Thiruvananthapuram: Upon assuming power in Kerala in 2016, the LDF Government had proclaimed its aim to add four lakh more employment opportunities in the tourism sector besides doubling Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTAs) and increasing domestic tourist arrivals by 50 per cent over the next five years. Three years down the lane, chances of getting anywhere close to the rather ambitious target appears bleak.
A quick glance at the State’s performance in 2018 looks not bad. Kerala Tourism has recorded 0.42 per cent growth in terms of FTAs while the number of domestic tourist arrivals soared by 6.35 per cent. In 2018, the number of FTAs stood at 10,96,407 as against 10,91,870 in 2017. The number of domestic tourists stood at 1,56,04,661 in 2018 while it was 1,46,73,520 in 2017.
It was sheer apathy and awful lack of imagination which unseated Kovalam, the Jewel in the Crown of Kerala Tourism which once caught the fancy of tourists with its sheer charm as a tropical laid-back beach destination, from the world tourism map. It’s time to carefully evaluate what went wrong and can be done to regain its lost glory. Executive Editor Athul Lal A G discusses the challenges and possibilities with all stakeholders. Let us hope the roaring waves of mirth and revelry start lashing this coast once again
For Kerala’s tourism industry, 2018 has been a challenging year with the devastating floods in August, the Nipah virus outbreak in North Kerala and the law and order issues caused by the Supreme Court’s verdict endorsing entry of women of all ages to Sabarimala. Despite these adverse factors, Kerala Tourism has managed to tide over the crisis, thanks to the relentless efforts taken by the Department of Tourism under the leadership of Minister Kadakampally Surendran.
However, a detailed examination of the Department of Tourism’s statistics would raise several other pertinent questions. Stats show a massive decline in FTAs in Thiruvananthapuram, which was, surprisingly, not hit by any of these issues directly. In 2018, only 3,42,761 FTAs were recorded in the district, which is almost 18.53 per cent less than that of 2017. Now, let us dive deep into the analytics. As per destination-wise data, State’s most premier destination, Kovalam, has lost 19.86 per cent of foreign guests. FTAs in 2018 were 1,42,914 while the figure was 1,77,940 in 2017. Varkala recorded a dip in FTAs by 22.49 per cent; Poovar by 7.78 per cent; Ponmudi by 24.6 per cent and other destinations altogether in the capital recorded almost 7 per cent decline in arrivals.
Curiously, none of the other 43 destinations, except Aranmula (1492/1549), Nilambur (291/298), Kodikuthimala (208/223) and Kakkayam (8/13), which are comparatively lesser-known attractions of the State, showed a decline. More importantly, key destinations like Kumarakom, Fort Kochi, Alappuzha and Wayanad registered double-digit growth. Munnar saw 24,293 FTAs, which is 1.21 per cent higher than the figure in 2017. Given the havoc created by floods in these places, it appears that the decline in the figures is considerably negligible.
Apparently, the dip in FTAs could also be a result of an intense media campaign for ‘Rebuilding Kerala’, which helped spread an impression that the entire State was in ruins after the floods, as well as poor destination management, an issue which successive decision-makers at the helm of Kerala Tourism have failed to address.
“To a great extent it is true that certain campaigns like ‘Help Kerala’ and ‘Rebuild Kerala’ eventually had an impact on Kerala Tourism,” according to Jose Dominic, veteran tourism entrepreneur. “Major airports, both in India and abroad, witnessed campaigns urging to support Kerala. Those who loved God’s Own Country came forward to support Kerala. However, they preferred not to travel for holiday to a place that badly needed their support to survive. This backfired on the State’s efforts to revive the tourism sector, which was already paralysed by a flawed liquor policy that literally drove the MICE tourism business away from the State,” he said.
The State Government’s ‘Rebuild Kerala’ campaign has indeed put the stakeholders of Kerala Tourism on a sticky wicket especially during its international campaigns. Members of the Kerala delegation at the World Travel Market (WTM) 2018, which was Kerala Tourism's first overseas outreach after the floods, had really struggled to instill confidence among their travel trade partners. “Your Government is requesting help from across the globe. In this situation, how can we include such a place in our itinerary? This was the standard response from a majority of travel agents,” a senior travel and tour entrepreneur told Destination Kerala, preferring anonymity.
At ITB Berlin, the largest travel trade event in the world, I visited the pavilions of leading travel agencies in Europe to find out how Kerala’s destinations were being represented in their itineraries. To my surprise, I found that Kovalam did not figure at all in their tour plans. Almost all South India tours originate from Chennai or Goa. Thekkady, Alappuzha and Fort Kochi are the only destinations in Kerala included in those itineraries.
Studiosus Reisen is the European market leader in the cultural tours segment. It conducts only two trips to South India. While Thekkady, Marari and Kochi figure in both itineraries, Kovalam is conspicuous by its absence. Marco Polo is a specialist famous for inexpensive adventure and discovery trips in Europe and worldwide. It offers only one travel package to South India touching Kerala’s backwaters and Kochi. Neither Kovalam nor Varkala figure in the itinerary. Berge & Meer is Germany’s leading direct travel provider for over 40 years. It offers more than 1500 trips to more than 120 countries, including more than a dozen trips to India, especially South India. However, none of them has Kovalam and Varkala in their itineraries though even Guruvayur and Kozhikode are listed in one of the travel programmes.
With its pristine shallow beach and low tidal waves, Kovalam was one among the most popular beach destinations in South India during the early 1970s till mid-1990s. In fact, it is Kovalam which has given Kerala a place on the global tourism map. However, new tourism products like backwaters and houseboats and new destinations such as Munnar and Fort Kochi have emerged over the years in a big way, snatching the limelight from Kovalam. Neither the government nor the trade could envisage and implement a comprehensive plan for Kovalam which could ensure sustained business. Tourism business boomed in Kovalam when it received a substantial number of tourists arriving on charter flights from the UK, Russia and the Scandinavian countries.
“It was a destination where tourists would stay for a minimum of 14 days which would even go up to 21 days,” recollects Joy Peter, who was with UVI Holidays, when the company brought the first charter, Inspiration East, to Kovalam in the early 1990s. The charters were mainly brought by foreign tour operators like Manos Holidays, JMC (John Mason Cook), Check-it-Out, First Choice and Jewel in the Crown.
However, lack of adequate infrastructure facilities coupled with intense competition from other countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia, where better quality facilities were available at competitive tariffs, resulted in the decline of charters. Further, the panic over the possible damage to the beach as a result of the Vizhinjam International Container Transshipment Terminal project proved the final nail in the coffin.
“Once you find yourself out of a global travel itinerary, it is really difficult to make a re-entry,” said Sadiq Farooq, CEO, Coco Tours, a Kochi-based DMC. He was the General Manager of Thomas Cook when JMC brought its charter to Kovalam. “The hoteliers at Kovalam were only looking to get maximum revenue from charter tourists. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the vision of how to sustain the business in the long term. Had they been more supportive by offering attractive tariffs, perhaps, charters to Kovalam would have a different story to tell,” Sadiq added.
“Even though charters are synonymous with mass tourism, bringing back some charter flights to Thiruvananthapuram will definitely offer an immediate short-term solution for the revival of a destination like Kovalam, which has been sidelined with the development of new products in Central Kerala,” opined Dileep Kumar, General Manager, Raviz Hotels and Resorts. “It would definitely be a great boost to the small-time investors who have made resorts and homestays in the Kovalam-Poovar stretch. Tourism trade bodies should take the initiatives for this.”
At the same time, as Kovalam increasingly got branded as a charter tourism destination, FITs (Free Independent Travellers) tended to skip the destination. Now, the majority of the foreign tourists arriving at Kovalam are coming for Ayurveda and Yoga. “For foreign tourists, Kovalam is no more a leisure holiday beach destination. Those who come here are the ones who want to experience various Ayurveda products” said R Sisupalan, MD, Sagara Beach Resort at Kovalam.
Beach-friendly Liquor Policy
It has been a long-pending demand of the trade to sanction separate beer license to hoteliers in beach destinations or allow those with a liquor license to serve beer on the beach side.
“A beach-loving tourist from Russia or the UK or Germany, who comes for a holiday in Kovalam would love three things – clean beach, the warmth of the sun and a glass of beer or wine at the beach before food. For them, all other experiential packages come second. They are coming here to escape from extreme cold weather conditions and to enjoy sunny days. That’s why we have always made an appeal to the authorities to adopt a beach-friendly excise policy. We should allow foreign tourists to enjoy a glass of beer or wine on the beach. If not, our neighbouring destinations which are happy to do that will easily attract our guests. Consequently, our beach destinations will vanish from the global tourism map. The plight of Kovalam is no different. It was one of the finest beaches of the sub-continent but as years passed, we have been witnessing a degradation of the destination. Now, with the mushrooming of concrete buildings, there is hardly any beach. Lack of proper waste management is another issue,” Jose Dominic argued.
Meanwhile, South Kerala Hoteliers Forum (SKHF) alleged official apathy for the sorry state of affairs at Kovalam. “The authorities are not paying attention to market the destination effectively. Kovalam is not given emphasis during Kerala Tourism’s national and international roadshows like the other tourism products. Our repeated representations urging necessary intervention from the officials have fallen on deaf ears. In the meantime, Sri Lanka has emerged as a beach destination. Due to these factors, Kovalam as a tourist destination is on the decline,” said Manoj Babu, Secretary, SKHF.
It appears that the only solution to address the dwindling number of tourists arriving in Kerala’s capital is to develop the city as a stand-alone destination with Kovalam as the marquee product along with Varkala, Ponmudi, Padmanabhaswamy Temple and Jatayupara, and the backwaters at Ashtamudi in Kollam.
Supporting this view, Rani George IAS, Secretary, Department of Tourism, told Destination Kerala that destinations in Thiruvananthapuram especially Kovalam and Varkala would be given extra impetus in the coming months.
“To achieve the State Government's target of two million foreign tourist arrivals by 2021, we have to ensure that all destinations are marketed properly. While other destinations came up, Kovalam and Varkala lagged behind due to many reasons. We have chalked out various projects to improve the infrastructure facilities at Kovalam, Veli, Aakkulam and Varkala. These include setting up of comfort stations, information kiosks and proper walkways. All of them have been accorded administrative sanction by the government and will be implemented soon. Upon completion of all these projects, tourism destinations in the capital city will be better equipped to handle more volume of tourists,” she said.
The Department of Tourism is also setting up a digital museum at Kanakakkunnu Palace. “It will showcase the history, culture and tradition of Travancore (modern-day central and south Kerala) as well as other parts of the State. Visitors will get to witness motion pictures and 360-degree videos on the culture of Travancore at the museum, to be built at a cost of Rs. 8.94 crore. Alongside the project, the Palace will also be restored,” she said.
The Secretary, however, brushed aside allegations that destinations like Kovalam and Varkala are not given due importance in Kerala Tourism’s marketing campaigns.
“It is not true. In all my presentations during road shows outside the State and abroad, I begin my speech referring to Kovalam. I understand the concerns raised by the trade. The fact is that Munnar, Alappuzha and Fort Kochi have emerged as a golden circuit for the State. With Marari also coming up, tourists increasingly prefer to enter and exit the State via Kochi, which they feel is more convenient also. But it’s high time we developed Thiruvananthapuram as a standalone destination and let’s together promote it aggressively,” she summed up on a resolute note.