Kerala’s houseboat sector in uncharted waters

Illegal operations coupled with recurring accidents, mostly caused by lack of compliance with rules, have cast a shadow over houseboat tourism in Alappuzha and have the potential to push the sector into disarray if corrective measures are not taken.  The industry that spread Kerala’s fame far and wide is in a fix, thanks to the lack of government oversight and control

Updated - January 06, 2023 12:18 pm IST

Published - January 04, 2023 07:59 pm IST - ALAPPUZHA

A view of vessels stationed at the houseboat terminal at the Punnamada Finishing Point in Alappuzha.

A view of vessels stationed at the houseboat terminal at the Punnamada Finishing Point in Alappuzha. | Photo Credit: Suresh Alleppey


Three young IT professionals from Velachery in Chennai travelled all the way to Alappuzha at the start of the last southwest monsoon season to experience a relaxing houseboat ride and stay. After reaching the town on June 10 morning, they boarded a houseboat that chugged along the palm-fronted, picturesque backwaters before anchoring at the Kannitta boat jetty, near Pallathuruthy, one of the centres of houseboat operations in the district, by evening.  

Recent tragedies

The one-bedroom boat started to take in water from Vembanad Lake after developing a crack on its hull in the early hours of June 11. The tourists, who were fast asleep, were jolted awake when water entered the bedroom and soaked their bed. Though horrified, they managed to duck out of the room and jumped to the shore. In no time, the vessel disappeared into the depths of the lake.

The three men were relieved to have escaped from the clutches of death but tragedy struck the scene a few hours later. A diver hired to retrieve the belongings of the tourists from the submerged vessel drowned after getting trapped inside the sunken houseboat. Investigations revealed that the stricken vessel was not licensed to operate. 

A view of salvaged houseboat after it sank at Kannitta boat jetty at Pallathuruthy, in Alappuzha

A view of salvaged houseboat after it sank at Kannitta boat jetty at Pallathuruthy, in Alappuzha | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

In a similar accident on December 29 last year, four tourists from Kamareddy district in Telangana were fast asleep on a houseboat anchored at the Kannitta jetty when a wooden plank on the vessel’s hull got dislodged and water gushed in.

The guests along with a crew member were extricated from the sinking vessel by workers of the boats parked nearby. While three of the group escaped unhurt, a 58-year-old lost his life in the accident. Again, the boat, according to officials, was unfit to operate. Its registration had expired on March 12, 2013. No safety equipment, including life jackets, was found on the vessel. 

Similar incidents

Incidents involving houseboats, the mascot of Kerala Tourism, have claimed at least five lives in Alappuzha between May and December 2022. They include the sinking of boats and tourists accidentally falling overboard. Besides the accidents that snuffed out lives, fire and other safety incidents have been reported in houseboats during the period.

Flouting regulations

Most of the vessels involved were later found to be operating flouting norms, without mandatory registration, insurance and pollution certificates, and employing unlicensed crew. Illegal operations coupled with recurring accidents, mostly caused by lack of compliance with safety measures and rules, have cast a shadow over houseboat tourism.

The recent incidents, industry experts say, have the potential to push the sector, which has not yet fully recovered from the COVID-19-induced crisis, into total disarray if corrective measures are not taken. 

Illegal operations threatens businesses

Houseboats plying on Alappuzha backwaters

Houseboats plying on Alappuzha backwaters | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

It is half past eight in the morning and the road leading to the Punnamada Finishing Point, the hub of houseboat tourism in Alappuzha, is abuzz with tourist vehicles. Agents standing on either side of the road are busy wooing tourists.

At finishing point, some 300 boats have lined up in rows often jostling for space. Among them are one-bedroom craft to double-decker floating palaces. A middle-aged houseboat crew identified by only his first name, Kunjumon, is getting ready for the day’s cruise.

“I have been working in the houseboat sector for the past 20 years. There were far fewer boats in the initial days. Houseboat numbers started exploding in the last decade or so,” he says. 

Also read |Houseboat industry in turbulent waters

A houseboat owner is waiting on the terminal platform for his pre-booked guests. “The accident at Pallathuruthy was an unfortunate one. It was a blemish on the entire sector. I have lost a couple of bookings following the December 29 incident as tourists pulled out sighting safety concerns,” he says.

According to him, illegal houseboat operations are threatening the businesses of stakeholders like him in the sector who have been conducting services legally by paying fees and taxes while adhering to all safety norms. “The houseboat industry is providing direct and indirect jobs to thousands of people. But a lack of regulation is pushing the sector into uncharted waters,” says the stakeholder, who does not want to be identified. 

Discrepancy in figures

However, according to the Kerala Maritime Board (KMB), the licensing authority for vessels, including houseboats, 1,621 mechanically propelled boats, including houseboats, motorboats, shikhara boats, speedboats and ferry boats are registered with the Alappuzha Port Registry (which covers Alappuzha and Kottayam districts). That said, it has been estimated that the number of houseboats in the backwaters of Alappuzha stands anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500.

While 821 houseboats are registered with the port registry, the rest are operating in violation of norms. Sources say a number of houseboats registered with the registry have not renewed their registration. Some vessels have not undergone mandatory resurvey after obtaining pollution and insurance certificates, but continue to operate in violation of rules as the regulatory machinery wobbles in enforcing the rules in the sector. The houseboat industry that spread Kerala’s fame far and wide is in a fix, thanks to the lack of government oversight and control. 

“The laxity on the part of the Ports department (Directorate of Ports, which was the licensing authority got merged with KMB following the enactment of the Kerala Maritime Board Act 2017) is spoiling the image of the industry. The department is facing a staff crunch. But we should notice that the ports authorities were in the know that the boat involved in the accident on December 29 had not renewed its registration since 2013. They, however, failed to act for a whole decade. While they remain a mute spectator to illegal operations, the department causes troubles to genuine operators over petty issues,” says Jobin J. Akkarakalam, president, Kerala Houseboat Owners Federation.

Joint effort needed

According to him, a joint effort and regular surveillance involving the district administration, KMB, Police and Tourism departments, and the Kerala State  Pollution Control Board is the need of the hour to bring order in the sector. “Houseboat tourism and Ayurveda are two things that introduced Kerala to the world stage. The irony is that the Tourism department has no major say in the affairs of the houseboat industry,” he says. 

The authorities should not compromise on safety, says Kevin Rozario, general secretary, All Kerala Houseboat Owners and Operators’ Samiti. “The previous Left Democratic Front government had announced that all illegal houseboats, including those registered in other districts but operating in the Alappuzha waters, will be seized. Nothing has happened. The Ports department does not even know the number of illegal vessels in Alappuzha. We cannot go on like this. Things should change for better,” says Mr. Rozario. 

Both the KMB and the Tourism police are conducting drives against illegal vessels, but their actions have so far failed to rein in lawlessness in the sector largely due to the sheer number of vessels along with the acute shortage of manpower and resources.

Practical difficulties

“We are facing practical difficulties. The Alappuzha Port Registry has the highest number of vessels in the State. There is only one chief surveyor for the entire State and two surveyors on additional duty. It is not right to say we are sitting idle. Between March 2022 and now, we have impounded 49 vessels for violating rules. When we carry out surprise inspections at a place, the information is immediately passed on to other places by the houseboat people. It is nothing but pouring cold water on the drive. Things will be much different if we are able to conduct checks at multiple locations at the same time. Unfortunately, we do not have the resources to do it,” says a KMB official.

The official says tourists can play a major role in curbing illegal vessels by ensuring the boats they board have all mandatory certificates. 

In the case of the Tourism Police, their staff strength stands at eight. They divide the duty between the houseboat sector and the Alappuzha beach. Though it is mandatory under the Kerala Inland Vessels Rules to establish an enforcement wing under a DySP, assisted by a sub-inspector and other police officers for periodical inspection of the operation of houseboats, it has not come to fruition yet. 

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