Ranjini Menon’s homestay, for the past several years, has been a magnet for foreign tourists. It’s a British-era heritage bungalow surrounded by acres of undulating tea and coffee plantations in Kerala’s Wayanad district. Menon and her husband had conceptualised ‘Turmerica’ as a culinary destination where tourists could indulge in local flavours, learn to cook the cuisine and catch up on the basics of organic farming. They could do all that alongside taking long, winding walks in the plantations and relax in the wilderness of the Western Ghats.
“A majority of foreign tourists who come to India want to experience the local culture and cuisine. They prefer to stay at homestays because it allows for more informal interactions. When I cook, they can come into the kitchen and check out what I’m doing. Or when I’m out working in the farm,” says Menon, a long-time television host and writer.
In fact, one of the reasons she decided to launch the homestay was to imbibe the cultures and lifestyles that tourists brought to her doorstep from their native countries. Last year, her homestay hosted tourists from 22 different countries. This year too, between November and the first week of March which coincides with Kerala’s peak season for foreign tourists, all six rooms at Turmerica had high occupancy.
“It was a good season,” she said.
And then, the novel coronavirus struck. Countries began shutting down borders and the last of the tourists hurriedly packed their bags to leave, uncertain of what lay ahead. Within just a few days, several bookings that had been made by both foreign and domestic tourists at the homestay got cancelled. With the lockdown falling into place soon after, the travel circuit came to a staggering halt.
“During April and May, we usually get tourists from the north Indian states as a result of the school holidays there. That season has been completely washed away. It’s zero revenue. We had five staff members to help us with cooking and cleaning. I paid salaries for all of them till April, but I could retain only two of them. There was just no way I could continue supporting the rest,” said Menon.
Seventy-five kms away from Wayanad, Joy Jude, a Gulf-returnee who runs a popular homestay and operates four tourist vehicles in Fort Kochi, has been dipping into his savings to take care of escalating costs. Regardless of use, he has to take care of electricity and water costs at the homestay every month in addition to paying taxes for the four vehicles. “Revenue has gone into negative and the worst part if we can’t do anything. We have to survive somehow,” he says.
Such anecdotes of financial upheaval are unprecedented in the travel and tourism sector in Kerala, which contributes 10% of the state’s GDP and employs nearly 15 lakh people directly or indirectly. From homestay owners like Menon and Jude to houseboat operators, tourist vehicle drivers, tour guides, handicraft and souvenir shop owners to cleaning staff at hotels and resorts, the workforce attached to the sector is large and extensive. While other non-essential industries have begun to restart with restricted workforce, tourism naturally has been the hardest-hit and may take the longest to reopen. The pandemic and its economic repercussions are a painful kick in the gut for the tourism department because the state had posted record footfall and revenues last year on the back of a successful marketing campaign and a generally positive word-of-mouth in its top source markets for inbound travellers like UK, Europe, US and the Middle East. Last year, statistics show, more than 11 lakh foreign tourists and 1.83 crore domestic tourists visited the state in what are record figures in five years.
“The impact of Covid has been very high on our tourism. Right now, we are not sure when we can reopen. In 2019, our revenue in the travel and tourism sector stood at Rs 45,000 crore. Based on that, we estimate that if it takes a few more months for the sector to reopen, our losses would amount to Rs 20,000 crore this year. With absolutely no business in March, April and May, we lost completely on domestic tourists,” said Rani George IAS, secretary of Kerala Tourism.
Post the 2018 deluge, which left disastrous effects on the state’s tourism prospects and washed out that year’s peak season, the government went in for an action plan to estimate losses and discuss ways on reviving the sector. A readiness survey was conducted on prime destinations like Alappuzha and Munnar to examine whether they were in a state to receive tourists.
— Kerala Tourism (@KeralaTourism) October 8, 2019
George added, “After that, we mainly did PR work and strategic marketing on focused markets such as UK, Europe, US and the Middle East. We launched a new campaign titled ‘human by nature’ in February 2019. It sent out a message to the world. Government and trade worked together, side by side. While trade bodies did marketing of their packages and plans, government advertised the destinations. For us, the PPP model has proved to be a major success. That’s how we got results.”
But in contrast to the floods, where only Kerala was affected, the post-Covid scenario is entirely different and perhaps much more serious. The state’s source markets for inbound travellers – UK, US and Europe – are the most affected across the world. Even in India, states like Maharashtra and Gujarat whose travellers have flowed into Kerala in large numbers in recent years, are reporting high case-loads of the infectious disease. Add to that, the recession-like conditions and the reducing spending capacity of the public on leisure travel.
Such extraordinary situations therefore beg for out-of-the-box solutions, say experts.
Onus on local travel
For a population that has been under strict lockdown for the past two-and-a-half months, the urge to travel remains high on priority. A simple perusal of the social media platforms will confirm that. While flying abroad or even to other states at the moment is fraught with dangers, travelling to driveable distances within the state is an idea that tour operators and hoteliers are willing to capitalise on, at least for the short-term. This could be within the city or to a neighbouring district. With adequate safety parameters and social distancing, such local travelling could be a boost for those on both the demand and supply chains.
“The tour operators and hoteliers are working together on a portal where packages would be designed around specific properties to sell within Kerala. People would be keen to travel to places which are less crowded…there are responsible tourism packages like village experience, storytelling, cultural experience which can work in rural areas. Some adventure activities in open areas would also get preference,” said George.
This would mean local travellers would get access to high-end luxury hotel options at concessional rates which were initially tailor-made for foreign tourists, especially in batches. Those working on the scheme feel this is a win-win for both the hoteliers and the travellers.
Boosting local travelling is an idea that Menon can also get on board with. The crisis has to be converted into an opportunity, she feels, and this could be the perfect short-term plan. Weekend trips to short distances is not likely to leave a hole in the pocket too. “There’s no use expecting foreign tourists because that will take time. Ours is a market-driven economy. And so, we can travel ourselves within the state because after spending three stressful months, we would need some kind of relaxation,” she noted.
Shruti Shibulal, CEO of Tamara Leisure Experiences Pvt Ltd, believes the travel and hospitality industry has always responded positively to economic and financial downturns in India. “Dynamic pricing has been the way of life for many, many years. Prices will become much more affordable for people at hotels…the overall trend of where and how people will travel will change. They will be far more comfortable getting in their car and driving to a place four or six hours away. That will be their big trip. They may not be going abroad. Now those trips would be taken domestically. The thing about India is that there are a number of fantastic domestic destinations. People would hopefully rediscover them in larger numbers.”
“The hotels will adapt. The pricing will be adjusted because they are looking to get back business.”
Kerala’s resilience against Covid can be leveraged
What sets Kerala apart from other Indian states has been its decades of investment in public health and education and a stronger, decentralised panchayati raj system. These benefits, accrued over many years, has shone brightly especially in the last two months as health experts across India and the world took note of the state’s courageous and successful fightback against Covid. By the first week of May, before the arrival of non-resident Keralites, the state had brought down the number of active infections to 16, from over 500, with just three recorded deaths. Since then, the steady arrival of Keralites from abroad and other states in the country has pushed the infection curve up again, but there is little doubt in the people’s minds that their home-state is perhaps far, more safer than any place in the world.
And this chain of thought is exactly what officials are hoping to leverage to attract tourists to the state in the long-term. Kerala’s resilience in the face of the highly-infectious coronavirus with the limited resources it has has earned global recognition even as developed nations like Italy, US and UK struggled to contain the outbreak. And this precisely gives the state a halo of a safe, peaceful destination that tourists would like to explore.
“For the last 2-3 years, the tourism sector in Kerala had been having a lot of problems, but we were able to bounce back. Today, the whole world is talking about how Kerala has withstood Covid-19 and how its healthcare system has worked. That itself is a tool of marketing. We are very optimistic,” said George Abraham, ex-officio member of the executive committee at Kerala Travel Mart (KTM), a tourism trade fair.
Shibulal, whose company opened a five-star hotel in Thiruvananthapuram last year, echoed the same spirit. “Kerala has done an enormous job of branding itself. The campaigns internationally have been extremely strong and it’s very much a long-term game. That vision of how the state is being branded from a tourism perspective makes enormous difference to how it’s positioned in the traveller’s mind. People have very well connected to it and Kerala has made itself a desirable location for life.”
“Kerala will remain resilient in the face of many things. And when people look at travelling to India, Kerala will be one of the places on their mind not only because of the brand, but also because of the safety record.”
That signs of such tourist interest despite the prevailing situation are already visible is heartening to many in the sector who have been worried about future prospects. On Facebook the other day, Menon got a message from a British tourist who heard about the state’s track-record against Covid and now looks forward to visit when lockdown restrictions are lifted.
“That’s a good sign. We have to spread the word that our state is a safe space,” she said.
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