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Friday, September 17, 2021

Houseboats to hotels, Kerala tourism feels the pinch after months of curbs

From the hill stations of Munnar and Wayanad to the backwaters of Alappuzha, the pandemic has shattered Kerala’s tourism industry, which employs about 15 lakh people and contributes 11.5 per cent of the state’s GDP.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: August 9, 2021 7:07:04 am
At Kerala's Kovalam beach, an employee of a hotel, which has been closed down after pandemic, staring at sea. (Express)

LAST YEAR, the Covid slump pushed T Vinod out of his job as Operations Manager at a resort in Munnar, the popular hill station in Kerala. The 38-year-old, hailing from the upper reaches of Idukki, tried his hand at several small jobs to feed his family of three — from working in the construction sector to selling cloth masks — and shifted his son from a private school to a government institution to cut costs.

Down south near the coast, Devassia Varghese, who was a driver on a houseboat till last year, is now desperately looking for work as a farm hand. The 56-year-old with a family of five in Chambakkulam village of Kuttanad has been without a job “for the last 14 months”.

“Many of my colleagues in the houseboat sector are now going for inland fishing or other daily wage work,’’ says Varghese. “Last week, I signed up for work under the rural jobs scheme (MNREGS),” says Vinod.

From the hill stations of Munnar and Wayanad to the backwaters of Alappuzha, the pandemic has shattered Kerala’s tourism industry, which employs about 15 lakh people and contributes 11.5 per cent of the state’s GDP.

According to state Tourism officials, the total earnings from the sector in 2019 was Rs 45,010 crore. In 2020, it was only around Rs 11,000 crore — mainly during the months of January to March, before the pandemic struck, and mid-November onward, when the first wave eased (see box).

Officials said domestic arrivals fell by 72.86 per cent in 2020 from 2019, and international by 71.36 per cent.

In the first three months of this year, before the third wave surged, the state logged a decline of 40.53 per cent in domestic and 95.65 per cent in international arrivals from the same period last year.

Kochi-based tourism consultant Sanjeev Kumar Nair says a large number of properties are up for sale. “Most of the properties have loan liability. Even though they are not operational, a skeletal staff has to be maintained for regular upkeep,’’ says Nair.

According to All Kerala Houseboat Owners Association representative, Tomy Pulickattil, there was “a short period of relief” in December-January after the first wave waned.

“Many of us spent Rs 5 lakh to Rs 8 lakh to re-launch since the houseboats needed repairs after lying idle. Then came the second wave, and with the third now looming large, we are wary of making any fresh investment. The high fuel prices have also made resumption of operations unviable. We cannot increase the boat rent, either, at this stage,’’ says Pulickattil.

The backwaters in Alappuzha alone has about 1,000 houseboats, each employing three-five persons. “Now, the employees as well as investors have turned to other avenues, such as door delivery of fish and vegetables,” says Pulickattil.

In Wayanad, resort operator P T Jamshith says a large number of properties are in crisis “without a paisa to resume business”.

“Several resorts and homestays have been closed. Many are up for sale at half the rate of pre-Covid days. Those who have taken properties on lease have abandoned them. The only relief is that bikers are now checking in at off-road resorts,’’ says Jamshith.

The sector has to “immediately go into survival mode”, says Jose Dominic, CEO of CGH Earth Group of Hotels.

“Loan schemes of the government will not work as that will only increase liability. The only solution is opening up the sector. Domestic tourism has to take place. But the negative publicity emerging from the high number of Covid cases is a matter of concern,’’ says Dominic.

On Saturday, Kerala recorded 20,367 new cases, taking the total caseload to 3,533,918. The state also reported 139 Covid-linked deaths, with the total toll reaching 17,733.

On Sunday, Tourism Minister P A Mohammed Riyas announced that his department will celebrate Onam this month-end virtually, showcasing the state’s arts, culture, cuisine and destinations on a digital platform.

Apart from easing lockdown restrictions, the state’s Health department has also vaccinated over 20,000 employees in the tourism sector. And, officials say resorts and hotels have been allowed to operate in a bio-bubble.

According to Riyas, the state government is planning to introduce various revival packages, including a working capital support scheme.

“A campaign highlighting Kerala as a safe destination is also being done. The accreditation of home stays and similar properties have been extended unconditionally till the end of this year,’’ says Riyas while listing some of the key measures.

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