Babu Verghese has a rather sheepish grin on his face as he pushes a smuggled September 1995 German edition of Playboy towards you. Strangely, it isn’t any of the luscious spreads that he is recommending for a bit of retina indulgence but a pager that the magazine has on Kerala. Managing director of Tourindia, a travel agency based in Thiruvananthapuram, Verghese is one of the principal tour operators taking groups of tourists through the backwaters of Kerala, and has for the past year served as a catalyst for a spate of Kerala tourism articles in publications as varied asVogue, Cosmopolitan, Brigitte, Stern, Bunte and The Sunday Times Travel . All of which he keeps laminated and xeroxed, ready for dissemination to a varied strata of visitors, journalists and prospective buyers of his tourism products.
The long and short of it is that Kerala is hot. It’s in. It’s happening. It’s got a range of tourism products that no other Indian state has. It has begun to cash in on its potential. And it has even got the numbers to prove it. Kerala’s share of the foreign tourists streaming into India is expected to cross 7 per cent this year—in numerical terms an impressive 1.25 lakh, up from 66,139 five years back. Success isn’t limited to the foreign tourist alone. Domestic tourists recorded a jump of 25 per cent in 1994 over the preceding year, notching up close to 12.8 lakh. Though all 1995 figures aren’t in yet, state tourism department officials foresee a similar growth rate.
Says Babu Paul, Kerala state tourism secretary: “We have everything except desert tourism. Every area of Kerala is fit for a picture frame.” Perhaps none more so than the almost 1,000 miles of inland waterways between the ports of Kollam and Kochi. Made up of a combination of lagoons, 40 rivers, big lakes and brackish water creeks, the backwaters of Kerala formed till the turn of the century the state’s principal means of cargo movement. Now they are a tourist’s paradise where you could potter about for a week or more seeping in the beauty.
Mark Ottaway describes a cruise along the backwaters thus in a piece for The Sunday Times Travel , London: “Just once, or maybe twice, every 10 years or so, if one is lucky and does it full time, one has a travel experience that is so stupendous, so much part of the human as well as the natural world, and yet devoid of any serious element of chance and thus so thoroughly recommendable, that you can wish for nothing more than that it could always be like this.”
If the backwaters form the cream of the state’s sales pitch, the beaches within act like magnets to ensnare the traveller. Come sunbathe on our sands at Kovalam, Verkala or Beckal, for a week or so, they say, and when the tan runs deep you can do the backwaters, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, watch elephant festivals, boat races, go to pay respects at Vasco da Gama’s grave at Kochi, visit the Kumarakom bird sanctuary near Kottayam, cool off at the hill station at Ponmudi, 61 km from Thiruvananthapuram, or even get a closer look at numerous classical dance forms at Thrissur, Kerala’s cultural capital.
And Kochi is so popular with foreign tourists that every south India tour necessarily stops there for two nights, the numbers going there rising from 51,996 in 1990 to 78,125 in 1994, despite it being the plague year. 1995 is expected to show another 25 per cent increase. Some of the reasons for Kochi’s popularity amongst tourists are the city’s Jewish quarter with its old synagogue, the 15th century Dutch fort, St Francis Church, and Wellington Island, all of which you can visit by boat. Besides this, of course, there are the old furniture shops in Mattancherry adjoining the synagogue which are quite a hit with foreigners.
For those to whom money is of secondary consideration, there’s the lure of staying at a beautiful property of the Casino group of hotels, the Coconut Lagoon. The hotel at Kumarakom, 90 minutes from Kochi, is the only Kerala hotel with a Heritage classification. Accessible only by boat, the 10-acre spread has 37 tharavaduunits, essentially reassembled, wooden, rural houses with typical Kerala architecture. The tariff is around Rs 3,000 per day. Says George Dominic, managing director of the Casino group: “The response this season has been unbelievable. We have been having back-to-back bookings since October.
A sizeable number of foreigners take the Indian experience first-hand on south India rail tours. A standard one being a 14-dayThiruvananthapuram-Kochi-Mangalore-Hasan-Mysore-Madras-Trichy-Madurai-Thiruvananthapuram trip, for which tickets can be bought in advance at the Indian Railways branch office in London. The state even forms the perfect vantage point for forays into temple country. A typical seven-day temple tour with foreigners is the Mysore-Madurai-Bangalore circuit costing $750 plus air fare from Thiruvananthapuram.
Tourists can also visit nearby exotic destinations at rock bottom prices—a four-day stay at Male costs Rs 18,000 per person including air fare. Male is just 45 minutes by air from Thiruvananthapuram and is sold as a premium destination in Europe. It is these short distance tours, weekend excursions and weekly trips from Kerala that give the state an edge over Goa where there’s hardly any countryside and no attractions apart from beaches. In fact, since last October, Kerala’s been getting direct charters from the UK. Four companies, Inspirations, Manos, Somak and Larsen, are flying in 400 charter tourists weekly into Thiruvananthapuram and before the season ends in May, it will have brought in more than 12,000 tourists. Says Lynn Carlyle, regional manager of Inspirations, a £356 million company owning 99 travel agencies in the UK: “We have been operating to Goa for some time. But people want new destinations. Kerala is relatively new and at the moment a great hit with our clients.”
The charter tourists themselves opt for different economic packages. While the cheapest package going is £299 for a seven-night stay in a dormitory, it goes up to over £700 if the tourist wants five-star comfort. In fact, a size-able 10 per cent of the charter tourists coming in opt for the dorm package. Says Manish Kumar, branch manager of Journeys, which handles agents for Inspirations: “The to and fro fare from UK on the charter comes out to be much cheaper than on your scheduled flights. And though they pay for a dorm, very few of them actually stay there, preferring instead to scout for rooms on their own.”
The economics of the charter operations might not work out at face value but it’s the bulk that makes it remunerative for them. And for the handling agents the piece of cake lies in the local excursions that tourists take within Kerala and south India. With 60 per cent of them falling in the 50-plus age bracket, they don’t come just for beach tourism in Kovalam. At any given point of time 30 per cent of the charter tourists are out on excursions.
Among its obvious tourist attractions, the state is also planning to sell health tourism in a major way in the form of Ayurveda resorts. Says Paul: “The Germans are showing a lot of interest in Ayurveda. We have a German government-sponsored project coming up in Thiruvananthapuram and another near Alapuzha.”
This apart from the numerous private resorts already existing in and around Kovalam, the more famous among them being Somatheeram Ayurvedic Beach Resort and Surya Samudra. Says Malcom Charles, manager at Somatheeram: “We had 1,200 guests last year, mostly Germans and Swiss.” The 10-acre resort has 31 rooms done up in traditional Kerala design with tariffs ranging from $35 to $140 per day during the peak season in December-January. The resort advertises 10 varieties of Ayurvedic treatments including Pizhichil, Navarakizhi and Abhayangam.
But modest success is bringing with it admissible qualms about the future, especially with respect to Kovalam, where there has hardly been any planned development so far. Says P. Vivek Anand, owner of Moonlight, a 10-room hotel near the beach at Kovalam: “In the mid-’70s foreigners visiting Kovalam brought their own bedding.” Now they don’t but infrastructure still is very slow in coming up, including amenities taken for granted like roads. It’s only this year that the government took up road tarring in a major way, that too during peak season time.
At the moment, though, especially with the kind of demands charter operations are putting on hotel infrastructure, rooms are hard to come by and tariffs are rising every season. Says Carlyle: “Kovalam till now has been a foreign individual destination. It’s seeing group tourism for the first time. And wherever mass tourism goes the locals somehow breed a false sense of security. Right now, because the place is still relatively underdeveloped it has a selling point.”
A contradiction in terms—develop infrastructure but don’t overdevelop since that puts off the tourist. They still like places where they can sweat and rough it out a bit. And, as of now, nobody can deny that they aren’t sweating it out in Kovalam because of regular four-hour power cuts during the day.
Adds Kumar: “The locals shouldn’t forget that charters are very fickle and driven by customer preference. Eighty per cent of the charter tourists coming here have been to Goa before. They heard of it mainly by word of mouth. They will stop coming if the stories get negative.”
The discordant noises right now are coming from the backpacker tourist who originally discovered and broadcasted the merits of Kovalam to the world but is now being forced out of the place by the yuppie because of rising costs. Says Kren Frost, 39, from Copenhagen, who first came to Kovalam 12 years back: “The only thing that’s not different from then is the ocean. It may sound weird but at that time I stayed in Kovalam at Rs 4 per week for two months. In another year I think backpackers will stop coming here. People are already becoming greedy. I have seen it happen in resorts in Greece and Turkey. People overdevelop on the beach because they think charters will last forever. But within five years nobody comes.” The signs are already there. UVI is putting up a 160-room, four-star hotel at Kovalam. East West is coming up with a 350-room, five-star accommodation by next year. But what is surprising is that within the first season of charter operations the place has a markup of 20 per cent over Goa. And in three years prices of 40 sq m of land in Kovalam, behind the beachfront, have risen from Rs 25,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh.
There’s need for the Keralites to innovate. Verghese is an excellent example. Since last November, he’s started bullock cart journeys from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi. Taking 10 days, the ride comes to $60 per person per day.
But what’s bothering restaurateurs and hoteliers alike is the government’s dithering on handing out beer licences in the area. A liquor licence costs a prohibitive Rs 7.5 lakh in the state. Says Roger Oscar Christian, owner of Hotel Rockholm at Kovalam: “We have a tourist season of just six months. None of the hoteliers can expect to recover the licence fees in that kind of timeframe. We would like the government to come out with a beerlicence concept.” But it’s not as if the lack of a liquor licence is proving any deterrent to the hundreds of restaurant owners on the beachfront. Liquor flows rampantly. A travel guide estimates consumption of Kingfisher’s beer to be in the region of 6,000 bottles per day at Kovalam. The official fine for finding a single bottle of beer on the premises: Rs 25,000.
At Hotel Rockholm there’s a Manos sticker on the counter for the benefit of tourists that says: “Falling coconuts are a hazard. Do not sleep, sunbathe, or sit directly under them.” Let’s hope none falls on the indefinable magic that makes it God’s Own Country.