But why the added focus on the Middle East right now?
“Kerala had centuries-old trade and travel relations with Arab world. However, when Kerala Tourism launched its first global campaign, it was launched in the UK and somehow the focus got shifted to UK, Europe and the US. We are now focusing on the Middle East region with focused and consistent campaigns and roadshows to promote our state to the great and friendly people in the region,” George says.
Experiential tourism is what we want to offer to the millions of tourists coming to the state
As part of the efforts to promote Kerala across the Middle East, the state’s private sector players have been taking an active role in participating in the UAE’s massive trade fair, the annual Arabian Travel Market, George says.
“Though we hold joint meetings with the trade bodies to select the cities and timings for conducting roadshows in GCC countries, it is mostly the private players who take the initiative and conduct these shows,” she adds.
EM Najeeb, senior vice president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO) and promoter of Kerala-based tour firm Airtravel Enterprises India, says the company regularly participates in Middle East fairs and organises B2B meetings with its counterparts in Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries in the region.
“We have also been participating in several medical tourism-related events in Dubai and Oman. Of late, Saudi Arabia has also started similar events where we will be participating,” says Najeeb, whose group runs hospitals and healthcare facilities in some GCC cities.
The promotional efforts of companies like Najeeb’s have started to pay off, according to George, who says the state has seen an increase in the number of tourists from Middle East countries, particularly from Saudi Arabia, in recent years.
“We expect further increase in the arrivals (from the region) in the coming years,” the secretary explains.
According to George, in 2018, Saudi Arabia was among the top five countries in terms of tourist arrivals in Kerala. Along with the UAE, it accounted for 6.53 percent of total foreign tourist arrivals in the state last year, though it was the UK that topped the list with a larger share of 18.36 percent.
The secretary also says Saudi tourists could very well be among the top five biggest spenders in Kerala, though she provides no official figures on the matter.
“Saudi tourists often come with a big entourage – their families, extended family members, friends and attendants, etc. They prefer cooler places and hilly areas such as Munnar (the eastern high ranges of Kerala, filled with sprawling tea estates) and stay in high-end, luxury resorts,” she says, adding that revenues from tourism play a vital role in Kerala’s economy.
We have already initiated heritage projects in Talassery (Kannur), river cruise projects in Calicut and a few other projects in the Malabar region
Tourism-related income accounts for about 10 percent of the state’s roughly $125 billion GDP.
Besides experiential tourism, George and her team will offer international tourists ‘adventure tourism’ and MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism next year.
“We will be offering paragliding at Vagamon (Idukki), surfing in Varkala, near Thiruvananthapuram, scuba diving at Kovalam (Thiruvananthapuram) and whitewater rafting in Tusharagiri, near Kozhikode (North Kerala),” she says with excitement, adding that “except what can be done only in deserts and snow laden areas, we want to offer all sorts of adventure tourism in the state.”
Kerala Tourism, which has roped in private operators to offer the proposed adventure tourism services, is also in the process of drawing up guidelines to ensure that the operators follow high safety measures.
“We are working with the concerned central agencies in formulating the safety and standardisation guidelines for operators,” George says.
As for MICE tourism, she says Kerala already attracts corporate groups from the Middle East, a trend she would like to encourage further.
“The trend of companies, including overseas ones, coming to Kerala [to hold] their company board meetings in comfortable house boats in the backwaters of Alleppey or their offsite strategy meetings in tourist places including Bolghatty Island (Kochi) or Munnar, has been increasing of late, and we see great potential in developing these kinds of activities in the future,” she says.
“We want to further facilitate and promote these and other related activities by developing more infrastructure facilities and offering better services for them,” she says of their plans for the future.
George is equally concerned about ensuring full safety to tourists visiting the state, going as far as setting up a WhatsApp messaging group with tour operators and senior police officials.
“I have a WhatsApp group with tour operators and senior police officials across the state so that any problem faced by tourists anywhere across the state will be attended to within minutes,” she says, referring to frequent public protests as well as devastating floods faced by Kerala in 2018 and 2019.
The secretary says Kerala Tourism is also working on developing new touristic locations in the northern part of the state.
“We have already initiated heritage projects in Talassery (Kannur), river cruise projects in Calicut and a few other projects in the Malabar region,” she says.
Besides wooing tourists from the Gulf region, George says the state wants GCC investors to help fund tourism-related infrastructure projects in Kerala.
George is particularly fond of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) and its year-round campaigns to promote the emirate.
“We all have a lot to learn from them,” she says, smiling.