METRO PLUS

The `lost' fleet

THE KERALA Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) has been conducting trips and short getaways within the State and to the neighbouring States for a long time now, but the bad state of carriages (buses) and a host of other problems have affected the smooth functioning of these conducted tours.

Says K. Padmaja Venugopal, chairperson, KTDC, "Our present transport facility is still weak. We have a minor financial crunch, and this prevents us from investing in buses and other vehicles for tour operations. Acquiring luxury buses, mini buses, Qualis or 14/18-seater vans is under consideration. Plans are yet to take a concrete shape, but efforts are on to improve the transport system so as to bring in more tourists. Promoting boat cruises and inter-State package trips are also in the pipeline. We are also planning to bring about some changes with regard to the existing infrastructure."

During off-season, not just KTDC but private tour operators too go through a low phase, with fewer people opting for tours. To compound the problem, frequent hartals force KTDC to refrain from operating its fleet of buses. "We have no choice but cancel the tours, no matter how many people have booked the tickets for that particular day. It makes matters worse during off-season. The tourist season is from October to January, after which tour operations pick up momentum during April-May, and often during Onam, in August. The rainy season proves to be a dampener and tour operation is often sluggish," remarks, K. G. S. Pillai, manager (Travel and Tours), KTDC.

He points out the difficulty in operating buses for city and sightseeing tours given the present transport facility, because a minimum number of passengers are required for the tour to be flagged off. "As per the existing Motor Vehicles Rules, it is difficult to acquire permits for mini buses. For the city trips and the Kanyakumari trip, we need at least 10 passengers on board our big buses. Operating them with just a few passengers is impractical. We will run into a loss," adds Pillai.

The city has only eight buses, of which some are 46-seater semi-luxury coaches and others 35- (push-back) seater ones. There is a conspicuous absence of 14/18-seater vans and mini buses. "About five years back, we did have mini buses. But those were in too bad a shape to be operated. Since then, the Government has not provided KTDC with any mini bus. Mini buses are more feasible to be used for tours to Ponmudi and Golden Valley," says B. Bhuvanachandran, tourist officer (KTDC), Tourist Reception Centre.

Asked why KTDC had been conducting very few inter-State tours, the officials attributed it to the `high' entry tax levied by other States. For instance, Karnataka has been levying tax on KTDC vehicles, for the past five years.

In 1997, at the Southern State Transport Ministers Conference in Goa, all the southern States (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh) reached a consensus regarding the levy of entry tax on the State's tourism department's vehicles. According to the agreement (in regard to the grant of 20 contract carriages (CC) South India Tourist permits on single point tax by each State), these vehicles were to be exempted from entry tax on a reciprocal basis.

But the Government failed to issue the requisite notices to the Transport Departments of the States concerned on time, despite repeated reminders. The long and short of it is that each of Kerala's tourist vehicles has to pay an `exorbitant' entry tax, which invariably translates into a hike in the tour fares. Given its present financial constraints, it is not feasible for KTDC to opt for private tourist vehicles either. In the case of a 35-seater bus, KTDC has to shell out almost

Rs. 11,000 on every trip to Karnataka; moreover, tax varies from State to State. "So, in such a situation how can KTDC be expected to conduct tours to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh? Unless the present Government takes an initiative to solve the problems, inter-State tourism will continue to be affected. Tourists will opt for package tours run by private operators though they charge more than we do," explains Pillai.

Residents associations, educational institutions and companies are given fare concessions; this is being done to attract more takers. The KTDC is conducting a seven-day family package tour to Mysore.

The major stopovers will be Guruvayur, Mookambika, Mysore and Ooty. The first of the tours is scheduled to begin in April (April-12 to 18) and the second will be conducted in May (May 10-16).

"The fares are reasonable, we are charging just Rs. 4,000 per head. The family package for two adults and two kids will amount to Rs. 12,000. This time around, we are planning well in advance and depending on the response to these tours, we will unveil new plans," adds Pillai.

The KTDC officials are also optimistic that their boat cruise from Kollam to Alapuzha will garner positive response from travel enthusiasts.

SMITHA SADANANDAN

Graphics: C.R.S.

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