Until the early 1980s, Kerala was a relatively unknown destination, with most tourism circuits concentrated around the north of the country. Aggressive marketing campaigns launched by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation—the government agency that oversees tourism prospects of the state—laid the foundation for the growth of the tourism industry. In the decades that followed, Kerala Tourism was able to transform itself into one of the niche holiday destinations in India. The tag line Kerala – God's Own Country was adopted in its tourism promotions and became a global superbrand. Kerala is regarded as one of the destinations with the highest brand recall. In 2010, Kerala attracted 660,000 foreign tourist arrivals.
The state's tourism agenda promotes ecologically sustained tourism, which focuses on the local culture, wilderness adventures, volunteering and personal growth of the local population. Efforts are taken to minimise the adverse effects of traditional tourism on the natural environment, and enhance the cultural integrity of local people.
Since its incorporation as a state, Kerala's economy largely operated under welfare-based democratic socialist principles. This mode of development, though it resulted in a high Human Development Index and standard of living among the people, led to an economic stagnation in the 1980s (growth rate of 2.3% annually).) This apparent paradox—high human development and low economic development—led to a large number of educated unemployed seeking jobs overseas, especially in the Gulf countries. Due to the large number of expatriates, many travel operators and agencies set up shop in the state to facilitate their travel needs. However, the trends soon reciprocated, with the travel agencies noticing the undermined potential of the state as a tourist destination. The first travel agency in Kerala, Kerala Travels, was founded by Col G.V. Raja of the Travancore royal family along with P.G.C. Pillai.
By 1986, tourism had gained an industry status. Kerala Tourism subsequently adopted the tagline God's Own Country in its advertisement campaigns. Aggressive promotion in print and electronic media were able to invite a sizable investment in the hospitality industry. By the early 2000s, tourism had grown into a full–fledged, multi-billion dollar industry in the state. The state was able to carve a niche for itself in the world tourism industry, thus becoming one of the places with the "highest brand recall". In 2003, Kerala, a hitherto unknown tourism destination, became the fastest growing tourism destination in the world.
Today, growing at a rate of 13.31%, Kerala is one of the most visited tourism destinations in India.
Kovalam beach near Thiruvananthapuram was among the first beaches in Kerala to attract tourists. Rediscovered by back-packers and tan-seekers in the 1960s and followed by hordes of hippies in the 1970s, Kovalam is today the most visited beach in the state.
The backwaters in Kerala are a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast). Houseboat or Kettuvallam rides in the backwaters are a major tourist attraction. Backwater tourism is centered mostly around Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam. Boat races held during festival seasons are also a major tourist attraction in the backwater regions.
The backwater network includes large lakes such as the Ashtamudi Lake, the largest among them, linked by 1500 km of canals, both man-made and natural and fed by several rivers, and extending virtually the entire length of Kerala state. The backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents creating low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats range.
Sithar Kundu View Point at Nelliyampathy, Palakkad Dist. Kerala, South India
Eastern Kerala consists of land encroached upon by the Western Ghats; the region thus includes high mountains, gorges, and deep-cut valleys. The wildest lands are covered with dense forests, while other regions lie under tea and coffee plantations (established mainly in the 19th and 20th centuries) or other forms of cultivation.
The major festival in Kerala is Onam. Kerala has a number of religious festivals. Thrissur Pooram, Attukal Pongala, Beema Palli Uroos, and Chettikulangara Bharani are the major temple festivals in Kerala. The Thrissur Pooram is conducted at the Vadakumnathan temple, Thrissur. The Chettikulangara Bharani is another major attraction. The festival is conducted at the Chettikulangara temple near Mavelikkara. The Sivarathri is also an important festival in Kerala. This festival is mainly celebrated in Aluva Temple and Padanilam Parabrahma Temple. Padanilam Temple is situated in Alappuzha district of Kerala, about 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) from Mavelikkara town. Parumala Perunnal, Manarkadu Perunnal are the major festivals of Christians. Muslims also have many important festivals.
Kerala is also known for the many events conducted by the Ministry of Tourism for tourist attractions. Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the first Biennale in India was conducted in Kochi from 12 December 2012 till 13 March 2013.The government contributed about 12-150 million on the event. An International Coir Fest is conducted annually that is aimed at developing the coir industry of Kerala and tourism.
To further promote tourism in Kerala, the Government of Kerala started the Grand Kerala Shopping Festival in the year 2007. Since then it has become an annual shopping event being conducted in the December–January period. During this period stores and shops registered under the GKSF offer a wide range of discounts, VAT refunds, etc. Along with the guaranteed shopping experience, shoppers are provided with gift coupons for a fixed worth of purchase entering them into weekly and mega lucky draws. As compared to shopping festivals held in other countries, this Festival converts the entire state of Kerala into a giant shopping mall, incorporating not just the big players, but also the small and medium scale industries. Through this shopping festival, the Kerala Government intends to transform the State into a hub for international shopping experience and thereby launch "Shopping Tourism" in the state.
Medical tourism, promoted by traditional systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Siddha, is widely popular in the state, and draws increasing numbers of tourists. A combination of many factors has led to the increase in popularity of medical tourism: high costs of healthcare in industrialised nations, ease and affordability of international travel, improving technology and standards of care.
However, rampant recent growth in this sector has made the government apprehensive. The government is now considering introduction of a grading system which would grade hospitals and clinics, thus helping tourists in selecting one for their treatments.
Kerala's culture is mainly Hindu in origin, deriving from a greater Tamil-heritage region known as Tamilakam. Later, Kerala's culture was elaborated on through centuries of contact with overseas cultures. Native performing arts include koodiyattom, kathakali—from katha ("story") and kali ("play")—and its offshoot Kerala Natanam, koothu (akin to stand-up comedy), mohiniaattam ("dance of the enchantress"), thullal, padayani,thirayattam, andtheyyam. Other arts are more religion- and tribal-themed. These includechavittu nadakom,oppana(originally from Malabar), which combines dance, rhythmic hand clapping, and ishal vocalisations. However, many of these art forms largely play to tourists or at youth festivals, and are not as popular among most ordinary Keralites, who look to more contemporary art and performance styles, including those employing mimicry and parody. Additionally, a substantial Malayalam film industry effectively competes against both Bollywood and Hollywood.
Several ancient ritualised arts are Keralite in origin; these include kalaripayattu (kalari ("place", "threshing floor", or "battlefield") and payattu ("exercise" or "practice")). Among the world's oldest martial arts, oral tradition attributes kalaripayattu's emergence to Parasurama. Other ritual arts includeThirayattam, theyyam, poorakkali and Kuthiyottam. Thirayattam is a ritual performing folk aet form of south malabe region in kerala.This vibrant art form blend of dance, music, theatre, satire, facial & body painting, masking, martial art and ritualistic function.Thirayattam enacted i courtyards of "Kaavukal"(sacred groves)and village shrine.
Kuthiyottam is a ritualistic symbolic representation of human bali (homicide). Folklore exponents see this art form, with enchanting well–structured choreography and songs, as one among the rare Adi Dravida folklore traditions still preserved and practised in Central Kerala in accordance with the true tradition and environment. Typical to the Adi Dravida folk dances and songs, the movements and formations of dancers (clad in white thorthu and banyan) choreographed in Kuthiyottam are quick, peaks at a particular point and ends abruptly. The traditional songs also start in a stylish slow pace, then gain momentum and end abruptly.
Kuthiyotta Kalaris', run by Kuthiyotta Ashans (Teachers or leaders), train the group to perform the dances and songs. Normally, the training starts about one to two months before the season. Young boys between 8 to 14 years are taught Kuthiyottam, a ritual dance in the house amidst a big social gathering before the portrait of the deity. Early in the morning on Bharani, after the feast and other rituals, the boys whose bodies are coiled with silver wires, one end of which is tied around his neck and an arecanut fixed on the tip of a knife held high over his head, are taken in procession to the temple with the accompaniment of beating of drums, music, ornamental umbrellas, and other classical folk art forms, and richly caparisoned elephants.
All through the way to the temple tender coconut water will be continually poured on his body. After the circumambulation the boys stands at a position facing the Sreekovil (Sanctum Sanctorum) and begins to dance. This ceremony ends with dragging the coil pierced to the skin whereby a few drops of blood comes out.
On this day just after midday the residents of the locality bring huge decorated effigies of Bhima panchalia, Hanuman and extremely beautiful tall chariots in wheeled platforms, and after having darshan the parties take up their respective position in the paddy fields lying east of the temple.
During the night, the image of Devi will be carried in procession to the effigies stationed in the paddy fields. On the next day these structures will be taken back. A big bazaar is also held at Chetikulangara as part of this festival. Kuthiyottam is the main vazipadu of the Chettikulangara temple, Mavelikkara.
In respect of Fine Arts, the State has an abounding tradition of both ancient and contemporary art and artists.The traditional Kerala murals are found in ancient temples, churches and palaces across the State. These paintings, mostly dating to between the 9th to 12th centuries AD, display a distinct style, and a colour code which is predominantly ochre and green.
Recognising the potential of tourism in the diversity of religious faiths, related festivals and structures, the tourism department launched a "Pilgrimage tourism" project. Major pilgrim tourism attractions include Guruvayur, Sabarimala, Malayatoor, Paradesi Synagogue, St. Mary's Forane (Martha Mariam) Church Kuravilangad built in 105 A.D, Attukal Pongala (which has the Guinness record for being the largest gathering of women in the planet), and Chettikulangara Bharani.
Kerala Tourism is noted for its innovative and market-focused ad campaigns. These campaigns have won the tourism department numerous awards, including the Das Golden Stadttor Award for Best Commercial, 2006,Pacific Asia Travel Association- Gold Award for Marketing, 2003 and the Government of India's Best Promotion Literature, 2004, Best Publishing, 2004 and Best Tourism Film, 2001.
Catchy slogans and innovative designs are considered a trademark of brand Kerala Tourism. Celebrity promotions are also used to attract more tourists to the state. The Kerala tourism website is widely visited, and has been the recipient of many awards. Recently, the tourism department has also engaged in advertising via mobiles, by setting up a WAP portal, and distributing wallpapers and ringtones related to Kerala through it.
With increasing threats posed by global warming and changing weather patterns, it is feared that much of Kerala's low–lying areas might be susceptible to beach erosion and coastal flooding. The differing monsoon patterns also suggest possible tropical cyclones in the future.
Muziris Heritage Project is a tourism venture by Tourism Department of Kerala to "reinstate the historical and cultural significance Muziris". The idea of the project came after the extensive excavations and discoveries at Pattanam by Kerala Council for Historical Research. The project also covers various other historically significant sites and monuments in central Kerala.
The nearby site of Kottapuram, a 16th-century fort, was also excavated (from May 2010) as part of the Muziris Heritage Project.