The stairs are a long zigzag up through stone, ending at a watchtower built like a lighthouse and painted in swirls of blue and white. The tower—squat rather than tall—looks like a giant chessman perched on top of the rocks facing out to sea. From the rocks, constantly battered by the waves, the tower commands a view of southern Lighthouse beach, the most popular beach in Kovalam. With its clear blue shallow waters, fine sand, and greenery, the small beach is a major tourist attraction. Twenty kilometres from Kerala’s capital, Kovalam became an international tourist attraction by the Nineties for westerners seeking to escape the European winter.
Ananthan (name changed on request) descends from the second storey, dressed in just a pair of white shorts. His bronzed middle-aged body is lithe and hard, testament to more than 20 years as a lifeguard. Though the waters are shallow, treacherous undercurrents often pull unsuspecting swimmers out to sea. Ever year, Ananthan and his colleagues rescue well over a hundred swimmers from certain death.
Born into the fishing community around Kovalam, as a boy he was used to western tourists on the beach all the time. This was much before the Kerala tourism story started and the beach was hardly visited by outsiders. In the Seventies, the hippie movement started drawing Europeans.
“The beach was wider by more than half a kilometre, with coconut trees along the sea front. The tourists often slept under the trees with the duffel bags as pillows. They came here to see nature. Hardly anyone else came here those days. They enjoyed complete privacy and often roamed around without a stitch,” says Ananthan, who took visitors to sea on fishing boats.
There is complete indifference to what the tourist wants. There are so many hotels, but no public bathrooms on the beach, or a single tap. You can imagine their plight in emergencies.
It was an Englishman named Kim Heymes who started the lifeguard service. “He had a clothes shop here for foreigners. He saw many of his friends die and finally approached the Kerala government. In 1986, he persuaded them to hire 13 people for the lifeguard service and provided them with training in rescue and first aid.”
That beach front seems like a dream today. It’s lined by hundreds of hotels and resorts. From five-star facilities with private beach access, indoor pools and spas, to small inexpensive places: every kind of tourist has a place. Ayurveda massage and treatment centres have mushroomed, as have shops of every description and street vendors selling overpriced goods ranging from fruit to suntan lotion.
According to government figures, Kovalam saw 1.08 lakh foreign tourist arrivals and 2.62 lakh domestic arrivals in 2010. After Kochi, it has the highest foreign tourist numbers in the state, accounting for approximately 16.4 per cent of the total for the state.
Ananthan is not pleased with all the changes. He points to the row of sun chairs in which tourists lounge; each is hired out by the hour by enterprising salesmen for as much as ₹400.
“There is complete indifference to what the tourist wants. There are so many hotels, but no public bathrooms on the beach, or a single tap. You can imagine their plight in emergencies. Most foreigners don’t come here to see large hotels cluttering their view and to be hassled by people trying to sell things or book them on tours. They come here to see nature and enjoy the quiet in privacy. But the beaches are crowded and locals intrude on their privacy. Youngsters often ask me where they can watch the foreign women bathe.”
Kovalam has developed on the back of the tourist dollar. There are tarred roads, shops, small businesses and plenty of jobs, but a majority of the locals remain outside the charmed circle, especially the fishermen, who also have to struggle with a declining catch. Ananthan is a direct beneficiary of tourism but he makes less than ₹400 a day despite two decades of service. There’s no job security, pension or medical insurance, not even for injuries during rescue. And the roads do not reach his house.
Anyone who has the urge to travel and has looked at brochures and websites should be familiar with the term “God’s Own Country”. The conversion of the coconut coast into the Almighty’s special domain was conceived around the time Kim Heymes managed to persuade the state government to take an interest in saving tourists drowning off Kovalam. In the late Eighties the communist government realised the potential of international tourism and decided to try for a slice of this market as visitors to India generally did the northern circuit. Kerala was virtually unknown.
7.94 lakh foreign tourists arrived in Kerala in 2012, while domestic tourist arrival was 1.01 crore. Total revenues came to ₹21,125 crore.
It started by taking on the promotion and publicity itself, rather than leaving it to the central tourism ministry, says Babu Paul, then Kerala tourism secretary. “We contracted private ad agencies to tailor campaigns. Marketing agencies were hired to promote us at international tourism fairs. In a few years we became a fixture at all international tourism events.”
The big coup was the tagline “God’s Own Country” to symbolise the attraction of Kerala’s pristine forests, hills, rivers and coasts. Originally used by New Zealand tourism, the phrase was picked up by a copywriter in a private ad agency the state commissioned. “Though P. Srinivasan, tourism minister, was a communist and atheist, he did not object to the tagline,” says Paul.
He also credits the Srinivasan ministry for the long-term success of Kerala tourism. It took the key decisions that created the blueprint for tourism growth over the next two decades. Kerala, which did not have major private investments in any sector, aggressively pushed a public-private partnership model in the hospitality sector. The Taj group of hotels was the first big player to come to Kerala. By the Nineties, others followed.
“The idea was that if we gave Taj a stake in tourism, they would have a long-term interest in promoting and developing Kerala tourism,” says Paul. The government also opened up less explored parts of Kerala to visitors. By the mid-1990s, backwater tourism, forest and hill tourism, and ayurveda centres together had overtaken beach tourism as the major revenue-earner and changed the face of Kerala tourism.
Kerala truly arrived internationally when it was featured by National Geographic Traveller in the list of 50 places of a lifetime. International celebrities who came vacationing included ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and Irish actor Sean Connery. In a state with few successful industries, traditionally run on non-resident remittances from the Gulf along with a nascent IT sector, tourism is the one big success story.
It is seen as a rare mixture of imagination, entrepreneurship and innovation; and of successful government facilitation of private business. Perhaps most importantly, the government and the media have portrayed the industry as an engine for job generation.
The figures are impressive. According to the Kerala tourism department, 7.94 lakh foreign tourists arrived in Kerala in 2012, while domestic tourist arrival was 1.01 crore. Total revenues came to `21,125 crore. This is an increase of 8.32 per cent in foreign and 7.05 per cent in domestic arrivals from the previous year. Revenues increased by an impressive 9.88 per cent.
But industry insiders tell a different story. Tour operators, resort owners, houseboat operators and independent observers speak unanimously of a falling market, infrastructure woes, declining revenues, and a drastic lowering of the quality of the product. All have doubts about the reliability of government data; most believe it is inflated. The last two to three years have witnessed a downturn and many feel the sector is in a crisis of its own making.
“Business is down; occupancy is down,” says Sudeesh Kumar, owner of Sea Face hotel in Kovalam, which fronts the Lighthouse beach. He is also president of the Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association. Kumar is seated in the dining room, which opens on to a terrace pool and bathing area. Half a dozen guests, all westerners, are lounging in deck chairs with umbrellas shielding them from the sun. Coconut trees stick their heads through pavilions, providing more ornamentation than shade. An elderly guest walks by, waving to Kumar with a lighted cigarette in his hand, nonchalantly ignoring the “No Smoking” sign. Kumar orders coffee and leans back as he talks.
With increasing competition and low occupancy, hotels are forced to cut tariffs. Rooms are available for as little as ₹300 in smaller hotels, while air-conditioned rooms can be had for just ₹750.
“Business has gone down steadily since 2011. Even in season, less than two-thirds of my rooms are occupied. I have 20 rooms and off-season occupancy is just 50 per cent. I’m dependent on returning clientele that have stayed loyal for years. The government says business and tourist inflow is going up. We’ve seen a slump for three years.”
Sea Face is among the few medium-sized resorts that returns even marginal profits, says Kumar. Part of the reason is its location; resorts inside do much less business. Kumar’s business is also sustained by a loyal clientele. A few have been coming since he started in the early Nineties; many have been coming for more than 10 years.
“These people are Indophiles,” he says. “They keep coming because they have developed a love for India. But in the last few years, we haven’t expanded our guest base. The business is largely kept afloat by domestic tourists. Kovalam has far more domestic tourists than foreigners. The number of north Indians has increased, but domestic tourists stay for just a couple of days, spend far less, and until recently came only during festivals or school breaks. The start of chartered flights has brought an increase in foreign guests but they are usually budget tourists. Kovalam had a large number of independent, high-budget travellers. Now they are rare.”
Kumar doesn’t accept the tourism department figures. He says an exaggerated case for development created hype in the market and led to over-investment. He says there are some 35,000 rooms in the three beaches of Kovalam and around 8,000 in the stretch from Kovalam to Thiruvalla and Poovar, 16 kilometres away. This is an eight-fold increase in capacity since 1995.
With increasing competition and low occupancy, hotels are forced to cut tariffs, often substantially. Rooms are available for as little as ₹300 in smaller hotels, while air-conditioned rooms can be had for just ₹750. Even five-star chains face low occupancy and room prices are negotiable well below official rates. While a few turn a profit, most are pumping in money. With the state’s educated youth moving on to IT-related jobs, labour is short and wages high. Tariffs have not risen over the past three years, but labour, electricity and food costs have all shot up. New entrants have been particularly badly hit, as construction costs are among the highest in the country.
All this means that the nature of hospitality has changed.
Kumar explains: “The profiles of new entrants are different from the older hoteliers, who built up a business over the years. Many are speculators; they construct resorts and hotels aiming to sell for a higher profit in a couple of years. A lot of NRIs put in money thinking there is good profit to be made. But change overtakes all, and people find it difficult to get a viable return on investment. Most owners sub-contract it to others, who then find it difficult to cover costs.”
In a strange way, the state’s inconsistent liquor policy has contributed to these changes. For years, only three-star hotels got liquor licences and now new licences have been restricted to five-star hotels. “Everyone serves alcohol anyway because they have to. Guests—especially foreigners—expect it as a matter of course. But owners are afraid to run the risk. So they sublet the running to others for yearly payment. The newcomer who doesn’t understand the market expects easy returns, but is forced to cut corners or overcharge in other areas to pay his obligations. Because he doesn’t have any long-term investment in tourism development, he doesn’t mind that trade-off.”
One woman went to a restaurant to eat and the waiter tried to book her on a cruise to Alappuzha. If she wanted to go to Alappuzha, she would have booked a hotel there. The incident annoyed her.
Competition from foreign destinations has also contributed to the slump, says Aheendra Babu, who joins us at the dining room some time later. He owns a resort a short distance from the beach. “Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are relatively cheaper. Our costs are high because of higher cost of property, construction and overheads. Foreign guests often ask me why they should come here when they can have more fun and spend less in Philippines or Thailand. The end of the war in Sri Lanka has been particularly bad for Kovalam. Sri Lanka offers the same product, the same kind of beach, and cultural tourism, for less.”
Babu says 40 per cent of his rooms are empty even in season, which too has shrunk. Foreign arrivals peaked between the beginning of November and the end of March, sometimes going into April. This time it started after Christmas and by early February it was slowing down. He doesn’t expect it to last beyond March. Though the growth in domestic tourism has helped him carry on, the numbers are dropping there too. The rise in airfares has cut traffic in that sector, he says. But he hopes things will turn around next year. “We all survive on that hope. Something turns around, usually.”
In a market where tour operators, hotels, and middle-men all poach on each other’s clientele, the first casualty is quality, says Kumar. “Expectations are often not met. Recently, I saw a woman wearing a T-shirt saying ‘I don’t want change, I don’t want pineapples’. This is often their experience in Kerala. Two months back, we paid money and with resident participation hired a JCB (earthmover) and hauled off garbage on the way from Thiruvananthapuram airport. Guests often complain about the rubbish heaps, their first sight on landing here. In an Internet-dominated market space, word-of-mouth recommendations are crucial and bad impressions can go viral.”
Vineesh, a waiter at Kumar’s resort since 2003, says that while salaries have gone up, tips have come down. He has known some of the regulars for 10 years and says that when they talk about their experiences in Kovalam, it is not always complimentary. “One woman told me how she went to a restaurant to eat and the waiter, while serving, tried to book her on a cruise to Alappuzha (also known as Alleppey). If she wanted to go to Alappuzha, she would have booked a hotel there. The incident annoyed her. Most of all, guests complain about the voyeurism. They say they feel strange being stared at constantly, and ask if they are not human beings.”
Kumar says he plans to run the resort for just two more years. He will then lend it to someone and get out. He is worried about the future of his staff, some of whom have been with him for 19 years, but he doesn’t see a better option. “The bubble has burst. In Kovalam, the industry is running on hype. It is a classic case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Industry scepticism over government claims of growth is borne out by several indicators, including the vague definition of tourist.
The state tourism department’s annual statistics show a steady increase in inflow and revenue, starting from 1997. From 2002, there was a boom with foreign arrivals increasing at 11.37, 26.68, 17.28, 0.28, 23.70, 20.37, 16.11, -6.96 18.31 and 11.8 per cent respectively. The only drop was in 2009 during the global financial crisis.
In 2013, the government launched projects worth ( ₹290 crore) $15.9 million according to a report by the India Brand Equity Fund, a central trust established by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Earlier government investments for developing infrastructure included a grant of ₹225 crore by the central government for inland waterways. The state gives subsidies of 10 per cent, up to a maximum of ₹10 lakh, to approved projects like motels, restaurants, amusement parks, ayurveda centres and houseboats. They are also given a power subsidy for the first five years of operation. In 2010, 109 hotels and resorts were receiving power subsidies.
Industry scepticism over government claims of growth is borne out by several indicators, including the vague definition of tourist. The department, which relies on occupancy data provided by hotels, says its figures do not represent the number of persons who come to Kerala, but the number of tourist arrivals. A domestic tourist is defined as “a person who travels within the country to a place other than his usual place of residence and stays at hotels or other accommodation establishments run on commercial basis or in dharamshalas/sarais/musafirkhanas/agrashalas/choultries, etc. for a duration of not less than 24 hours or one night”.
The definition does not exclude people travelling within the state for personal or professional reasons. The annual reports do not mention whether a tourist who stays at several places in the state or at more than one hotel in the same city would be counted as multiple arrivals. Domestic tourist arrival, rising for the last few years, was recorded at 1.01 crore in 2012. According to a tourism department report published in 2010, 71.03 per cent of domestic tourists originated in Kerala. It is an unusually high figure for a state where internal tourism is only moderate.
T. T. Sreekumar, professor at Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad, has studied the tourism industry in Kerala. In 2002, he published a paper that questioned the revenue and job generation claimed by the government. Sreekumar rubbishes the government’s statistics.
“These statistics are absolutely not backed up by any data. They do not make the methodology public but claim they follow the guidelines of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO). The fact is that WTO guidelines only estimate tourist arrivals in countries. Nowhere else in the world does any government try to measure tourists arriving in a state. The claims of revenue generation are also cooked up. How are they arriving at these figures? South Asia has a relatively low share of the world’s tourism market, according to WTO figures. How is it possible for Kerala to generate revenue from tourism, which forms such a big part of the state’s gross domestic product? If these statistics are to have any credibility, Kerala tourism should make the methodology and the data public.”
Abhilash, research officer in charge of statistics in the Kerala tourism department, says that the department collects data exclusively from hotels and resorts. “In the case of foreigners, the hotel owners submit the number and country of origin online. We also get the numbers from them manually, to cross-check. But it is true that we do not have any mechanism yet to weed out foreign guests who stay in more than one place,” he says. The data on number of guests in a hotel is collected on a monthly basis by the taluk statistics officer, who visits hotels and restaurants under his jurisdiction.
“Yes, the largest share of our domestic tourists is from Kerala. The taluk officer collects the number of both domestic and foreign guests staying at each hotel. The data for the whole state is collated and that is how we arrive at the figures,” Abhilash says.
He did not offer any criteria by which non-tourists staying in hotels in the state could be distinguished from genuine tourists. Abhilash also says that the figures of revenue generation are projected figures rather than real ones. “We do not have a scientific method for calculating revenue. We have done surveys that estimate the average spending of a foreign or domestic tourist. Using this average and the figures for number of tourist arrivals, we calculate annual revenue,” he says. When queried, Abhilash replied that the data collected from the hotels do not include the number of days that a guest stays there.
Kerala tourism secretary Suman Billa could not be reached. Director of tourism Hari Kishore was unavailable for comment. Information officer Nanda Kumar denied that there were any major problems with the state’s tourism industry. “Hotel owners give a subjective and emotional account. It is not based on data or statistics. They will say that business has gone down or numbers have gone down. But our statistics show the real situation. While some tourists might be counted several times, that will be at best 10 per cent more. And while we are facing stiff competition from Sri Lanka, it is not having a very big impact,” he says. He was however, unable to explain how in a state with limited intra-state tourism, over 70 per cent (2010 figures) of domestic tourists could originate within the state. “Some hotels in Kovalam might be faring poorly. That is because they are comparing themselves to how they were doing 10 or 15 years back. Now competition has gone up. But overall revenue and growth is happening. Many hotels are doing exceptionally well. Hotel Udaya Samudra for example, has full booking now, even though the off-season has started,”
Former Kerala tourism secretary Venu V.—now joint secretary, culture, to the government of India—is a close observer of trends in Kerala tourism. “I cannot comment on the data. But I agree that tourism is in very bad shape. Whether beach tourism or houseboat tourism, there is oversupply. A lot of newcomers have jumped on to the bandwagon. Many will go out of business and the market will correct itself.”
In the second half of the 18th century, Raja Kesavadas, dewan of Travancore, commissioned a network of canals in Alappuzha town which lies on the bank of Vembanad Lake, changing the town’s destiny. The canals were a quick and effective means of transport that allowed merchants from north Kerala to reach Alappuzha port. They became the arteries of a flourishing maritime trade with western India. Large coir-matting mills and coconut mills sprang up.
Post-Independence, as the road infrastructure started to develop, canals lost their usefulness and Alappuzha began to decline into a sleepy backwater. Early efforts at industrialisation never gained momentum and the occasional locked-down factories stand as signposts of failed development.
The kevu vallams have morphed into gigantic multi-bedroom, air-conditioned vessels that accommodate up to 20 guests today. Alappuzha too has been transformed, with shops, hotels and resorts mushrooming.
The canals, though, have come to life again. In 1996, a local businessman started the first houseboat in Karunagappally, the place where the great reformist Sree Narayana Guru had come for his education. The man bought several barges, called kevu vallam in Malayalam, which were lying unused, on the cheap, and started charging foreign tourists for cruises. This was the start of houseboat tourism in Vembanad Lake and Alappuzha soon followed suit.
The kevu vallams of two decades ago have morphed into gigantic multi-bedroom, air-conditioned vessels that accommodate up to 20 guests today. Alappuzha too has been transformed, with shops, hotels and resorts mushrooming to harvest the great tourist inflow. The streets are filled with westerners who don’t get a moment’s peace from men offering boat rides, hotel rooms, or sightseeing tours. Large resorts and
hotels line the main roads, often with signboards referring to backwater tourism. Small eateries offer everything from Kerala food to north Indian and Chinese fare. Near the jetty, an enterprising man has started an espresso bar, which serves coffee in “Barista” cups.
There are 900 to 1,000 licensed houseboats plying from Alappuzha, according to the All Kerala Houseboat Owners Society, for a day’s cruise as well as overnight stay. Then there are smaller boats called shikaras for day cruises, and some motorboats. Depending on whom one talks to, the figure for unlicensed boats goes up, sometimes up to 500.
According to the latest government figures (2010), there were 41,977 foreign arrivals, of whom 11,402 chose houseboats to stay in. The claim for domestic arrivals is 1,83,416, of whom 27,762 stayed in houseboats. An industry of suppliers, eateries and amenity providers has grown around houseboat tourism, based in the town as well as the quillwork of small islands that is rural Alappuzha.
Sreekumar, president of the All Kerala House Boat Owners Society, is also the head of the Department of Physics at S. D. College in Alappuzha. He’s one of the success stories of houseboat tourism. He is dressed simply in a starched white shirt and dark pants. In his early forties, there is an indefinable air of affluence about him, accentuated by a confident smile. Sreekumar owns several houseboats, having purchased his first 12 years ago. But for the last two years, Alappuzha has been experiencing a slump, he says.
“Four hundred new houseboats entered the market in the last two years. This was a result of the media hype over how lucrative the trade in Alappuzha is. There were only 600 boats in 2011. So everyone is struggling because tourist inflow has not increased significantly. Many operators now cut their rates to get customers,” he says. The cost of a new boat is now ₹25 lakh to ₹40 lakh and maintenance and staff salaries require a substantial outlay every year, Sreekumar says. He says houseboat operators like him who built a returning clientele over the years do make a profit. “But the margin has really gone down. A single bedroom boat might make ₹3 lakh a year and a double bedroom one around ₹5 lakh,” he says.
It would take at least seven years to recover the initial costs and new entrants who have not had time to build a clientele are in a bad way. In many cases, the bank loans that financed them have become non-performing assets, says Sreekumar.
He attributes the fall in tourist inflow directly to the Indian economy’s performance. With the rise in prices but not incomes, people spend less on travel. He says almost 80 per cent of his guests are Indians. Over the years, north Indians have been steady visitors to the backwaters and tourism from neighbouring Tamil Nadu too has increased steadily.
Malayalis working in the metropolises of Chennai and Bangalore too choose to vacation in houseboats, bringing friends along with them. Sree Kumar says that before the slump began, he was planning to expand and had even made initial investments. He has now abandoned them. “The tourism industry can do well only if the economy is doing well. If there is a fall in any sector at all, its impact will directly be felt in tourism.” Sreekumar says that if things don’t improve, the houseboat sector might collapse.
Sex tourism is a major part of houseboat tourism. With the privacy offered by the lake at night, the boats are perfect for prostitution. It’s hard for the police to keep track and the authorities are disinclined to interfere.
Most operators own a single boat, with either a single or double bedroom. Muthumani, a younger man than Sreekumar, started by buying a double-bedroom boat in 2011. Though he had studied the market carefully, within six months, it started to slide. Increased competition and no tie-ups with large resorts mean small boat owners are increasingly dependent on agents for business, he says. The agents take a hefty cut, minimising profit. Muthumani is just managing to stay afloat.
He says most houseboat owners now don’t operate the boats themselves, but lend them to a third party. In many cases, this is the crew operating the boat. They take `10 lakh to `15 lakh for a year upfront, and many newcomers are struggling to meet costs.
“Many people have invested and lost money heavily. Once the season ends, I’m going to hire out this boat. I have already arranged it,” he says.
ex tourism is a major part of houseboat tourism in Alappuzha and Kumarakom. With the privacy offered by the lake at night, the boats are perfect for prostitution. It’s hard for the police to keep track and the authorities are disinclined to interfere. Sex tourism grew with the boom but has become almost synonymous with the boats, says Muthumani.
“Most boat operators I know tell me they do it regularly. I would say around 80 per cent of the houseboats are into sex tourism, even the big groups and five-star resorts. Sometimes a guest brings a sex worker, usually from outside Kerala. In such cases, operators can’t do anything. Often they ask for local girls and the crew have to find them. It’s difficult to refuse because guests could go to someone else.”
While sex tourism has always been tolerated because it increases business, now it is crucial for operators struggling to recover costs. Santosh (name changed on request) is a 38-year-old sex worker employed by the Kerala State AIDS Control Society (KSACS). I meet him at the Alappuzha jetty, where the stench of sewage accompanies the flotsam of rotten fruit, plastic bags, and other assorted garbage. Santosh is from a village in Alleppey district and a sex worker since the Nineties, when he came to Alappuzha town. He says his customers are mostly Malayalis. Lots of customers are from Malappuram in the north, though people come from Kottayam, Kollam, and as far south as the state capital, he says. Domestic tourists from other states too, often seek male sex workers. Santosh says male sex workers are inexpensive and popular with budget tourists. They’re sought by customers who want oral sex, which many female sex workers refuse, he says.
With the expansion of backwater tourism, sex workers of both sexes have burgeoned. Santosh has done well enough to act as a procurer. His day job is to identify sex workers and spread awareness of safe sex. He gets them to attend awareness sessions at the KSACS office and to screen for sexually
transmitted diseases. There are hundreds of male sex workers in Alappuzha. Most chose it due to a combination of economic and sexual needs, he says. They usually work other jobs as well, just like Santosh.
“I often go aboard houseboats, especially if there is a group of tourists. Otherwise I meet guests at hotels. The sex workers here are mostly in their twenties but there are also students. Most are plus-two students but there are high school students also.” Santosh says some tourists, including foreigners, ask for young boys.
unil member, as he is known, is a member of the Kainakary panchayat. Tall and thin, he wears the uniform of the political class in Kerala: white shirt and mundu with shirtsleeves rolled up. Leaning back in a chair in the panchayat office, Sunil Padhmanaban talks about how backwater tourism has affected people in the area.
“Many people have benefited. Fishermen and agricultural labourers have now shifted to houseboats. People supply fish, vegetables and other goods to them. Some women live by doing laundry for the houseboats when they dock,” he says. But the benefits of tourism are limited to a small minority. Otherwise, agriculture is difficult, the fish catch is decreasing, and there has been little development work. There is no basic infrastructure. There is a great drinking water shortage. We have only two borewells in the panchayat for water. We need roads, bridges and water,” he says.
Sunil introduces A. D. Antony, a middle-aged man who has come to the office on business. Short and stocky, he’s bald on top, with a thick band of hair around the back of the head. Antony lives in a different block, where domestic households supplying power to houseboats have, he says, become almost a cottage industry. With air-conditioned bedrooms, it is wasteful for houseboats to use diesel to generate fuel. They started to buy power from households where they docked for the night. It is cheaper than generating power from diesel. When the state electricity board got wind of what was happening, it regularised the practice.
Four years ago, when his boss who owns a houseboat was looking for a domestic power supplier, Antony seized the opportunity. He applied for a licence to sell power to boats. He paid a security deposit of ₹45,000 and invested ₹1.5 lakh on power cables. Even with electricity bills of ₹75,000 a year, he says he recovered his investment in two years. He’s been making a tidy income for the last two years. Antony has got used to the constant presence of foreign nationals, and men and women from states he has never visited, when the houseboats dock for the night, sipping power through cables that snake through his yard into the lake.
“The tourists don’t interact much with locals. The foreigners are always polite and well-behaved,” he says. Indian tourists, more numerous now, are more boisterous and this has sometimes led to friction with the locals. There have been times when a tourist got drunk and misbehaved. The locals “had to handle” them a few times, Antony says.
aduthuruthi can be reached only by boat. Half an hour from Alappuzha jetty will take you towards the greenish waters of the estuary where the Pamba, flowing from the south, falls into Vembanad Lake. Naduthuruthi is a marvel of modern backwater tourism. The area that comprises Naduthuruthi and Kannikakayal is a tiny lake island of about 160 acres. Canoes are the primary means of getting about. There is no fixed fare, but the boatman will take whatever change you hand out. In the narrow perimeter of five to ten yards that separate houses from the water, there are dozens of shops selling snacks and beverages, fish stalls, ayurveda massage centres, and restaurants. A path that is just five to 10 feet wide circles the whole island, separating shops, houses and temple from the lake. Coconut trees line the path, which often runs along rice fields of greenish brown. On the lake there is a steady procession of houseboats, shikaras and the occasional motorboat.
The mornings and afternoons are particularly busy. Walk along the water and every 10 minutes you come across a houseboat that has docked to buy something. There are long black boats built of wood, called kettuvallams, more than 20 metres long. But most are shortened versions of the traditional kettuvallam: two-bedroom affairs that retain the large seating and dining area on the prow. The end of prow curls up and there is a thatched roof over a wooden hull, covering the bedrooms. Many guests sit outside, some enjoying a drink, while others step ashore, attracted by the shops or the need to stretch their legs. Young couples take turns to snap each other in romantic poses, standing in front of the boats.
Away from the shops and restaurants, women wash clothes in the lake and people catch fish with homemade rods. A woman rows a small round boat as a small boy spreads out their fishing net.
Subash S. owns the biggest general store in the area. He also runs a souvenir shop in the compound. Big freezers storing fish on ice are stacked in a row against the wall. Subash wears a green T-shirt and white mundu and bustles about with a businesslike air. Several houseboats are docked in front of his store. No moment is lost when a tourist can be cajoled into buying fish, souvenirs or snacks. A tall blonde woman in black evinces interest in a wooden elephant, but the price of `400 puts her off. A few attempts later, Subash gives up and strolls towards me.
“Where do you get this stuff?” I ask.
“The souvenirs? I buy them from Kochi. There is a place in Thrippunithura that makes these things. It has come up entirely because of tourism,” he says. He points to a strip of magnet placeholders dangling in front of the shop, with pictures of Kathakali dancers, elephants, and Kerala scenery. “These come from Bombay. Imagine that. People in Bombay manufacture things we can sell to tourists as things of Kerala.”
Subash tells me tourism in this area started to pick up in 2003. “There are 104 families here, and 17 or 18 do work related to houseboat tourism. I started the shop in a small way in 2007. Our main profits come from fish. Karimeen (pearl spot fish) is popular, but prawns are the most sold. The demand is high. So I have to go and buy at rates that compete with that offered by the resorts. Everything we sell has to be transported here, so the costs go up. Also I have to pay commissions to the crews to bring the tourist to my shop.”
Subash reckons that he makes a profit of ₹30,000 per month. Like most people in these parts, he has worked a variety of jobs before. He used to be a real estate broker, a farmer, and a fisherman at various times in his life. After he went into business, his life got stability for the first time. During the interview, he runs back to the store several times as tourists embark. A north Indian, accompanied by the houseboat’s chef, inspects the crabs and prawns. As Subash weighs the fish, the man tells the chef, “Cook it well!” A tall, bespectacled westerner in a broad hat, with a striking resemblance to Mr Bean, pokes around with his camera, snapping photographs of the fish on display with no apparent interest in consuming them.
“The high point for tourism was from 2003 to 2010. But for the last three years, the numbers have been falling. Every year, there are fewer tourists.” Subash recently invested in the renovation of the shop: the money came from selling land. He hopes to recover the investment in a few years. But he is not too confident as to whether tourism will ever be as good as it was in the boom period. “The foreigners say there are many other countries they prefer to Kerala. They say it’s too expensive here, that Sri Lanka, Philippines and Thailand are better. And there are fewer restrictions on alcohol and sex.”
What will happen if the numbers continue to slip?
He laughs. “If it keeps going down, I will have to go back to catching fish. I have no problems with that.”
Not too far from Subash’s shop, a man who shares his first name runs an ayurveda massage centre. A darkish, slender man, Subash Maniyan is dressed in T-shirt and jeans. His bedroom doubles as a visitor’s room in the mornings. He draws up a chair next to a massive old wooden cot that occupies almost half the room. Subash says he started out in a petrol pump in Alappuzha town. He saw that massage centres were popular destination with foreign tourists and paid `40,000 and for a massage course given by a private ayurveda college. He was taught by ayurveda doctors and got a certificate on passing the course.
“I decided I would go home and open a massage centre there. After I finished the course, I worked six to seven months in a centre in the town to gain experience.” Subash started his business in 2004 and had the advantage of being the first one in the area. He says he recovered his investment in two years. Now he has several competitors, including one that started just two weeks earlier.
Subash still lives in a two-room kutcha house which abuts the massage centre. He has reinvested the money he has earned to expand the centre. Now it has four rooms. Apart from Subash and his wife, the centre has two female staff. Younger than Subash, they went to the same college in Alappuzha for training as masseuses. The girls split time between working their fields and giving massages. Subash charges ₹1,000 per session during off-season and up to ₹2,000 in season. As he speaks, a new houseboat draws up, disgorging a guest who wants a massage. With the customer, all the rooms are filled up. As Subash rushes off to make arrangements, he says, “It is in the next few years that I will see the fruits of my investment.”
Some distance away, Susheela holds up her wrinkled hand to show a blue handkerchief tied around it. She looks much older than her 57 years. Thin, almost emaciated, she is draped in a red and yellow sari. Leaning over the counter of her small shop, she keeps fiddling with a key as she speaks. “I got this cut from a sickle. I went for coolie work for a week at a nearby field. I haven’t done coolie work since my twenties and my children advised me against it, but I didn’t listen.” Susheela first says she went for coolie work because she felt she needed the exercise. Later she admits financial worries were the real reason. Susheela started the business six months ago by converting the veranda of her house into a shop. She keeps only snacks and soft drinks. There’s no point in keeping food items because there are days when she doesn’t have a single customer. The locals don’t buy such stuff and she hasn’t got regular houseboats as clients.
Susheela’s is a family dependent on tourism for a living. Her son was an agricultural labourer, but has been working as a driver on a houseboat for 15 years. He also takes leave in the prawn season to work as a fisherman. Her husband could not continue farm work after he fell ill five years back. Fortunately, he managed to find work on a houseboat. But unlike her son, who returns home every day, her husband lives in Alappuzha town and comes home only once a month.
It was Susheela’s idea to start the shop. “I was doing nothing and it seemed like a good idea. I thought we would be able to make some money.” But she soon found that competition was severe and it was not easy to attract houseboats. Her son docks the houseboat he works on near her shop when he can. But if the guests want lunch, it has to dock at a nearby restaurant.
Susheela says she took a loan of `89,500 with interest to start the business. Now she has had to take loans to pay the instalments. Her power bills crossed `2,000 last month because of the refrigerator. Right now, the shop pays for none of this. “If only we could afford to start a fish shop, or a restaurant. Then we will be able to get houseboats to come. But that will require at least `3 lakh,” she says.
Meanwhile, she will continue to borrow to meet her debts. “I keep wondering whether the whole thing wasn’t a big mistake. I hesitate to shut it down because I think people give us money seeing this shop. If we close this down, they may not give us anything,” she says.
he narrative of tourism as development has also led to unchecked pollution and ecological damage, environmentalists claim. Locals in Alappuzha say numerous resorts have encroached land on Vembanad Lake, which has a fragile ecosystem, in violation of the Coastal Zone Regulation (CZR) Act. A local news channel recently reported that a major resort in Bekel in Kasaragod district encroached on the river. In Kochi, the Lulu group has been accused of building a convention centre in violation of CZR regulations. While a tribunal ordered a halt to construction, the Kerala High Court set aside the order. The case is pending before the High Court.
In the Vembanad Lake circuit, locals complain that houseboats release human waste into the lake rather than taking it to a treatment plant. Boat owners interviewed for this story denied it was a widespread practice. Sudeesh Kumar, the owner of Sea Face Hotel, says few hotels in Kovalam possess a proper sewage treatment system.
“We have our own, but most of the hotels and resorts here do not. Many are small outfits with a few cramped rooms and bathrooms. It is essential that the government build a large sewage treatment plant in Kovalam. Suppose a cholera outbreak happens. It would be disastrous. The news would go viral and we would be destroyed as a tourist destination.”
While Vembanad Lake—being the repository of four rivers bringing in urban waste—has been subject to increasing pollution over the decades, the local community blames houseboat tourism for the change in water quality. Subash S., the shopkeeper in Naduthuruthi, says: “Two decades back, the water was so clean that we used to drink it. Now we just use it for washing clothes. Even so, people sometimes get skin rashes and eye diseases. If you bathe in the water, your eyes go red. The widespread use of pesticide in Kuttanadu for farming is a major reason. But houseboat tourism is also a reason. Most just dump the waste into the water. Also, Indian tourists keep throwing plastic bags and garbage into the lake.”
Sunil member agrees with him. “Tourism has a long-term negative impact on the environment. Except for karimeen, most fish catch is declining. Fishermen say the noise of the boats drive the fish away,” he says.
Sreekumar of the All Kerala Houseboat Owners Society, however, argues that tourism benefits fishing. “While it may be true that fish catch is decreasing, tourism has increased the price of fish. It’s a better deal for fishermen.”
Nandini Menon, a marine biologist at Nansen Environmental Research Centre, India, conducted a field study on the impact of backwater tourism on water quality in Vembanad Lake.
She says: “The main reason for the pollution of the lake is bad agricultural practices in Kuttanadu. The aim of our study was to measure the impact of tourism on water quality. The findings showed a definite decrease in water quality due to pollution caused by houseboats. All houseboats dump waste and sewage into the water. We visited the treatment plant and found that it was not in working condition. While the official number of licensed boats is less than 1,000, our figure is near 1,500.” Menon said she could not divulge the pollution values, since the research is still to be published.
Nandakumar, information officer of the Kerala tourism department, admits that overcrowding of the backwaters has become a problem. He says :“While there might have been waste dumping before, now it has gone down. All the stakeholders are aware of the problems. Houseboat operators do not want to spoil the lake as it will affect the backwaters, and ultimately their livelihood. We are trying to increase awareness among them. People living by the shores also dump food waste into the canal and there is little we can do to control it. As for Kovalam beach, we have two waste incinerators there. The department has been promoting responsible tourism in Kumarakom and Wayanad.
In Kumarakom it has been very successful and has won the United Nations World Tourism Organisation award. There, all materials including food and hardware are procured from the local community. It is a reciprocal relationship and the locals also help in taking care of the waste problem.”
. C. Chandrahasan, managing director of Kerala Travels, a travel agency based in Thiruvananthapuram, brought Paul McCartney to Kerala in 2002. Chandrahasan had the unenviable job of keeping McCartney’s visit away from the media eye and ensuring that he enjoyed his vacation in privacy. When leaving, McCartney left a handwritten note stating “It is truly God’s own country”.
A lot has changed since then, Chandrahasan sighs. “I am fond of using a metaphor when talking about Kerala tourism. I always say the reason why we wear so much white is because there is so much colour in our nature. Just like the Rajasthanis are so colourful in their costumes, but they are surrounded by desert.
“The point is that what Kerala has to offer the tourist is experiential. We do not have historical monuments or sites that can form a permanent attraction to outsiders. What we have is the experience of pristine nature. If environmental pollution, ecological damage and overloading of carrying capacity continue, tourism will no longer be viable. Tourism and development should not erode our natural wealth. In the long run we need to develop a model of sustainable tourism,” he says.