The tourist season is in full swing at Kovalam

It’s the height of the tourist season and the scene at Kovalam is picture postcard perfect. Bright and sunny skies and a dazzling cerulean blue sea. Waves lap gently against the distinctive blackish-grey sands of Hawa Beach (Eve’s beach) and the adjoining Lighthouse beach. It’s easy to be charmed by the natural beauty of this one-time fishing village. Despite the overwhelmingly touristy atmosphere nowadays, the beach manages to retain much of that old-world languidness. No wonder tourists from near and far have been flocking to Kovalam’s shores for decades now. This year too they seem to have come in droves, from across the country and across the seas, all of them with one aim – to soak in the sun and the sea.

On Hawa beach, it’s more or less a carnival atmosphere with visitors taking to the water as soon as they alight from their cars and coaches at the main parking lot. While a group of North Indian women, in their glitzy finery, tread the shallow water with much gaiety, an adventurous bunch of young Malayalis have ventured into deeper waters, screaming with excitement as the waves crest over them. The lifeguard whistles out a warning and signals them to come closer to shore.

Another set of boys are busy doing cartwheels on the water’s edge. Others are swimming, boogieboarding (a surface water sport in which the surfer rides a bodyboard on the wave), and even attempting to surf. Yet others have made their way to the far end of the beach, by the ‘edakkal’ – an outcrop of rocks that divides Hawa from Lighthouse beach, where there are speedboats waiting to take them for a ride.

Says Vincent, one of the crew of speedboat ‘Casanova’: “We usually take tourists on a 20-minute, three-km round trip across the promontory to Kovalam beach and Halycon castle and back across to Vizhinjam harbour, the lighthouse, and also ‘Aana para’ – a rock formation that is shaped like an elephant!” No wonder the queues are long. “Come for the ride. We promise, not even a drop of water will fall on you during the entire trip,” he pleads.

It’s well past lunch hour now and the beach has begun to fill up with more tourists. We amble along the paved promenade towards Lighthouse beach with its row of shacks that offer a variety of delectable food, mostly continental flavours and, surprisingly, authentic. Top marks for Beef stroganoff, Seafood penne pasta, Schnitzel and Turkey roast. Here the scene is much quieter with the sound of the waves, interspersed with muted conversation from the shacks and the clinking of cutlery as tourists enjoy their lunch. It’s an ideal place to watch the world go by. In fact, most of the foreign tourists, a majority of them Europeans (according to several sun bed and surf board vendors), are to be found here, enjoying some space in the sun. A family of Germans soak in the sun while reading, as their two children build sandcastles. Perhaps inspired by the kids, a bunch of men from Tibet too huddle down on the sand to build a sandcastle, even as a few others in the group indulge in a game of football on the beach.

“This is my fourth visit to India, my second to Kerala and my first to Kovalam. It’s been amazing so far. I really like it here,” says Laura Hardwick, a retired lab technician from England, who is looking tanned and happy. She is celebrating the New Year in Kovalam before heading to Goa for another fortnight. “The beach here is very clean,” she adds, and seems impressed when Kamala, an old fruit vendor, who has been listening in on the conversation tells her – in almost perfect English – that a crew of workers clean the beach early every morning.

Caroline and Ian Engle, meanwhile, are here with their teenage children, Fraiser, Missy and Kristian, and are no strangers to beaches given that they live in Cornwall, known for its quaint beach villages. “We came to Goa for our honeymoon and for our 20th anniversary we thought we would introduce our children to Kovalam. We were surprised to find the place as laidback as it was 20 years ago. Missy, my daughter, studies about Kerala in geography class and in social sciences class about the state’s high literacy and education rate. We’ve been enjoying our stay here!”

Waves of uncertainty

Tourists are plenty but the locals, be it fruit and juice vendors, those who work in the shacks or those who rent out sun beds and surf boards, all say that the tourist season this year has not been very good thus far. “There are not even half the number of foreigners there were there last year. This year there seem to be more Russians,” says Pradeep Mohan, who rents out sun beds for a living.

Appu James, who has been running his sun bed lending business for over two decades now, and Manu, a waiter in a shack on Lighthouse beach, add: “It’s only when the English come that we can make some money. They generally tend to open up their wallets a bit more to rent sun beds, surf boards and the like. To an extent, the Germans too are like that. The Russians, meanwhile, are big spenders on food.”

What has increased, though, is the number of domestic tourists. “The issue is that the domestic tourists tend to overcrowd the beaches and sometimes even ogle at or hassle the foreigners who may be sunbathing in their bikinis and shorts. Because of that many of our paying customers nowadays look for quieter beaches such as Azhimala or even Varkala. Earlier foreign tourists would stay at Kovalam and go on a day trip to Varkala. Now the reverse is happening because of the unruly crowds, which in turn affects our business,” says Appu.