Nature has been lively and we inherit it from the previous and pass it to the next generation to use. The socio-economic life of human beings and the ecosystem have a collaborative relationship. The present research seeks to investigate several aspects of economy and ecology in the Thenmala ecotourism’s surroundings. Thenmala is located at the southernmost state in India, called Kerala, and is famously known as God’s own country in sightseers’ literature. Thenmala ecotourism is the pioneer of an organized ecotourism project in India. Ecotourism is a rising notion in the tourism sector, and this program encompasses respect for the poor environment, strategic development, individuals with whom tourists interact. The present idea of ecotourism has improved its features by ensuring full participation in the accountable post for locals and tribal hosts.
Tourism is acknowledged as one of the vital service industries, and it has been monitored to be growing fast. For the last sixty years, tourism has proved to be among the most significant economic branches worldwide, contributing nine percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product and creating over 250 million jobs (CD & Aithal, 2020). United Nations World Tourism Organized has approximated that India has become a superpower in tourism map worldwide.
Ecotourism is the activity that includes traveling to different composed natural places with a particular goal of admiring, enjoying, and studying nature and its wild animals and trees as well as cultural features found in those places (CD and Aithal, 2020). In India, the journey of ecotourism started in 1987. India saw a beautiful investigation of the Kerala Tourism and Forest Department by holding hands and fighting against poaching with Kerala Tourism Industry’s external help (CD & Aithal, 2020). It was a win-win decision towards curbing poaching and ensuring a safe livelihood.
A particular eco-tourism wing has been formed to issue policy support for the evolution of the state’s ecotourism targets. The first project to be planned is Thenmala Ecotourism Project. This project’s significant purpose is to improve the Thenmala dam and its environment as the main tourist attraction.
Initial and Current Situation
The Thenmala Eco-tourism Project (TEP) was started by the Department of Tourism (DOT) of Kerala as an experimental project to provide directives to the country’s ecotourism edge. Structuring this project was a tiresome experience that involved creating economic and environmental sustainability (CD & Aithal, 2020). The idea of making Thenmala a tourist destination was born in 1996, and it was agreed that a familiarization zone would be kept by maintaining degraded forest areas (CD & Aithal, 2020). Later, discussions and studies helped develop strategies that controlled mass tourism in the sanctuary’s outskirts. The products of ecotourism would be driven towards maintaining ecological sustainability.
To ensure that Thenmala ecotourism continued to grow, the Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society was formed to facilitate effective administration. The local community’s participation in this project has also been catered for by creating Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Eco-Development Committees (EDCs) (Goodwin & Chaudhary, 2017). Satellite centers have been constructed in the Western Ghats Mountains, thus ensuring soft ecotourism thrives. Different facilities such as music dancing, boardwalk, fountain, amphitheater, boating, and sculpture garden have also been provided to enhance quiet ecotourism (Goodwin & Chaudhary, 2017). An interpretation center and environmental education center have also being built in Thenmala.
Objective and Specific Research Question
The paper seeks to find more ways by which Thenmala can involve major stakeholders with the aim of improving the holistic perception and measurement to determine how happy tourists are with the products, services, and capabilities been provided. As a result of the scope for meaningful policy decisions based on the study findings, the paper is relevant from a practical perspective, and for exploring further into allied aspects like the preferences and expectations of tourists. Therefore, the research question is – How can Thenmala involve more stakeholders with the sole aim of enhancing customer experience and satisfaction?
To achieve the stated objective, a case study methodology was adopted. The methodology involved collecting data from various sources to assist in understanding the history of ecotourism in Thenmala. Information on development of Thenmala ecotourism, its organisation, and the involved stakeholders was crucial in this case study. In order to be able to understand customer service satisfaction and to quantify the level of satisfaction, relevant sources of information where used. Statistical data used in determine level of satisfaction of customers was essential thus obtained from previous research documents. To achieve the objectives of this case study information used was mainly secondary data from various sources, including reports, journals, studies, and data from governmental and non-governmental institutions. The case study is explanatory, and the data determined were analysed using statistical techniques and statements.
Development of Ecotourism in Thenmala
Thenmala Ecotourism Project is among the first ecotourism projects adopted by the government of Kerala. The project is located in Shenduruney Wild sanctuary and extends to beyond the sanctuary around it (Goodwin & Chaudhary, 2017). It is a joint initiative project run by different departments, including irrigation, forest and wildlife, and tourism departments. Thenmala is a small region located at the slopes of Western Ghats hills and is 72km from Kerala’s capital city (Goodwin & Chaudhary, 2017). The area has faced extensive human intervention due to its proximity to the general population.
The government initiated this project with three main objects that are: (a) to construct a dam and develop attractive surrounding that would serve as a major tourist attraction; (b) to create ecotourism in the area and enhance ecological sustainability, and (c) to establish sustainable tourism that would act as a model for other development programs (Goodwin & Chaudhary, 2017). To achieve these objectives, the project was developed in two phases. Boating in Shenduruney reservoir and building a deer rehabilitation site were the initial tasks that marked the first phase of the project in 1999.
The second phase commenced in 2001 and included developing leisure zones like boardwalks, sculpture gardens, culture zones like a restaurant, musical dancing fountain, amphitheatre, and adventure zones with rock climbing and mountain biking, and river crossing. Other adventure activities like commando net, goan banana, valley crossing, flying fox, snorkelling, archery, and trampolining were also introduced.
The project was planned that eco-friendly general tourism takes place at the sanctuary edges to reduce tourism pressure at the sanctuary. Only authentic ecotourism is supposed to occur in the sanctuary, while others only experience eco-friendly activities like mountain biking, nature trails, and walks through canopies (Su, 2020). This gives those who await ecotourism a good picture of what awaits in the sanctuary. The strategy was adopted to minimize tourists to the sanctuary after observing what is happening in other sanctuaries.
Facilities such as transportation and accommodation were left for the private sector. However, there are no permanent structures within the forest, with tourist accommodation built outside the forest (Su, 2020). Operationalization of some activities such as bird watching and trekking was done through Eco development committees, thus ensuring locals benefit from ecotourism. The forest department provided expertise in the formulation of these eco-development committees and institutionalizing them. In turn, the project receives local community support conserving and protecting forests (Su, 2020). To ensure the project’s success, TEPS gave the mandate of conducting environmental impact assessment to Kerala Forest Research Institute.
The research institute has conducted some examinations that helped position satellites and given some vital information that has aided TEPS in amending some activities to reduce the ecosystem’s adverse effect (Su, 2020). Throughout the planning and implementation of the project, significant efforts have been made to uphold the international ecotourism principles. Management strategy that minimizes impact on the sensitive ecosystem were put in place.
The table below show the number of tourist between 2014 and 2018 and indicates progressive growth which is a good gesture for thriving sector
|Tourist(foreign and domestic)||12618777||13443050||14210954||15765390||16701068|
|Percentage variation over previous year.||7.71||6.73||5.71||10.94||5.94|
Source: Kerala Tourism statistics 2018, Government of Kerala department of tourism. Table 1. Number of tourist between 2014 and 2018.
Ecotourism directorate was formed in Kerala’s state entirely for strategic execution, financing marketing, formulation, and generally observing all ecotourism sectors. Figure 1 shows how operations are managed in Kerala with the involvement of the Ecotourism directorate and how it carries out its daily activities at the destination through different agencies such as Forest Development Agencies and Thenmala Eco-tourism Promotion Society (Sankar & Mellalli, 2019). As previously discussed they are three core level frameworks for the board of tourism Products, namely SHG, TEPS, and EDC. These organizations have a significant role in sustainability.
Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society
Thenmala, Ecotourism Promotion Society, is a registered Society under Societies Registration Act according to the nodal agency in 1997 to encourage ecotourism projects at Thenmala and the tourism department, irrigation, and cooperation of Forest (Sankar and Mellalli, 2019). It was founded as a goal management society to meet all administrative level tasks such as goal planning, marketing, and promotion of different products on a piloting basis. TEPS encourages goal operation, ensures enough infrastructure financing as well as capacity building of other service providers. It provides conservation education to society members and various stakeholders, encouragement among interested groups (Sankar & Mellalli, 2019). Besides, TEPS guarantees the tourist’s safety and security by issuing correct directions by signboards or preparing escorts while heading to the wilderness.
A well-organized organizational structure operates in Thenmala to accomplish these operations. The organization is led by a chief executive officer whose main job is to administer affairs in the entire organization (Sankar & Mellalli, 2019). Below the chief executive officer, there are two operational divisions: destination manager and planning and marketing manager. Destination management is essential in tourism destination especially eco-tourism destination which needs much attention while handling the visitation. In the hierarchy, destination management is helped by the project executive and junior executive.
Eco-development Committees for Ecotourism
As mentioned previously the operations in ecotourism programmes are carried out in Thenmala with help from ECDCs. The core establishment of ECD is that the society will conserve the environment if their economic stake well stated in the way of sustainable development. The FDA of Thenmala forest branch formed under participatory in forest management plays a major role in destination management. It brings the society together to carry on ecotourism operations like conserving the forest.
FDA does not just provide financial support but also all types of technical, institutional and structural assistance. EDC organizes the local community and provides them with support system in order to carry out different operations. They organize micro ideas such as organizing and training and awareness programmes as well as conservation measures. Conservation project demands co-ordination and co-operation from all different stakeholders, TEP has institutionalized Forest and wildlife, irrigation as well as co-ordination of travellers sectors and implemented it.
Self-Help Groups (SHG) in Tourism
SHG are locally established association encouraged by government agencies, banks or Non-Governmental Organisations found in big range of non-financial and financial areas, mostly recognized as the sector of adding savings and credits. The give access to credit their associates who are able of spending grants, borrowed funds and even their own funds to help in establishing funds and savings as well as yield economic advantage through reducing the dependences of moneylenders. TEP provides unfamiliar opportunities to private sectors, local community and government. These private wings play major characters in various sectors such as transport, accommodation and many others. Local community is included in ecotourism transport sector, local handicrafts manufacturing and sale as well as practices of indigenous art at the destination
Customers’ experience and satisfaction
Customer experience and satisfaction can be measured using service quality experience (SERVQUAL). Service quality experience to the service level a consumer or customer believes they should get from a service provider (Sankar and Mellalli, 2019). For example, a customer visiting an Eco lodge expects energy conservation measures to be more than when visiting a luxury hotel (Sankar and Mellalli, 2019). This method using several instruments to determine customer’s perceptions and expectations relating to a particular service encounter. It comprises 22 issues concerning perception and expectation that include:
- Tangibles: personal appearance, physical resources, and equipment.
- Reliability: ability to carry out essential services accurately and independently.
- Responsiveness: willingness to provide prompt assistance to the customer.
- Assurance: employees’ ability to be confident and trustworthy.
- Empathy: the attention given to a customer by a service provider.
This method has proven to help determine perceived service quality despite some questions raised on its generalizability, reliability, and validity. SERVQUAL method has been previously used in tourism/hospitality case studies having a range of 0.5 to 0.7 for R5 values the 22 issues to determine service quality. Ritchie and Fick executed management implications and instruments of SERVQUAL in four sectors that ski area service, hotel, airlines, and restaurant. In 2003 Mayam Khan advanced the SERVQUAL method Eco Service quality (ECOSERV) (Sankar and Mellalli, 2019). Nineteen of the previous issues were adopted and added eleven more issues to thirty while retaining the five groups. This new method was very similar to the prior one but had a fewer exceptions.
The data adopted in this case study utilizes the ECO SERV method to determine customer experience and satisfaction. Table 2. Below is the service quality experienced and perceived in TEP.
|Mean||Agree %||Mean||Agree %|
|Facilities appropriate to the environment||5.98||84.34||5.78||82.35|
|Equipment that minimizes degradation||6.34||87.93||6.12||85.74|
|Facilities environmentally safe||5.76||82.15||5.10||75.58|
|Feel safe in their transactions||6.30||87.53||4.99||74.48|
|Provide the necessary information||6.51||89.62||4.84||72.99|
|Have the knowledge to answer questions||6.50||89.52||4.96||74.18|
|Instill confidence in customers||5.12||75.78||5.01||74.68|
|Consistently courteous with the customers||5.68||81.35||5.03||74.88|
|Provide service at the promised time||5.10||75.58||5.04||74.98|
|Promised to do services by a specific time||5.68||81.35||5.63||80.85|
|Perform the service right at the first time||6.21||86.63||6.05||85.04|
|Instant error-free service||6.80||92.51||6.73||91.81|
|Show sincere interest in solving problems||6.06||85.14||6.03||84.84|
|Employee always be willing to help||5.01||74.68||4.91||73.68|
|Employee give prompt service to customers||6.50||89.52||6.01||84.646.|
|The employee never too busy to help||6.12||85.74||5.89||83.44|
|An employee tells precisely when service will be||5.21||76.67||4.98||74.38|
|Operating hours convenient||6.41||88.62||6.01||84.64|
|Understand specific needs||5.93||83.84||5.07||75.28|
|Materials reflect the local influence||6.21||86.63||5.99||84.44|
|Provide local environment||5.11||75.68||4.98||74.38|
|Materials visually appealing||6.01||84.64||5.60||80.56|
|Employees in local attire||6.12||85.74||5.89||83.44|
|Facilities reflect local attire||5.19||76.47||5.01||74.68|
|An employee in comfortable attire||5.31||77.67||5.12||75.78|
|Facilities in unpolluted setting||5.30||77.57||5.01||74.68|
Table 2. The Service Quality Experienced and Perceived in TEP.
With a mean value of 6.03 and an agreed percentage of 84.84, it means that perceived service quality is very high among eco-tourist of TEP and first in the hierarchy (Sharma and Sarma, 2019). The quality experienced by eco-tourist was third with a mean of 5.87 and agreed by 83.25.
Assurance is the ability of employees to be courteous and portrays confidence and trust while providing accurate information to tourists whenever needed. The perceived mean score was 6.02, while the agreed percentage was 84.74 (Sharma and Sarma, 2019). In the quality service hierarchy, the experienced quality was ranked sixth.
This refers to the materials and facilities that reflect the cultural influence in the region, such as employee’s attire. The perceived mean score was 6.01 while the agree percentage 84.64, making it third in the order of perceived quality (Sharma and Sarma, 2019). The experienced service was ranked fifth with a mean score of5.36 and agree percentage of 78.17.
Reliability refers to services performed accurately, timely, and in absolute wiliness. The perceived service quality was ranked fifth after attaining a mean of 5.96 and agree percentage of 84.14 (Sharma and Sarma, 2019). The quality service experienced mean score was 5.89 and agree percentage 83.44, securing the second slot in the hierarchy.
This is the employee’s attitude and wiliness to carry out services assigned to them. The perceived mean score was 5.93, while the agree percentage was 83.84 hence being sixth in the hierarchy. The experienced service quality was first with a mean of 5.91 and agree percentage of 83.64.
Recommendations and Answer to the Research Question
From the eco tangible data above, it is clear that facilities and equipment that reduce environmental destruction and use a small amount of fuel became second in the hierarchy. TEPS should enforce regulations and procedures that are environmental friendly. It should oversee adoption of environmentally friendly sources of energy such as solar energy and wind power. Should carry out a mass campaign on recycling, reusing, and reducing in order to conserve the environment.
According to data in the assurance category, should facilitate occasional seminars to staff offering services at the conservancy on how to best provide informative and courteous services to Eco tourists and create a feeling of trust whenever they encounter them. EDC should take the initiative of training local communities within the region on how to be nice to the Eco-tourists and attracted to their needs. They should also carry out campaigns to encourage the local communities to assist ecotourism in various ways like directing them appropriately if need be.
Atmosphere or tangibility is one of the core aspects in service delivery and can significantly influence a customer to be back for more services at a future date (Sharma & Sarmah, 2019). A lovely atmosphere can be created using senses, such as texture, sound, and color. Eco Tourism Directorate in conjunction with ministry of tourism and forest should develop unique designs and facilities that can be seen and enjoyed by Eco-tourists places within the reseverve. The designs should incorporate the rich culture of people of India.
Eco-tourists expect that services be delivered to them as per schedule without delay. If services are not offered in time, an explanation should be provided, compensation, and apology due to lack of efficiency and promptness. Any customer expects to receive sincere, accurate, and prompt service (Sharma & Sarmah, 2019). TEPS should play an oversight role in monitoring the type of services offered by business in the region. They should stipulate a strict guidelines of does and don’ts for businesses offering services in this sector with consequences like revoking of licenses whenever they fail to meet the expectations. Business and individuals offering services should express willingness and understanding of the client’s needs and demonstrate their desire to help through using verbal and non-verbal means.
The most crucial outcome for every ecotourism provider is customer satisfaction, and happiness since the first experience a customer encounters is a determinant to future visits. Tourist satisfaction is determined by the interaction of previous expectations and the understanding obtained visiting the destination. The study has explored the how TEP was developed highlighting the initial and current situation of the project. It has also covered the stake holders who are involved in the development of the project and identified some of area that need improvement in order to attain customer satisfaction. TEPS, ECD, FDA, Ministry of Tourism, business community and the local communities are the main stake holders in TEP and should work together to promote Thenmala ecotourism.
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