Kerala’s houseboats get ready to sail

The Kerala government provided aid to houseboat owners to keep their boats water worthy through lockdown.  

The waters of Vembanad lake are stirring once again. A robust vaccination drive underway has raised hopes of the Kerala houseboat industry to open for business as early as July.

As the latest lockdown eases, tourists and locals are being lured back with deals. Completely vaccinated guests can enjoy the backwaters at discounts up to 50%, while the partially vaccinated get a rebate of almost 40%, says Jobin J. Akkarakalam, vice-president, Kerala Houseboat Owners Federation. “Everyone is looking forward to resuming business, so we can maintain our staff and boats,” he adds.

Also read | Houseboat sector seeks reopening at the earliest

Last year’s SOPs — temperature checks, mandatory masking, sanitising boats and complete guest details on COVID-19 Jagratha Portal — which kicked in during two weeks of operations in December and January, will be invoked again.

Meanwhile the Kerala government, which has added ₹ 50 crore to its already existing ₹100 crore budget for marketing tourism is all set to unleash two new campaigns, that will also highlight the benefits of houseboat holidays this year.

“The houseboat is like a bubble offering a secluded, sanitised and safe space, which makes it an attractive holiday option during a pandemic. This is our USP,” says Jobin.

Also read | All houseboats in Kerala to be brought under licensing system, says Minister for Ports Ahmed Devarkovil

Abraham George, MD, Intersight Tours and Travels, has been inundated with enquiries about the reopening of Kerala. “Once we ensure complete vaccination, we should open unconditionally, not with riders attached such as ‘need for quarantine’. The industry has huge investments. Everyone is wanting to travel and the houseboat experience is private and safe,” he says.

To jump start tourism, the Kerala government declared tourism personnel in the front line category, eligible for the first round of vaccination. It also rolled out a programme to provide a maintenance grant, ranging from ₹80,000 to ₹1,20,000 depending on boat profile, so owners can keep their boats water worthy through the inactivity of lockdown.

A boat’s annual maintenance is a costly affair. “Every year the bamboo sheets on a boat’s roof are changed. It is labour intensive and requires 50 to 60 men. Wages are high, ₹ 1,200 daily, since it is a skilled job,” says Jobin. “Add work on the engine, inverter, generator, air conditioners, furnishing, flooring... It is more expensive than maintaining a house,” he says.

Before the pandemic, almost a 1,000 houseboats would ply on the Vembanad lake during the tourist season — October to March, showcasing the beauty of backwaters, paddy fields and rural life. The longest lake in India, Vembanad is popular for its wetlands, boat races and houseboat tourism. Kerala’s houseboat industry achieved global fame in the mid-90s, by the 2000s the industry employed lakhs of people, as it began to draw travellers from all over the world.

Houseboat industry

Today the industry comprises 900 licensed boats and 100 ancillary boats, which supply provisions and other requirements. Each boat employs on an average a staff of four, providing direct employment to about four to five thousand workers. Indirectly over a lakh people, from fishermen to grocery suppliers are dependant on it. The industry also supports many small businesses. A local women’s group of the Chavara Bhavan at Kainakary, for example, which used to supply coconut oil, masalas, cloth bags and even banana leaf to the boats, now finds itself at a loss.

Although the Government’s maintenance grant, linking it with boat category (deluxe, premier, luxury, ultra luxury), has come as succor, there are still issues that are bleeding the sector. “Everyone is immensely pleased with this step of the government but the times are very difficult. We have been asking for waiver of the annual license (average ₹5000 - ₹8000 per year) and the Pollution Control Certificate fee (roughly ₹20,000 a year), as the boats are not plying,” says Jobin.

His Nedumudi-based outfit Spice Routes Luxury Cruises, with seven boats ranging from one to five bedrooms, now has a staff of three, reduced from 30. With no income for nearly two years, he adds that it is especially difficult for small boat owners. Many have secured loans against their houses or land. Though several banks have agreed on a moratorium and restructuring, loan repayment is proving extremely difficult.

Alappuzha-based houseboat owner Jose Abraham is applying for a grant as soon as he renews the Pollution Control Certificate. He runs two boats under SKA Houseboats, one with five bedrooms while the second has eight bedrooms and an 80 X 20 feet convention hall that can accommodate 150 people. “The boat has hosted meetings of top corporates and clubs in the good old days,” says Jose explaining that boat trips are priced according to the boat category.

A single bedroom luxury boat costs approximately ₹25,000 for an overnight trip while a deluxe category single bedroom boat comes at ₹10,000. A five bedroom boat with luxuries like jacuzzi for ten guests can be enjoyed at ₹70,000. Now, with his boats docked he has switched to online retailing vegetables, provisions, fish and chicken to tide him through the year.

Migration of labour

Migration of labour is one of the biggest disruptions the industry is facing. Manish Kumar E M, a licensed boat driver who worked in the capacity for seven years has moved to painting and tile work at a construction site to earn daily wages. “The last 15 months have been very tough and I had to find work to keep the family going,” says Manish who has two children.

He adds that he received support from his previous company and will go back to his job once things get normal. Similarly the long break in business has affected others. “Karimeen (Pearlspot) is the most sought after fish by tourists. Caught by hand, its fishing is a show for guests. Now poor demand has resulted in a sharp price drop, from ₹ 650 a kilo to ₹ 350.” says Jobin.

Suriyamol TS, 23 was guest relations executive with Spice Routes. An interface between guests and crew of a houseboat she would attend to guest’s food preferences, interests and plan accordingly. She has managed to get a marketing job in an educational consultancy, due to her fluency in English. “I miss my life on the boats dearly; I used to meet people from across the world and learn about other cultures,” she says with a sigh.

Meanwhile, Jose is waiting to get back on board. “I will shut online retailing then,” he says. “It was a result of the pandemic and will end with it” Despite the series of setbacks the industry has faced starting with the Nipah virus (2018), floods that year and now, the pandemic, he looks ahead with hope.

“Looking back I feel 2019 was a very good year for us. We hosted the King and Queen of Netherlands and that was a big push for the beauty of the backwaters. It was a great bounce back year,” says Jobin. Before the lockdown in May 2021, he hosted a a wedding function on the boat with 20 people. “The wedding season is coming, we can do small events on the boats,” he says. “Hopefully, post pandemic will be an even greater bounce back to business.”

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 8:14:05 AM |

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