Jose Dominic is a legendary figure in the Indian travel sector and a highly respected pioneer of sustainable and responsible tourism. Passionate about preserving local cultural diversity and connecting travellers with authentic experiences, he played a critical part of putting Kerala and the backwaters on the global tourism map. I was fortunate enough to hear him address a business group in Bangalore over a decade ago and was inspired by his genuine commitment to sustainability and his generosity of time and encouragement to others. He reluctantly joined his family business back in 1978, temporarily halting his promising career at a Chartered Accountant. At the time the family had just one hotel, and today CGH Earth has eighteen properties in South India and employs 1300 people. Jose thrived in the hospitality sector and remained the Managing Director and CEO for four decades. In 2018 he handed the reins to his two sons and remains an advisor to the company and serves on many boards, panels and associations. He lives in Kochi with his wife and close by are their three children and many grandchildren.
Our conversation takes place In July 2020 during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
What were you just thinking of?
My farm where we grow fruits, tapioca, yams, chillies and turmeric. This is located about two hours from my home in the city and is my personal farm that I inherited. It is about 25 acres and was once planted with rubber, however, over the last few years we have redone the farm and grow food. Now that I can’t visit in person, I talk to the farm manager a few times a day. You could call it ‘tele-farming’. Every evening the Chief Minister of Kerala does a briefing and as part of that he has requested everyone in Kerala to “Please Grow”. Kerala currently imports food, and whilst there is enough supply for the moment it is vital to secure food sufficiency for the whole population.
My father told me about the tragedy of the Bengal famine that took place during WW2 where the British shipped grain out of India and millions of Bengalis died of starvation. Kerala avoided this by accessing cassava crops and relying on the staple of tapioca.
Homestead farming could become very important to Kerala, as well as providing food security, farm stays might well appeal to tourists enabling physical distancing and being immersed in nature.
What are you doing for the rest of today?
The Government has requested us not to go out unless absolutely necessary so now I spend all day on Zoom. Today I am involved in the monthly meeting of the BKRG (Better Kochi Response Group) where we focus on making Kochi a better place to live, and because of this, it will also be a better place to visit. We are working on making the city cleaner, greener, safer, healthier, more efficient and even more friendly.
I also speak with my children; I have twin sons who are in the business and a daughter who is an architect. All live here in the city with their families.
How ‘real’ does the threat of the virus feel? Do you know any one personally who has contracted the virus?
It feels very real and I know quite a few people in Delhi who have contracted the virus. Here in Kerala we have managed to have far fewer cases and we are accepting of the new normal of working from home.
If your own health and that of your family/friends ok; then what is the greatest impact on your life (and on your work) of the pandemic?
From March 14th we shut all the hotels and our revenue went to zero overnight. We have eighteen properties, the largest of which has seventy keys and the smallest is just one key, an extraordinary property called Chittor Kottaram that was built by the King in 1828.
We don’t know how long this situation will play out, as a vaccine may be some time off. We are approaching this like being lost in the desert and having only one water bottle, we take just a small sip to survive until we are found. In the same way we are adjusting and hope to survive. We have all taken salary cuts and we are committed to maintaining our core team. Just recently we have been allowed to open up the properties for locals and in time we would expect other domestic travel to follow and eventually, perhaps by October 2021, international travel to return.
What are you looking forward to post pandemic?
Spending time at the farm and in nature. Seeing our business rise out of the ashes. Spending more time on the important and the useful and the interesting, not just the urgent.
I am on the board of Trustees of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and I hope that we are able to go ahead, in some way, for the fifth biennale scheduled to open in December this year. I think that the event encourages new ways of thinking for all of us, including the local population.
Has there been anything positive from the pandemic?
I believe, we should not let a calamity go to waste. Many things were going wrong in our world including the economy, the environment, inclusiveness in our society and we were all getting caught up in the urgent not the important. This disruption provides an opportunity to create a new normal.
At a personal level it has given me the time to do things I used to love, including painting, farming and catching up on reading. It has improved the quality of my personal life. The new normal has given us more time, resulting in more creativity and provides a fresh way to look at life.
At a business level, and in many of the forums that I am asked to speak at it, I find myself being franker and telling things like it is and no longer needing to be cautious about the potential impact on our business.
The Sanskrit phrase, Tat Tvam Asi, meaning ‘you are that’, is a statement about the essence of an individual. I think people will want to do better in the Post Covid world.They will want to be more compassionate and more collaborative. Covid-19 has exposed the weak side of India, in terms of the wretchedness of the poor in our nation and this will need to change.
Is there an innovation (service, product, science, media) that you have been impressed with?
I think our use of technology has been impressive, using Zoom for meetings and moving to tele-medicine for health care and the like.
Here in Kerala, I think we will move to greater self-sufficiency not only in growing our own food but also becoming less reliant on home help, the maids, cooks and drivers we have been used to.
What does your personal future of travel look like? When and where will you go first? What are you dreaming of?
With technology there is no real need to travel for work, the phone and Zoom suffice. However, attending a conference is not simply about hearing the speakers it is also about making connections with the other attendees. So, whilst there will be less business travel there will still be some.
One of my missions post Covid-19, is to encourage travel that seeks out and protects cultural diversity. In particular I think travel to the eight North Eastern states of India including Arunachal Pradesh will be very exciting. I can imagine creating simple but comfortable lodgings in remote areas enabling people to connect with the tribal culture and way of life. Even here in Kerala we have hill tribe people. India has an incredible wealth of unique cultures that have been preserved and experiencing this will become even more important in a world where so much culture in now homogenous.
What are you finding inspiring now?
Nature and my farm.
Also, I am very involved with a restoration project in Mattancherry close to the Paradesi Synagogue. What started with an invitation to have a Jewish dinner has resulted in me buying three very old houses (dating back to the 1750’s) and restoring them. My daughter is working with me on this and we are creating a distributed hotel across the residences and will be creating a very interesting kosher vegan restaurant and a tribal art gallery. We hope to have these open by the end of the year.
What has made you laugh out loud most recently?
I laugh at myself.
If a reader would like to make a contribution, can you recommend a specific organisation/initiative that could do with the support?
I remember when the devastating earthquake impacted Nepal that they requested that travellers come back to the country, not merely send donations. I think that all of Kerala would benefit from having travellers return to our unique place.
All of the CGH hotels opened on June 9th and are following all the Covid-19 protocols for safety and are ready to welcome guests from within Kerala and hopefully not before too long from other states in India and visitors from abroad. Bookings can be done directly on the website or I am happy to help you plan a fuller India itinerary through the Love Travel Journey Service.