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Crafts in the Policy Space: Crafts and Tourism

Bhasin, Anuradha is an independent consultant working on the areas of trade and development issues.

A little-known survey of the tourist-centric regions of Kerala and Rajasthan* shows that tourism has an enormous impact on the incomes and livelihoods of artisans in the region. Incomes of ‘folk artists’ for example are four times higher during tourist seasons compared to their off-season incomes; higher earnings of all artisans from their proximity to tourist centres enables them to improve their quality of life.

The multiplier effects of tourism are well known: that money spent by a tourist has a cascading effect on incomes and employment through an economy, because tourism is strongly linked to so many other areas of activity. This borne out by the survey mentioned above which shows, for example, that 96 per cent of the income of the artisans surveyed in Kerala and 90 per cent in Rajasthan is derived from tourist spending. The flip side of the scenario is of course that during a nuclear blast year (such as 1998) or a plague year, tourism-dependent craftspeople suffer badly.

Artisans clearly stand to gain from tourism, but this important avenue for advancement has almost completely been ignored in India. Crafts products can be found in ‘cottage industries’ emporia, but how many of the local crafts can you find next to a tourist spot, which is where visitors often spontaneously buy mementos? After spending a day or more marvelling at the craftsmanship of the 14th and 15th century sculptors of the sprawling Vijaynagar ruins at Hampi, there is nowhere you can buy something from their present-day counterparts. The best that you can find at Delhi’s Qutab Minar, or the Mammalapuram (Mahabalipuram) temple complex outside Chennai is a string of indifferent postcards, mostly of Bollywood stars.

In many of the major tourist sites, this ‘local souvenir’ space has been taken up by enterprising marketers from a few states. How many visitors to Goa have bought – or even seen - any of the local crafts products based on the culture and materials of the region? We may be forgiven for thinking that Kashmiri shawls or Tibetan jewelry, so ubiquitously available on the beaches, are the local craft. This is the good news, though, as at least craftspeople somewhere are benefiting from tourism expenditure. But there are at least two negative effects from this cross-regional crafts supply: one is that they tend to ‘crowd out’ local craftspeople who may have not yet developed the skills to access their tourist markets; second, in economic terms, money spent on out-of-region crafts is a leakage from the region - as it does not directly improve the quality of life of local craftspeople – and this limits the extent of second and subsequent effects on other workers in the region.

Local crafts thus need to be made more visible and accessible to tourists. Many recommendations exist on how this can best be done, and I add my own: make available good quality local products, crafts, even processed foods at airports and train stations, or even at checkpoints at state boundaries (such as Hill Stations).

There is an even more important role for craftspeople in today’s tourism, as a counter-pose to the devastating effects of mass tourism on the cultures and environment of popular destinations: pressure from travelers in search of nothing more than a warm place in the sun have stripped beaches in several parts of Thailand, Bali, and Goa, almost completely of their unique cultural character.

In reaction, there is a growing trend towards more responsible travel such as community-based tourism (CBT), in which local communities are at the centre of the travel experience. It varies from region to region, but can incorporate some of these elements: living with local communities, eating and cooking with them, learning how to make their handicrafts, and being part of their festivals and even agricultural activities.

We now have several CBT projects across the country, which have given rural-based crafts people a market, diversified their job opportunities, and encouraged them to revive and preserve their indigenous traditions – crafts, festivals, dances, and even medical practices. The artisan community in Hodka village in Gujarat encourages visitors who stay in their village to learn their traditional crafts (www.hodka.in); a similar project in the village of Khedi outside Gangtok in Sikkim has led to careful preservation and restoration of local Bhutia homes, cooking utensils, and other traditional everyday implements, and given a boost to the local broom-making craft.

Even the most recent union budget recognized the close links between crafts and tourism as it planned to “identify 50 villages with core competency in handicrafts, handlooms and culture close to existing destinations and circuits, and develop them for enhancing tourists’ experience.” There are obvious negatives to relying solely or largely on any one market. These need to be addressed to protect craftspeople from a sudden falling off in demand, but at the same time we need to fully develop our local souvenir-crafts, before the vacuum is filled by products that are made anywhere but in India.

* ‘Socio-economic Impact of Tourism on Folk Artists and Artisans of Kerala and Rajasthan,’ Tourism Statistics 2003, Department of Tourism



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