After handing the reins of his sustainable hospitality empire to his family members, Jose Dominic, founder and former CEO of CGH Earth Group, is now reviving the legacy of Jew Street in Kochi. The doyen speaks about the evolution of luxury and the importance of heritage in the future of travel.
Fort Kochi tranquillity has always been a sanctuary for me, offering a welcome escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Its charming cafes, picturesque Chinese fishing nets, and winding streets adorned with colonial-era residences are hard to miss. Yet, the tales that truly captivate me, as a lifelong resident of this town, originate from a bygone era.
Jose Dominic’s Origin Story
In 1975, I left accounting for my dad’s hotel venture. By 1978, I was at Casino Hotel on Willington Island. Armed with my Chartered Accountancy experience, we [ Jose Dominic and his team] made modest expansions. In 1987, PM Rajiv Gandhi’s Lakshadweep visit sparked privatisation. Despite fierce competition, our strategic location in the port city of Cochin earned us an invite. We were flown in on a helicopter and we gasped at Bangaram’s untouched beauty. The next day, at Government House, business giants discussed extravagant budgets. When asked, I cut to the chase: give me three months. I planned to emulate the islanders. Thatch roofs, minimalism—it’s what draws people here. In just three months, we preserved the island’s authenticity. We met all tender criteria, clinching the contract in October 1988. Despite lacking modern amenities, our resort emphasised pristine nature. Rigorous environmental standards were embraced, setting a new industry standard. Despite fixing tariffs on par with The Oberoi Mumbai, guests flew in from across the world. Bangaram Island Resort’s minimalist approach was a hit, redefining hospitality.
Cut to Present
I used to be the CEO of CGH Earth. Now, I’m a startup farmer and micro-entrepreneur in hospitality. I’m cultivating cocoa with a vision to produce artisanal chocolates. The farm will double as a farm- to-fork restaurant, focussing on direct customer engagement. In Jew Town, the Paradesi Synagogue is a cultural gem. I’ve transformed A B Salem House and Ezekiel House into unique tourist residences, preserving their heritage. My hotels followed a fortress model, but I’m now experimenting with a distributed model along Synagogue Lane. Each house offers a distinct experience, creating a collaborative corridor hotel concept with local businessmen. This shared approach is amplifying the lane’s allure, with potential for growth and diversification.
The Future is Green
In the past decade, we’ve witnessed significant shifts. From the rise of climate change to the impact of the pandemic, we’ve navigated different eras. The travel industry transformed drastically. The emergence of local travellers, or ‘neighbourhood travellers’, is a testament to this shift. People now find solace and adventure in their own cities. Amidst climate change, farms rise as a new tourism gem, rooted in local, pandemic-driven distancing. Holidays offer not just excitement, but also safety and rejuvenation. Nature, the timeless luxury, stays evergreen. Conscious travel is the norm, leaving no trace, and uplifting local communities.
Jose Dominic’s Great Indian Dream
Travel and tourism are now pivotal to our country’s economic growth. They reach even the most remote corners, transcending city-centric boundaries. This makes them potent tools for generating jobs and livelihoods, especially in our vital villages. Our nation’s greatest strength lies in its cultural mosaic. Unlike the American dream of assimilation, India is a thali—a diverse platter where unique cultures thrive while coexisting. From opulence to sustainability, luxury has evolved. Modern travellers seek experiences that harmonise with nature and local communities.
A Blueprint for Businesses
In Lakshadweep, Indian Oil offered LPG supply, but we declined. We valued our unique cooking method with coconut husks, benefiting both flavour and the local economy. Our restaurant relied on a 50-mile radius for its produce. Similarly, heritage holds immense value. The rise of local travellers brings fresh perspective and immersion. These travellers are environmentally conscious, often choosing vegetarianism to combat climate change.
Travellers crave unique experiences rooted in local authenticity. Kerala exemplifies this, offering high standards without compromising authenticity. Sustainability isn’t just about advanced tech; it’s embracing local practices. Contrasting Goa’s big-brand hotels, Kerala’s local entrepreneurs created world- class experiences. Empowering communities to own their assets is key.
Years ago, after success in Kerala and Lakshadweep, replicating our model in Gujarat proved challenging. Despite inviting beaches, industrial presence raised concerns. Ensuring a pollution-free zone proved elusive. Switzerland is a great example of how manufacturing and pristine environments can coexist. Homestead farms emerge as Kerala’s untapped asset, offering urbanites a unique natural experience. Kerala’s historical significance in the spice trade, especially pepper, shaped global commerce. Rediscovering farm lands as a tourism asset holds transformative potential. Our ‘Come Back Pepper’ initiative showcased a fruitful partnership with local farmers, offering tourists a glimpse into local life while supporting farmers’ income. This model exemplifies harmonious coexistence. If I had to offer my two cents, I’d say embrace uniqueness and innovation. Adopt best practices and cutting-edge tech for green solutions. Prioritise excellence over profits. A business with a higher purpose endures beyond balance sheets and shareholders.
— As told to Pooja Naik