Five Years after the Flood Waves

Tsunami Tourism in South India

T. Ravindran stays in a dilapidated single room thatched hut with his four member family, right on the sea shore. He is a traditional fisherman of Pozhikara, adjacent to Veli Tourist village in Kerala. When I asked him about the new walkway constructed for tourists, four feet high right in front of his house, he said "My boat used to be parked right there where this construction has come up. I do not know the name of it, but I know it is supposedly for the tourists."

He tells me how this place was used by his family for their fishing and related activities from his forefathers time. "But we do not have any title deed for the land", he says. "We traditionally stayed here, and nobody restricted us." Now, many fishermen can no longer park their boats here. "This wall, this walkway, whatever you call it, acts as an obstruction for us when shifting of boats is required. This happens when the sea is a bit rough and comes closer to our homes. It is a frequent phenomenon now. We have to manoeuvre the boats all the way around this."

When I mentioned to Ravindran that the walkway was built with Tsunami rehabilitation money, he was numb for some time. "How can they do this and use tsunami money for tourism?" he finally asked. "No tsunami destruction happened here. Moreover, tsunami money should be used for the betterment of lives of us fisher folk. We are living in constant fear of the sea and our lives have gone from bad to worse after the tsunami. No wonder the government officials did not consult us. Just see the condition in which we are living. Maybe they constructed this because it gives a good view of our misery that can be part of the scenery for the tourists?"

Misappropriation of Tsunami Funds

It is no wonder that the fishermen are in a shock when they learn that the democratically elected government's Tourism Department is withholding this kind of information. When queried by "Kabani - the other direction", using the Right to Information Act of the Indian government, "Kerala Tourism" was not ready to provide sufficient details on the use of the Tsunami rehabilitation fund for developing beach tourism. For example, the query referred to the artificial reef to be constructed at Kovalam beach, which is one of the 22 tourism projects currently planned or already implemented using tsunami money. All of these projects are in locations where no damage to tourism infrastructure happened because of tsunami.

Hardly Any Jobs

Chothavilai beach village lies close to Kanyakumari, a popular pilgrimage destination in Tamil Nadu, on the southern tip of India. It has a small tourism park adjacent to the beach. Tsunami money worth 2.4 million Indian Rupees has been used to renovate this park. Tamil Nadu government's tourism policy note quotes from the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, and says that every million rupees invested in Tourism created 47.5 jobs. When asked about how many local people have benefited from tourism development here in Chothavilai, the owner of a makeshift shop at the tourist beach says 'Tourism has not created much jobs or benefits. Only five to six people like me with makeshift shops get something. So on a personal note it has been good, but for our people there have been problems. Many people have had to sell their land to the tourism industry. Locals can no longer buy land here for themselves or their children, because land prices have shot up like anything. The tourist police chases locals away from the beach saying they will harass the tourists. Local women do not venture out freely like they used to, since they are harassed by visiting outsiders."

Coastal Protection

In Chothavilai, tourism investment has increased the vulnerability of the local community and the environment. To build a road and other infrastructure to Chothavilai tourist beach prior to the tsunami, sand dunes which act as natural protection barriers from the sea had been destroyed. Tsunami resulted in the loss of 30 lives in this area.

The state governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have facilitated the misappropriation of tsunami money meant for coastal communities. Used for tourism development, it is benefiting the industry and marginalizing the already marginalized local population. All these tourism constructions are violating the existing Coastal Regulation Zone rules which are meant for the conservation of the coastal ecology and include the protection for fishermen's rights.

A newly brought in legislation for the coast after Tsunami in 2005, the so-called Coastal Management Zone Notification, was about to allow the opening up of the coast to major tourism development along with other industries. It did not include any protective measures for communities' traditional rights and coastal eco-systems. It had to be dropped in 2009, following widespread protest and resistance.

Tsunami Tourism

In June 2008, the "Times of India" reported that the Tamil Nadu government was considering options to turn tsunami-affected villages into memorials of the disaster. The aim is to preserve the memories of pre-tsunami days and educate visitors about the devastating impact the disaster had on these places. Tsunami tourism, they feel, will also prevent these places from being completely forgotten.

The state governments in South India would easily be able to promote "Tsunami Tourism", since even five years after the Tsunami, many affected communities still live in misery. "Our misery as scenery for the tourists." In the Tsunami affected states of India, T. Ravindran's words echo through tourism's interventions in people's lives.

Sajeer Abdul Rehman is a member of "Kabani - the other direction". He works with coastal communities as part of Kabani's post-tsunami capacity-building programme for community empowerment, facilitated by Tourism Concern, UK.

(972 words, 78 lines, December 2009, TW 57)