Two consecutive floods leave Kerala tourism in dire straits

The estimated loss to the tourism sector came to almost ₹ 1,500 crore in the months following the disaster. Photo: istock

Popularly known as the ‘Venice of the East’ for its lakes, lagoons and serene backwaters, Alappuzha which witnesses a surge of tourists during the monsoon months of June and August and October and November, has borne the brunt of the recent rains that lashed Kerala, causing floods and landslides in several parts.

According to latest data available with the state tourism department, 1.57 crore tourists (10.9 lakh foreign and 1.46 crore domestic) visited the state in 2017, helping the state generate a revenue of ₹33383.68 crore. The number of footfalls in 2017 had shown a steady rise from 1.42 crore (10.38 lakh foreign and 1.3 crore domestic tourists) in 2016 and 1.34 crore (9.77 lakh foreign and 1.24 crore domestic tourists) in 2015. Alapuzzha alone registered a footfall of 75,037 foreign and 4,33, 456 domestic tourists in 2017.

Back to square one

Houseboat cruises and homestay for tourists, mostly at Kumarakam, Kuttanad, Marari beach, Vembanad Lake, Pathiramanal, have been the major source of income for many in Alappuzha. Tourism department sources say 25 per cent of the tourists arrive during the monsoon seasons. But, guides, owners of houseboats, and homestay owners, hotels and drivers say there has been a decrease in footfalls after the torrential rains this month even though the tourism sector was showing signs of revival after the August 2018 floods.

“Earlier the monsoon season was when we used to make profit. But we are losing out on customers because of two consecutive floods,” says Bijo Jose, a restaurant and homestay owner at Mankombu, in Alappuzha.

“During the peak tourist season (between August and September; and December and January) my homestay is usually packed with visitors. But last year the entire area was flooded in August and we hardly had any guests. The roads here, damaged in last year’s floods were yet to be re-laid, when it started raining again. This time when it rained, the Alappuzha-Changanassery road was blocked for almost two weeks. How will we get tourists if such problems recur every year?” says Bijo.

The state faced a complete shutdown of tourist places after the August deluge in 2018. The estimated loss to the tourism sector including damages and cancellation of bookings, came to almost ₹ 1,500 crore in the months following the disaster, stated a press release from the state tourism department. But soon after the floods, tourist footfalls had witnessed an impressive growth rate of 14.81 per cent in the second quarter of the year, the release said. An increase in 6,39, 271 tourists was seen between April and June this year. Sources in the Kerala Tourism department say the negative trend in influx of foreign tourists in the aftermath of last year’s floods was broken when the state received 1,83,320 visitors from abroad in the second quarter of FY18-19. This shows a growth rate of 8.74 per cent as compared to the same period the previous year.

Major events rescheduled

Even though the growth rate had given many hopes make up for last year’s losses this year, the rains didn’t allow them to realise their goals.

Take the famous Nehru Trophy Boat Race for instance. Conducted in the Punnamda Lake of Alappuzha on the second Saturday of August every year, it is an event that attracts a massive number of both foreign and domestic tourists. However, this year the boat race that was slated to be held on August 10 was rescheduled for August 31 due to the flood situation.

“Since the boat races were rescheduled, many of us lost almost 10 to 20 days of booking from August 7. Now Onam season (which attracts tourists from different parts of the country) is the only hope we have to salvage the losses. That too, pre-bookings for Onam are very less so far. We are hoping to see more numbers by the end of this month,” says Radhakrishnan, an official of the All Kerala Houseboat Owner’s Association.

Not just the heavy rains, but also the landslides that occurred in the northern districts of Wayanad and Malappuram have affected the inflow of people into the backwaters of Alleppey. “During Bakrid, the Muslim community from north Kerala comprised a large section of tourists visiting Alappuzha. But this year, we literally had zero bookings from that side,” says Radhakrishnan.

Another major problem during rains are road blockades that either strands tourists in unknown places or keeps them from reaching the desired destination.

“Our businesses, affected by the 2018 deluge, had picked up pace only by last November. But the tourist inflow slumped this month due to the rains. Just one month of water logging could cause a loss of around ₹3 lakh for the owner of a three-room house boat,” says K Vijayan, a houseboat owner at Kuttanad and the secretary of All Kerala Houseboat Owner’s Association. A three-bedroom houseboat costs around ₹ 20,000 for 24 hours.

Vijayan says, most of the tourists who visit Alappuzha, also have Munnar and Thekkady in their travel itinerary. “But, this month, several roads to Munnar were blocked due to heavy rains, making it difficult or impossible for tourists to reach the hill station. Bookings of many houseboats in Alappuzha were cancelled this season when tourists who were stranded in Munnar couldn’t reach Alappuzha. But the problem is, irrespective of the rise or fall in tourist footfall, we still have to pay our staff,” Vijayan adds.

Social media scare

People dependent on the tourism industry say, even though they are trying to get back on their feet, rumours on social media are spreading scare among tourists and discouraging them from visiting the state.

“Kuttanad was completely flooded last year. But this time the intensity was less. But due to scare spread by social media and the media on the Kerala floods, many clients cancelled their bookings for the entire month. Some 15 groups so far have cancelled their bookings with us, after getting alerts on rain. A lot of people and businesses are dependent on tourism in Kuttanad. They are affected by such rumours and false news. Besides that, the government hasn’t done much for us since last year’s deluge to save the tourism sector,” says Raju, a homestay owner from Mararikulam in Alappuzha.

To handle the situation, the tourism department in Kerala has unveiled special packages for the upcoming Onam season, when tourists flood the state to take part in local festivities. Elaborate feasts, folk songs and energetic games are a part of the festive season. Events like Vallam Kali (boat races), Thiruvathirakali (dance), Pulikali (tiger dance), Pookalam (flower arrangement), Kummattikkali(mask dance) and Onathallu are organised in different parts of the state by the tourism department during the harvest festival. The department is slated to organise Athapookalam (flower arrangement) and Thiruvathirakali competitions in many parts of the state this year.

Last year, the state had cancelled Onam celebrations due to the August deluge. The department of tourism also said that they have been circulating promo videos to attract tourists. The Responsible Tourism Mission has announced Onam tourist packages like a spread of Sadya (traditional Kerala meal) and a trip to the backwaters of Alappuzha among others from September 1 to September 30 in and around the state.

Sajiv KR, state public information officer for Kerala Tourism said, “Promotions are underway for the boat race and Onam celebrations. This year we have not faced many issues like we faced last year. But loses are loses and we will recover from it.”