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The Rediff Special / George Iype in Kochi

May 05, 2004

Last year the 50th birthday celebrations of the country's most revered woman spiritual leader, Mata Amritanandamayi, spurred tourism in Kerala.

This year, believe it or not, it is the general election that is attracting tourists to God's Own Country.

A number of tour operators these days are offering 'election packages' to witness the world's biggest democratic exercise.

Thus, Robert Nicholson and his wife Stella have been on a houseboat across the backwaters for the past three days, going around villages and "feeling how elections work here".

"Oh, it is lovely," says Nicholson, a pharmaceutical company executive from London. "It is great that we decided to tour Kerala in this election time."

It is a novel experience for the couple. "It is for the first time we are seeing door-to-door campaigns," says Stella Nicholson as she follows Left Democratic Front candidate Dr Sebastian Paul in Ernakulam. "In our country, candidates do not go to the homes of people."

"We felt it is a pleasurable experience for tourists," says Tomy Pulickattil, managing director, Pulickattil Houseboats. "Our election campaigns are unique. We are taking tourists to beautiful islands where they can mix sightseeing with election campaigns."

Tomy got this idea when some of his Dutch clients asked him to show them how poll graffiti were painted on walls. "It has now worked out to be a brilliant tourism idea," Tomy, who owns eight luxury boats, says. "Many foreigners are keen to see how elections work here. So we are mixing tourism with elections. We have some 20 tourists from France, England, and Spain who are following various candidates across the state."

French tourist Nicolas Duvernois is fascinated. "Our election campaigning is restricted to television debates," says Duvernois, who recently heard Congress politician Margaret Alva at a public rally in Kochi. "Election here is great fun. There is life on the streets. The dresses and thunderous speeches of candidates are like in a film."

Duvernois says this is how democracy should work. "Now I understand how true democracy is for the people and by the people," he says.

Duvernois will remain in Kerala till May 10, when the state goes to polls. Till then he will go around the hilly areas like Munnar and Idukky to see more campaigns.

Candidates contesting the polls are also thrilled that tourists are flocking to see them campaign. Last week V M Sudheeran, the Congress candidate from Alappuzha constituency, gave a speech in English to a group of Dutch tourists as hundreds of villagers looked on.

"It is a nice feeling that foreign tourists are very much interested in our poll process," Sudheeran says. "They wanted to know how I manage the election campaign. They were amazed that I have this physical capacity to be on the road, addressing rallies and meeting people for many days. It also shows how our democratic process is impressive for foreigners."

Tourism consultant Paul Scaria says election tourism is a new idea that has caught the fancy of travel agencies. "It is hot property now because election campaigning is a very lively and educative event in a state like Kerala," he says. "Here, the campaigns are also well organised, so we can chalk out our tour packages better."

He reasons that tourism is all about seeing and enjoying new things. "Indian elections are the best thing to witness, in fact," he argues. "Our tourism could grow faster if we have elections every year."

Domestic and foreign tourist arrivals in Kerala are expected to clock a record 10 million in 2004. Poll tourism may not add great numbers to this statistic, but it is an enchanting idea for many tour operators in God's Own Country.

Image: Rahil Shaikh

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