In normal times, Ayesha Manzil in the small north Kerala coastal town of Thalassery would have been preparing to welcome its guests from across the world, flocking to enjoy the sights and sounds (and, yes, tastes) of monsoon-drenched Kerala. The luxury colonial-era structure overlooking the Arabian Sea—which hosts 700 guests annually, having drawn tourists from the UK, US, Australia et al for years—wears a deserted look now. The last two months have brought a kind of wreath down on the industry. Tourism is one sector that the pandemic has hit the most, says T.P. Moosa, who runs Ayesha Manzil.
Business came to an abrupt halt in mid-March. “We were asked to send away our guests and our operators called to say all bookings were cancelled,” says Moosa, a homestay pioneer. So what’s the new normal? Moosa says he has decided to shift the focus to domestic tourists—he hopes to accomplish that by slashing his rates—from Rs 22,500 (per room for two)—by half. By ‘domestic’, he even means those from within Kerala. His celebrity guest-list, boasting of author William Dalrymple and chef Sanjeev Kapoor (a marker of the fame of the homestay’s own cuisine), adds an allure. It’s the only way to survive, with international travel not likely to pick up in the near future. “We have to keep the wheel moving,” says Moosa.
That sentiment spreads over the land. Philipkutty’s Farm, a homestay on a small island in Vechoor, 20 km from Kottayam in central Kerala, faces the same challenges. “Our clients are mostly from the UK, Australia, US. We had guests till March 15. After that, all bookings got cancelled. It’s a tough situation,” says Anu Mathew, the owner.
Kerala’s tourist-trap Kovalam paints another grim picture. With its luxury beachfront hotels casting an empty shadow, the resort town groans under the double whammy of zero tourists and lockdown restrictions on fishing. For Nabeel, a fisherman, the first half of the year has been the worst in his memory. Nabeel offers hotel guests and tourists visiting Hawa beach water tours on his speedboat—an hour for Rs 1,000. “There were strict restrictions and anyway we couldn’t sell our catch as we used to. So any fishing activity was for food only. A Rs 2,000 aid was announced but not all of us have received it,” he says.
The impact has been huge, acknowledges Rupesh Kumar, state coordinator, Responsible Tourism Mission, Kerala. The crisis saw the cancellation of over 4,000 village life experience (VLE) tours after the crisis. “This alone has cost the state and communities about Rs 50 lakh, while the total loss to the roughly 18,000 registered RT units has been around Rs 10 crore. That was the direct livelihood of local tour guides, artisans, artists, among others,” he says.
So what exactly is the roadmap out of this? Clever marketing of Kerala’s inherent strengths. ‘Heaven Does Not Shut Down’, goes one of the catchy hooks going around as the state navigates the thin streams available now, trying to embolden tourists to shed their excessive caution because, hey, this is Kerala after all! The lakhs of foreign footfalls will take time to trace their steps. But foreign tourists who got stuck in the state during the pandemic, who underwent treatment or spent time in quarantine, have famously gone back with publicly spoken words of approbation.
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Kerala, therefore, is actually seeking out an opportunity—a silver lining, if not a pot of gold—in those very details. Its finessed handling of Covid-19 attracted global attention. ‘Health’, therefore, is central to the new tourism hook, say management consultants Dr Maithily P.R. and Suresh Menon, who co-authored one of the first concept notes on reviving tourism with that catchy line about heaven not shutting down: “Kerala has its proven wellness offerings. We recommend that Kerala leverage this and remarket itself as a wellness destination—leisure and wellness combined. We are advocating preventive healing, where tourists go back with enhanced immunity—a wholesome package for mind, body and soul. We know people worldwide are looking for exactly this, and they are willing to travel for extended durations”, says Maithily.
They also suggest using houseboats as quarantine centres. “In the outside chance of people being infected even after the peak, they can opt to be quarantined in a nature resort or on houseboats. The treatment and their upkeep will be the same. The houseboats will need to be upgraded on the waste management front,” says Menon.
“Kerala can leverage the goodwill and mileage from its Covid-19 response,” affirms Rupesh Kumar. “Tourists will now prefer more secluded destinations and unique, personalised experiences. Kerala’s fight against Covid-19 is itself a great selling point.” Baby Mathew, president, Kerala Travel Mart Society, echoes that. “We are planning a virtual travel mart. Private tour operators and others have started a campaign focusing on wellness. Ayurveda is going to be a big draw once the industry opens up,” says Mathew, who is also chairman of Somatheeram Ayurveda group.
There’s cautious optimism. Even a revival of domestic tourism may take till September, say industry bodies. Within that, the gradation is local, then, regional, then all India. “The first step is regional tourism. The tourism industry is thinking that way. There are many beautiful places in Kerala that many haven’t explored yet,” says Mathew. The state government too is keen on shoring up local tourism. “People in Kerala are by and largely ignorant about their own state and its many unique attractions. To make up for reduced international and domestic tourism, we are rolling out a series of schemes,” says Rupesh Kumar.
The grim health situation in states like Maharashtra , Gujarat and Karnataka does not augur well for Kerala’s tourism prospects, says Paulose K. Mathew, chairman, Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI), who runs Kochi-based Coraz travels. “At present, we are planning to promote local tourism. Hotels are ready with promotional packages with discounts; social media campaigns are also being done. We have to instil confidence in tourists from other states and countries that Kerala is safe. Local tourism will help in that direction,” he says.
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Kerala has been through this before: having to reboot strategies after a collapse. Severely hit by the Nipah virus in 2017 and a devastating flood in 2018, Kerala’s tourism sector made an impressive comeback in 2019. According to statistics released in March, the state received 1.96 crore domestic and foreign travellers in 2019, and earned Rs 45 crore overall from the sector. “The state will promote itself as a survivor, enhancing its reputation on that front after Nipah and two successive floods,” says Rupesh.
In an interview to Outlook in January, tourism minister Kadakampally Surendran had said robust promotion had helped Kerala bounce back. “We designed a 12-point strategy for immediate recovery. In the first three quarters of 2019 (January-September), we registered an overall growth of 15.73 per cent (domestic, 16.48 per cent; international, 4.84 per cent),” he had said. The numbers there hold a clue to the present strategy too. But global arrivals too will pick up ultimately. Hope is not lost for Moosa and Anu Mathew, who have already received overseas inquiries/ bookings from October onwards. “It’s a positive sign. Hope everything comes back to normal soon,” says Mathew.