It is a Sunday. The mood is upbeat at Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) depot at Palakkad. Five 35-seater KSRTC buses are ready to leave for the hilly terrain of Nelliyampathy, 70 km away. The journey starts at 7 am, with stop-overs at picturesque locations such as Varayadumala, Seetharkundu viewpoint, Pothupara tea estate, Kesavanpara viewpoint and Pothundy dam. Ticket charge per head is ₹600, including food.
This is one among the budget tourism trips — over 20 of them — rolled out by the Corporation, which take passengers through with breathtakingly beautiful valleys, hills, forest cover, waterfalls and tea estates in a KSRTC bus or aanavandi, as it is colloquially called because of its emblem with two elephants. One bonus of the trip is getting glimpses of monkeys, Indian bison, elephants, deer...
The Corporation, which has been otherwise in the news for all the wrong reasons on account of its deep financial crisis, launched a Budget Tourism Cell this October. “We had to come up with alternate avenues to increase the revenue. That was when Biju Prabhakar, managing director of KSRTC, mooted the idea. The response has surpassed our expectations,” says Jacob Sam Lopez, Zonal Traffic Officer (South Zone), KSRTC, and chief traffic manager, Budget Tourism Cell, KSRTC.
It started with trips to Malakkappara, the picture-postcard town on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in Thrissur district. Destinations such as Munnar, Vagamon, Kumbalangi and Arippa were added later.
Welcome to Malakkappara
There are trips to Malakkappara from KSRTC depots at Palakkad, Malappuram, Haripad, Thiruvalla, Alappuzha, Pala, Irinjalakuda and Kottayam, on Sundays, second Saturdays and public holidays, besides occasional services from Kodungallur depot. Most of them are 51-seater fast passenger buses. “Even though there is a demand for services from all depots to Malakkappara, there is a restriction on the number of buses that can be allowed because it is an ecologically sensitive zone. The Forest Department has been extremely supportive of our initiative and so we limit it to 16 or 18 buses on a particular day,” says Jacob Sam.
The first tourist trip to Malakkappara was flagged off from Chalakudy on September 26. There are four trips daily from the bus depot to Malakkapara, which are mainly used by employees of Kerala State Electricity Board, the Forest and Police departments and tribals in the area. On weekends, the buses are crowded with tourists from the State. That eventually led to the launch of the tour package.
The 90-km trip takes at least five hours as the buses halt at scenic spots, including viewpoints of the waterfalls at Athirappilly, Charpa and Vazhachal. “The highlight is a journey through a narrow road — nearly 50 km — cutting through the forest area. Even a two-wheeler coming from the opposite direction can cause traffic blocks,” says Dominic Pereira, inspector, KSRTC, Chalakudy. Enroute is the Peringalkoothu dam, Anakkayam bridge, pen stock pipe network at Sholayar, Sholayar dam, and the tea estates. “We tell the passengers that it is a sleepy town with just a handful of hotels. It is all about soaking in the beauty of nature and enjoying the journey,” Dominic says. While Chalakkudy to Malakkapara costs ₹300 per head, the rates vary for other depots depending on the distance.
Sleepover in the bus
The selling point of the Munnar package is an overnight stay in KSRTC’s air-conditioned sleeper buses parked at the depot, at ₹100 per head. On the next day, passengers can go sight-seeing in Munnar in KSRTC buses, which costs ₹200 (₹250 for those who do not opt for the overnight stay). “We started the sleeper coach facility last November in two buses. Now there are seven buses with 112 beds and that is not enough to meet the demand,” says Savy George, inspector in-charge, KSRTC, Munnar. Currently there are packages from Malappuram, Perinthalmanna (Mondays) and Kothamangalam (no overnight stay) depots.
“We were not prepared for this kind of response when we started the Munnar package on October 16. We have a lot of bulk bookings, including those from other districts. We have three trips (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) to Munnar and seats are full for this month. Bookings have opened for January 2022,” says Joshy John, district transport officer, KSRTC, Malappuram. Rates are ₹1,000 (super fast), ₹1,200 (deluxe) and ₹1,500 (AC buses).
Journey through the jungle
The Kothamangalam-Munnar trip or the Jungle Safari, launched on November 28, is a sought-after package. Instead of the regular route (80 km) that takes just under three hours, the bus travels through forest area, covering Thattekkad, Kuttampuzha, Mamalakandam, Korangadi, Mankulam and Laxmi Estate. “The bus, which starts at 8 am, reaches Munnar by 5-5.30 pm. The return trip is via the regular route. Although we had planned trips only on weekends, we had to start a service on Thursdays as well because of the demand. Now slots are available only for January 2022,” says Anas Ebrahim, general controlling inspector, Kothamangalam KSRTC. Ticket costs ₹550 per head, inclusive of lunch and snacks.
Travel vloggers and social media have played a huge role in promoting these packages as well, says T A Ubaid, District Transport Officer, KSRTC, Palakkad. “We have had passengers from other districts as well. We also arranged a trip for a group from Chittur [13 km away from Palakkad] to Nelliyampathy on special request. The hotels and restaurants that provide food for the passengers are extremely supportive in that they are serving quality food at affordable rates. Due to the pandemic they were also having a dry run and so there is a concerted effort to keep the hospitality industry up and running,” says Ubaid.
Other budget trips of KSRTC are those from Thiruvalla and Ponkunnam to the misty hills of Vagamon and Parunthumpara, Irinjalakkuda to Nelliyampathy and services to Arippa from Haripad, Alappuzha, Kilimanoor and Kottarakkara. Last month a service was started from Changanassery to Kumbalangi, the model tourism village in Kochi.
The Corporation also operates a Chalakudy-Kochi package (₹650), a joint venture with Kerala State Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC), which includes a backwater cruise. Hundred passengers are taken on a backwater tour in KSINC’s vessel, Sagararani.
Plans are afoot to add more locations in the list, such as Neyyar, Ponmudy and locations in Wayanad.