Blame it on accidents on Vembanad Lake or airfares, the houseboats in Alappuzha are getting its lowest turnout of customers in a decade.

Jomon Konnakappally, president, Kerala Houseboat Owners’ Association, says the tourist vessels have been recording only 10 per cent occupancy in the past five months, a slide from the 50 per cent during the corresponding period last year.

“Domestic airfares have increased. A tourist will have to shell out Rs. 8,000 to Rs. 9,000 for a flight ticket to Kerala. This is holding many back,” he says.

N. Sreekumar, general secretary, All Kerala Houseboat Owners’ Association, says the high domestic flight charges, coupled with the economic slowdown, have affected the industry.

“This has forced big companies not to sponsor employee trips. Even from Mumbai to Kochi, one has to shell out Rs 4,000 to Rs. 6,000 one way for a ticket,” he says.

Agents and middlemen fleece tourists who come for cruises. “These middlemen charge a heavy amount from the customers and give only a portion of it to the houseboat owners. In one case, a customer from Malaysia was charged Rs. 60,000 for a ride by the agent, while the owner got only Rs. 20,000,” Mr. Konnakappally says.

Mr. Sreekumar says he has put forward a proposal to the District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) a year and half ago to erect boards warning against falling into the hands of these agents.

“A check-post can be set up near the Tourism Department building, where customers can register at the prepaid counter for houseboat rides. Only customers, owners and staff of the houseboats should be allowed within the check-post. Closed-circuit television cameras can be set up inside the check-post to make the whole process transparent. But these suggestions have not been implemented,” he says.

The authorities have for the past couple of days taken some measures to free customers from the clutches of agents. A board was erected near the DTPC office requesting customers to use a prepaid counter. Twenty-eight bookings were done at the prepaid counter till Sunday afternoon, eliminating the role of agents.

K.R. Shyam Sunder, special rapporteur, National Human Rights Commission, and former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, who visited Alappuzha on Sunday, told The Hindu that he had sought a report from the Ports Department on the houseboat tragedy on January 26 in which four persons were killed. He visited the Punnamada finishing point where the tragedy occurred.

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