PTI, February 14, 2010
THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: India's not-to-miss tourist experiences like a ride on the Palace on Wheels or stay at the Lake Palace are often beyond the means of most Indians, but the economic slowdown has brought at least one experience within the reach of the middle-class -- Kerala's houseboats.
For long patronised by rich foreign tourists, the backwater cruise industry in Kerala has woken up to the benefits of winning domestic tourists who virtually kept it afloat when the waves of the global economic slowdown hit the Indian shores in 2008-end.
An overnight cruise through the coconut lagoon - an experience that the National Geographic Traveler has ranked ahead of viewing the Taj Mahal - is now cheaper by at least 20 per cent, if not more, than the period preceding the slowdown.
"A single bedroom houseboat can be hired for as low as Rs 6,000 a day and the rates include all meals for a couple... there were days when the same ride would have cost Rs 10,000-15,000," says Kochumon alias Sanish, who captains 'Sandra', a well-appointed two bed-room houseboat that in its earlier avatar as 'kettuvallam' (rope-tied country boat) ferried rice and spices in the Kuttanad region, the state's rice bowl.
Compared to this, a ride on the Palace on Wheels costs anywhere around Rs 2,00,000 per person per week.
"We are seeing a lot of interest from tourists from the north, especially Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi and Haryana and rates are no longer prohibitive," said Anil James, a houseboat operator.
A typical backwater cruise takes tourists on a 40-km journey through the Vembanad lake, India's longest spread over 1,512 sq.km, with a stopover at night by idyllic fishing villages whose people and tourists alike shop from a floating market 'Triveni' operated by Kerala Consumerfed.
At one point after September 2008, business hit its nadir and stayed that way for about six months before domestic tourists started coming in, said Sanish, but Kerala Tourism officials feel the reason for poor business was not a fall in foreign tourist arrivals, but rather oversupply.
"We have 600 houseboats in Alappuzha and Kollam region and the slowdown in business was because of oversupply here," Kerala Tourism Director M Shivshankar said.
The Tourism Department has written to the Irrigation Department, which is the licensing authority for houseboats, asking them to cap the number of boats. The officials are looking at evenly spreading out the houseboat population so that the experience remains premium.
"We are creating new landing points between Ernakulam and Alappuzha and they would be ready by 2010-11 and ensure that crowding is avoided," Shivshankar said, adding that the state was also developing new backwater cruise circuits in Kayankulam and Ashtamudi, so that people from Thiruvananthapuram in the south need not travel all the way up to Alappuzha for backwater cruise.
He said there are 50 more houseboats in the making now, but the aim was to leverage the backwater asset optimally. Kerala's houseboats have been listed among the world's ten Enchanting Escapes by AsiaSpa, the spa and resort magazine.
There are all kinds of houseboats to choose from - one, two and three-bedroom - to suit different budgets. And then there are the motherships - houseboats with ten bedrooms, he said.