As COVID turns devil, God’s Own Country strives to keep tourism afloat

With earnings plunging, operators in Munnar, other destinations come up with workations and deep discount offers to draw tourists

The misty hills of Munnar are ready for workations after a long break caused by the pandemic and the lockdown.

The misty hills of Munnar are ready for workations after a long break caused by the pandemic and the lockdown. Tourism entrepreneurs in Kerala’s most sought-after destination are trying to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

“We have been inviting people engaged in work from home (WFH) for the past two years. People must be tired of the monotony of WFH. They can do their work staying in Munnar, enjoying the serene beauty of the hills. Work and vacation — together we call it ‘workation’,” said George VV, a former president of the Munnar Hotel and Restaurant Association.

According to George, 50% of the hotels and restaurants had closed down during the lockdown, among which many are unlikely to restart. The tourism sector directly employed 17,000-20,000 people in Munnar.

Massive job cuts

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“Fifty per cent of the employees were asked to go. The number of workers in the allied sectors would be double that, and most of them have lost their livelihoods completely. For example, those who sell spices, antique products and clothes targeting tourists have shut down their shops and thousands of workers have become jobless,” said Vinod Vattekkatt, Vice-President of Showcase Munnar, a collective of entrepreneurs and employees for promoting responsible tourism in the region.

“We provide workation packages for ₹1,000-1,500 a day with accommodation, food and WiFi,” said  George.

Despite the fact that people are likely to find the packages attractive, entrepreneurs in the tourism sector are worried about the future, as Kerala is among the worst hit states in the second wave of COVID.

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“Foreign tourists and domestic tourists from other states are highly reluctant to come. In the beginning of the pandemic, Kerala’s COVID management strategy was appreciated globally, but now we have lost that profile,” rued George.

Star hotel discounts

Hotels and home stays in Munnar are offering 50% discounts. The premium hotels that used to charge ₹8,000-12,000 a day are now offering ₹3,000-5,000. According to Vattekkatt, such packages offered by star hotels are worsening the crisis faced by smaller hotels and home stays.

“When premium hotels lower their charges, the budget hotels and small home stays do not stand a chance. What we need is a concrete support package from the government,” he observed.

In a recent statement, Kerala Tourism Minister A Mohemmad Riyas said the state has suffered a loss of ₹33,000 crore in the tourism sector in the past two years, including a foreign exchange loss of ₹7,000 crore. The loss in foreign exchange earnings and total earnings is about 73% compared to the previous years.

This is a huge setback for Kerala, which is a major destination point on the world tourism map, compared to the steady growth that it has achieved in the previous years.

After the flood

The state’s tourism sector rebounded strongly in 2019 after the 2018 floods. In fact, 2019 witnessed the highest growth rate in domestic and foreign tourist arrivals in 24 years. The year saw 8.52% growth in foreign tourist arrivals and 17.81% growth in domestic tourist arrivals that year, over 2018. (Source: Economic Review 2020-21).

Though the major tourist locations in Kerala were hard hit by the flood in 2018, the tourism sector witnessed a revival in the year that followed. According to entrepreneurs in the hotel, restaurant and houseboat industry, they had to make significant investments for reconstruction and repair after the flood fury, for which most of them went for additional bank loans.

“But we were confident that the tourism sector will have a fresh start,” said George, adding, “2019 was a good time. Even the last leg of 2020 was not bad as we saw a surge of ‘revenge tourism’, mostly from people within the state. Even those from neighbouring states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka preferred to visit Munnar to shrug off the ennui of a year-long lockdown.”

Munnar was slowly coming back to its past glory by the end of the first wave of COVID, but a major chunk of the tourists were people from South India. “There were tourists from the North, too, though not very big in number. But foreign tourists have become almost zero,” George told The Federal.

The tour operators and other entrepreneurs are deeply worried about the second wave. “Now, we are the worst hit and it is quite uncertain when it is going to end,” said one.

Houseboats in deep waters

Houseboat stays in the serene back waters have for long been a major tourist attraction in Kerala. However, the houseboat industry is in deep waters ever since the beginning of the pandemic.

Alappuzha, the centre of houseboat tourism in India, had 1,300 vessels in service. TG Reghu, who has been in industry since 2009, told The Federal that he has not witnessed such a devastating time ever since he started his venture.

Houseboats require maintenance and repairs from time to time. Most of their owners are in deep financial trouble and are not able to carry these out. The boats could drown if maintenance is slack, cautioned Reghu.

“In the last two years, 15-20 houseboats have gone under water. Many people have fallen into the debt trap. However, we have no option but to wait for the end of this crisis situation,” he said.

The pandemic is not the only reason for the crisis — escalating oil prices have also taken a heavy toll on the houseboat industry.

“I don’t know how many would survive even if the pandemic is over. Two-bed houseboats that were charging ₹12,000-15,000 a day now charge only ₹6,000-8,000. Most of the houseboat owners are offering services at 50% discounts. However, we cannot run the business if the oil price is escalating like this,” said Reghu.

The average expense for a medium size houseboat — including maintenance, labour and oil — is ₹4,000-5,000. The operators cannot pass on the increased oil costs to customers, pointed out Reghu.

Government schemes

The Kerala government has announced a handful of schemes to rejuvenate the tourism sector. It has rolled out special loan schemes such as ‘Tourism working capital support scheme’ and ‘Tourism employment support scheme’.

But the schemes are not very helpful, said industry insiders. “What we need is moratorium on loans. We should not be considered non-performing assets — that will help us to keep our CIBIL (Credit Information Bureau India Ltd) scores better. Besides, the government should provide relaxation in utility bills and taxes, too,” said one.

However, none of these demands have been addressed favourably so far. Instead, the government has given deadline extensions for bills and taxes and announced special vaccination drives in tourist locations. Such vaccination programmes were carried out at Kumarakam, in Kottayam, and Vaithiri in Wayanadu.

In 2019, Kerala had foreign exchange earnings of more than ₹10,000 crore and total earnings of about ₹45,000 crore.  On the contrary, in the last two years, it has suffered a loss of ₹33,000 crore. The trend may worsen if it is unable to flatten the infection rate in the near future.

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