“This Christmas season has been the most uneventful phase since I began living here in 2011,” says Russian national Anna Birch during a regular evening stroll by the sidewalks of a beach in Kovalam, a coastal town located nearly 20 km from Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.
Citing restrictions that were in place in the three popular beaches — Lighthouse Beach (popular among international tourists), Hawah Beach (popular among domestic tourists) and Samudra Beach — since March due to the coronavirus-induced lockdown, Birch says “life has been taken off the coasts” over the past nine months. “It is very different these days with hardly any tourist visiting this place.”
Even though the pristine beaches in the area were reopened to visitors in phases from November 1, tourism and related activities are yet to see any noticeable uptick, locals point out.
“Kovalam has been famous for the presence of foreigners which in turn used to generate local crowds as well. Unlike usual seasons, we have hardly had any new overseas visitors other than those who were stranded here during the lockdown,” explains Sathish Kumar, an employee who handles guests at Sunset Hotel on Lighthouse Beach.
Indianexpress.com met two such foreign nationals, one from France and another from Poland, who shared contrasting experiences on the condition of anonymity. A 65-year-old retired professor, originally hailing from Paris, seemed more relaxed. “My initial plan was to stay here for only three weeks when the pandemic rewrote the script of my life, like many. Now that I have lived here for nine months, I hope to get a shot of the (covid) vaccine before leaving for my hometown. Nonetheless, I will return with another visa to enjoy my retired life to the fullest. I feel this is where I belong,” he says.
But the 29-year-old woman from Poland had bitter experiences to share. “I lost both my parents to the (corona) virus in a week’s time in June. All my efforts to see them off for one last time went in vain as I could not catch a flight then. Now I see no point in going back anytime soon but to survive here with my extended visa for some more time, at least to avoid risking my life to the pandemic,” she sobs.
Kovalam transformed from a sleepy fishing village to the a global tourist destination in the 1970s when it became a part of the so-called hippie trail. Over the years, it has become one of the busiest tourist towns in Kerala with a strong pull for Russian and other European travellers who spend their cold winters here.
With tourists still a rarity, those running Ayurveda centres, homestays, hotels, restaurants and other small-scale businesses catering to this inflow every year don’t see any glimmer of hope yet. “I have had no customer since the beginning of this month when I resumed my daily hours here. The season is set with the tides being mellow but the beach continues to be secluded which in turn leaves me and my wife with hardly anything to survive these days,” remarks James Appu, a 60-year-old who provides surfboards on hire.
At the same time, Syed Shabir Ahmad Qadri — a Kashmiri entrepreneur who runs a handicraft shop — says the absence of even domestic tourists has affected businesses hard. “There are around 250 shops here but hardly any visitors. With European countries going back to lockdown phases again, it might take up to three years for more foreign nationals to arrive here,” he says.
Qadri, also president of the Kovalam Kashmiri Residents’ Welfare Society, said he was disappointed that no assistance has been offered from the government so far. “I have been living here for the past 36 years. Even amid these testing times, none here has got a word of help from the authorities. The business has been seeing a steady fall since 2015, with Cycle Ockhi in 2017 and the pandemic now being the latest catalysts,” he adds.
Meanwhile, proprietors of hotels and other accommodation facilities in the area expressed their helplessness in getting customers even as the usual peak-season kicked in November. “We have been offering rooms at up to 40 per cent of the original fares. Even with room rates reduced to Rs 400 (non-AC) and Rs 1500 (air-conditioned) in place of Rs 1,000 and Rs 3,500 respectively, occupancy continues to be below 10 per cent,” says Kovalam Chandu, who operates three establishments adjacent to the beach.
He fears the entire local tourism sector is on the verge of a complete closure affecting hundreds of families. “We are still facing an uncertain future and are confused whether to take up maintenance works after the eight-month closure.”
This week, with Christmas and New Year approaching, the beaches have begun generating small crowds during weekends, something the stakeholders of tourism and related sectors in the area are keenly watching with hope. “We are seeing a slight surge in the number of visitors during weekends even though it is incomparable to the thousands we used to host daily pre-Covid,” says Robinson Selvendran, a lifeguard attached to the beach since 2007.
“With some tourists from Bengaluru, Tamil Nadu and some parts of North India beginning to spend a week or so here as part of the remote working option provided by their companies, we hope the development brings in at least some smiles to many like me who have almost lost livelihoods to the lockdown,” says Ravindran V, a fruit vendor at Hawah Beach.
Other worries for Kovalam
Meanwhile, locals believe the ongoing construction of the international multi-purpose seaport at Vizhinjam has caused frequent instances of sea erosion affecting the tranquility of beaches in the district including those at Kovalam. “Overseas tourists used to flock around Kovalam highlighting the opportunities to take sunbaths, swim, surf, get Ayurveda treatment, and such. The calmness of the beach is gradually being affected by the work on Vizhinjam harbour that began in full-swing a couple of years back. This had affected the inflow of foreign tourists pre-pandemic as well,” explains Sreekumar, General Secretary, Kerala Tourism Protection and Development Council (KTPDC).
“Like the governments in countries like Sri Lanka and Dubai, governments should take proactive measures to announce attractive offers for foreign tourists,” he says, calling for new projects at locations which are already popular.
Adv R Vinayakan Nair, president of the Kovalam Homestay Association says the authorities should also work on the basic facilities in the area. “Repairing roads that lead to beaches, ensuring streetlights work daily, setting up a proper waste management facility, and training locals to produce high-quality products using domestic items are some of the basic issues that the government needs to take up if they are serious about tourism development,” he adds.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines