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In pandemic year, Kerala houseboat could be ideal bubble, but challenges remain

Even though the tourism industry contributes over 10 percent of the state’s GDP, it’s still viewed in the power corridors as a non-essential sector. That means, during crises like the current pandemic, the industry is the last to open up.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
Updated: July 10, 2021 9:46:20 pm
And in the second year of a raging pandemic, during which people want to take a desperate break from the Zoom calls and the monotonous work-from-home routine, houseboats tick all the right boxes when it comes to safety, security, and ease of travel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Augustus Binu)

Houseboats are the standout symbol of Kerala’s backwaters and its tourism. From budget ones with a single bedroom to those with up to four bedrooms and luxury facilities, spending a day in a houseboat is the best way to explore the state’s yawning backwaters and its tiny countryside coastal villages.

And in the second year of a raging pandemic, during which people want to take a desperate break from the Zoom calls and the monotonous work-from-home routine, houseboats tick all the right boxes when it comes to safety, security, and ease of travel.

But the owners of houseboats in Kerala are in dire straits. Like most sectors during the pandemic, houseboat patronage has been severely hit in the last 16 months, wiping away revenues of most owners. They were forced to dip into their personal savings to carry out regular maintenance works of the boats. There’s a policy problem too. Even though the tourism industry contributes over 10 percent of the state’s GDP, it’s still viewed in the power corridors as a non-essential sector. That means, during crises like the current pandemic, the industry is the last to open up.

“Our public transport, liquor shops and other businesses have all been allowed to open. In a public transport setting, there are people from different areas and families mingling together. But in a houseboat with one or two bedrooms, it’s just one family who have their own private space. There is no scope for mingling with other guests. So, there’s just no reason not to reopen the houseboat sector,” said Shanej Indraprastha, president of the houseboat owners society in Kumarakom, a backwater destination in Kottayam district.

“Also, 100 percent of our staff and owners in Kumarakom have been given at least one dose of the vaccine. In other parts, there has been at least 90 percent coverage. So, there is no risk for guests as well,” he said.

In fact, vaccinating those at the forefront of the hotel and travel industry is one of the few measures of the state government that have been applauded by businesses. The idea was to welcome guests by assuring them that they would be safe in Kerala. As soon as the Centre opened up vaccination for everyone above the age of 18, the state included the frontline workers in the travel sector in priority groups for getting the jab.

But even to reopen, the tough financial crisis in the houseboat sector has to be addressed and it cannot be done without the intervention of the government. Owners like Shanej say that the boats’ maintenance and repairs account for a major share of expenditure every year. As a result of the boats lying in disuse for much of last year and this year, there has been extensive damage. The bamboo roofs, exposed to perennial sun and rain, have to be replaced. Interiors, infested with fungus, need a coat of paint. Engines need an oil change and inverter batteries have to be changed.

“After the first lockdown last year, many owners needed capital to run repairs. Since banks wouldn’t give loans, they had to approach private money lenders who charged high interest-rates. After running the repairs, they were able to operate for a few months, by servicing our local tourists. But then, in March, the second wave hit and it affected us so much more than the first wave. Again, the boats are forced to lay idle for over four months and most owners don’t have funds to do repairs again. There is no moratorium on loans and we have to pay the loans back soon,” said Shanej, who has two houseboats of his own.

Though the state government announced grants for maintenance and repairs of boats, it’s subject to those with licenses valid till March this year. And boat-owners say many of them haven’t been able to renew licenses with the Ports department due to the financial crisis. “Only about 30 percent of the owners may have gotten grants. And those who got it were big corporate chains who can afford to spend money. But those like us who are struggling to make a living off the boat are not getting the grant,” said Shanej.

The cash crunch, he stressed, has forced many owners to sell off their boats and exit the industry. Pre-Covid, the industry was widely seen as profitable. But not anymore. Overheads like the steep rise in diesel and LPG prices and maintenance costs have gone up, reducing profit margins.

Aneesh, who owns a three-bedroom houseboat in Kumarakom, added, “On average, a houseboat owner has to spend Rs 2-3 lakhs a year for maintenance. After spending all that money, we have again come to a stop (in operations). For the second consecutive year, we have fallen into debt.”

Another key problem is finding staff to run the boats and service guests when the sector reopens. When the second wave hit, almost all of them, working on daily or monthly wages on the boats, left in droves to find other jobs. Many went into fishing or retail selling of fish, others into spinning of coir and helping out with painting or welding jobs.

“No one will come back unless they are assured of a steady pay. And we cannot guarantee it because we don’t know how the situation will pan out,” said Aneesh.

“It’s not enough if we get just Malayalis to come and travel. We need to get bookings from outside the state, especially from northern India, for the business to run full-fledged,” he added.

To add to it, Kerala’s present Covid-19 situation doesn’t offer much hope. Infections are on a steady downward spiral across the rest of India, but Kerala continues to be an outlier, reporting over 10,000 cases every day, the highest in India. The numbers may be a result of the state’s advanced disease surveillance mechanism and high reporting of cases, but it’s certainly not an inviting signal for travellers. Though many of the lockdown restrictions have been eased, weekend and night curfews are still on.

Deepak Joseph, who does travel bookings, said, “Yes, inquiries are coming in, mostly from Kerala itself, but we can’t take bookings without getting green-light from the government. At this point, we just don’t know how things will play out. We have waited a year in any case, we’ll wait some more. We don’t have a choice.”

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