After tapping the potential of ayurveda, beaches, backwaters and eco-tourism, the Kerala government is now readying a plan to promote pilgrim tourism in the state.
The idea of pilgrim tourism, according to State Minister for Tourism K V Thomas, is to showcase to the world Kerala's rich and diverse spiritual and religious heritage.
"We have hundreds of churches, mosques and temples of historical importance across Kerala. The government wants to highlight them to the world traveler," Thomas told rediff.com.
Stating that the commercial travel operators are yet to utilise the full potential of pilgrim tourism, the minister said: "The government is in the process of short-listing Kerala's historically significant religious places of worship, which could be of immense interest to foreign and domestic tourists."
The minister said the state has much more than just places of worship to offer the tourists. "There are great meditation and spiritual centres like the one in Vagamon hills in central Kerala. We are going to tap every aspect of pilgrim tourism," the minister pointed out.
In order to tap the unutilised sector, a number of travel agencies in Kerala have launched unique packages for pilgrim tourism. Interestingly, one such agency was even launched by a Catholic church.
Godsland Tourism was started last year by the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a Kerala-based Catholic congregation having seven bishops and 2,544 members including priests, scholastics and brothers.
Godsland is the brainchild of CMI priest Mathias Mundadan, director of Jeevass Kendram, a centre for education and social projects that the congregation runs in Aluva.
Father Mundadan, an eminent church historian and head of Godsland Tourism, said the company wants to promote pilgrim tourism because "there is a hidden treasure of religious shrines and pilgrim centres across Kerala."
"Our brand name Godsland Tourism has been an instant hit. We are getting lots of enquiries from foreign tour operators," Father Mundadan told rediff.com.
Godsland has identified some 75 centres of pilgrimage belonging mainly to Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. It has also divided these pilgrim centres into various packages.
One such package comprises two days trip to Kodungallur, Chennamangalam, Guruvayoor and Malayatoor, four towns situated in central Kerala.
Kodungallur with a number of churches and shrines is where St Thomas the Apostle first landed in India in 52 AD.
While Chennamangalam was a former Jewish colony, Guruvayoor is home to the renowned Sri Krishna temple.
The St Thomas Church at Malayottur attracts devotees in large numbers every year.
The priest said that though religious fundamentalism is a big problem in India, in Kerala the people of the three major faiths -- Christianity, Hinduism and Islam -- co-exit peacefully.
One of Godsland brochures invites tourists to Kerala with inspiring details: "Kerala is God's Own Land. Come to see our splendid pilgrim places, monuments, churches, temples, mosques, mountains and rivers. Enjoy our rich religious culture and heritage. Participate in our religious celebrations."
Godsland will join hands with the Kerala government and other leading travel agencies to organise a pilgrim tourism festival later this year.
Prakriti Tourism, another leading agency, says pilgrim tourism has vast potential in Kerala.
"Many of the churches and temples in Kerala are set in serene environment, amidst plantations and rich greenery. So tourists enjoy rides to such religious centres of historical importance," Prakriti Tourism manager Suresh Babu pointed out.According to the tourism ministry, Kerala has registered a record growth of 23.5 per cent in visitor exports or external account earnings from travel and tourism in the last 10 years.