India mourns popular ecotourism practitioner


Kerala in India is popular for community-based tourism and the Kerala houseboats, or Kettuvallam, are famous for their unique, traditional, thatched roof design. Although the houseboats vary in shape and design, they all share the basket-like roof, giving them the nick-name, basket boats. The name Kettuvallam comes from the Malayalam language, where “kettu” means “to tie” and “vallam” means boat. Traditionally, the Kettuvallam were used to ship goods like rice and spices and could hold up to 30 tons.

In the 1990s, a genius change-maker and trend-setter, Mr. Babu Varghese, came forward with his deep experience of community-based tourism development and converted these boats into tourism products. Today, over 500 boats allow tourists to take in the unique Kerala backwaters experience, directly employing over 2,000 people, and thousands more in repair, maintenance, and support roles.

Babu was born on January 28, 1951 in India. His educational qualifications include a Master of Science degree in Zoology and a Master of Philosophy in Behavioral Science from the University of Kerala. He started his career by establishing “TOURINDIA,” a tourist guidance bureau in 1972. In 10 years, “TOURINDIA” was established as a leading tour operator.

With constant interaction with tourists as a guide and tour leader, Babu understood the real needs of the visitors and looked into the possibility of converting the Kettuvallam cargo boats for comfortable cruises. With about 10 years of research and running around, he created the first Kettuvallam houseboats to tour the backwaters of Kerala in 1991. The new tourism product of Kerala was introduced at the international tourism arena by attending trade shows all over the world, and it was a runaway success, thus making Kerala one of the hottest destinations in the world.

Babu worked extensively to keep his projects non-polluting and was committed to renewable energy. The boats and production of them incorporate the use of solar energy, bio gas, and hydro-electrical power. In one of his interviews with Ecoclub Athens in 2008, he said: “Tourism is one way of transferring money from the rich to the poor and needy. The high expendable amount of money once used is the best possible way without damaging the nature, but at same time conserving it should be promoted especially in a developing nation like India. It is wrong to think that more problems like poverty eradication [and] inequality can be solved with massive projects. Poverty eradication can be achieved by community development programs with responsible tourism practices. Small-scale tourism projects involving the local community are always the building blocks of tourism. Large-volume movements of tourists is not ideal for Kerala, where the infrastructure is minimal. Mass movement will always upset the delicate balance of nature.

Babu Varghese died on the morning of October 18, 2011 in his home at Thrikkannapuram in Trivandrum. His death is considered a great loss to ecotourism philosophy.

Palitha Gurusinghe, President of the Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation, said on the death of Babu: “Nowadays, in the ecotourism world, it is sad to see more ‘talkers’ than real/honest ‘practitioners.’ In this sense, Babu is a real inspiration for all ecotourism practitioners in the world.”

The Ecoclub condoled Babu’s death by offering a contribution if a memorial fund is set up for Babu.