Marketing backwaters

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The backwaters of Kerala provide a unique experience for tourists, a fact that has been well exploited by hotels and resorts in the State.

IF leveraging tourism is the crowning achievement of Kerala today, `packaging' the backwaters is the jewel in the crown. The best of Kerala's offerings for the tourist, Indian as well as foreign, was said to be Ayurveda, beaches and canal cruises. But it is generally accepted that Kerala's beaches have a long way to go if they are to match other Asian beach destinations, from Penang to Phuket. As for Ayurveda, countries with a similar culture - for instance, Sri Lanka - have begun to clone the Kerala experience down to `pizhichil' or oil massage. But the incredible Kerala resource of 44 west-flowing rivers and nearly 1,000 kilometres of sedate inland waterways is something that cannot be replicated.

Babu Varghese, the brain behind the TourIndia travel agency, is generally credited with the idea of re-inventing the traditional rice-boat or `kettuvallom' as a tourist houseboat, complete with all modern conveniences. Since he re-jigged the jackfruit planks and coconut palm mattings of his first houseboat in 1991, the backwater cruise has evolved into one of the most popular attractions of the Kerala-based tourism circuit.

The core of the backwater experience lies in the four central districts of Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Kollam and spans the nation's largest backwater body, the Vembanad `kayal' (lake), and also the Ashtamudi kayal to the south. Alappuzha is the favoured take-off point; Kochi and Kollam provide convenient destinations, six to eight hours away by slow boat. However, canny marketing by a number of private hoteliers has put on the `tourist map Kumarakom in the Vembanad lake with its wide choice of lakeside hotels at all price ranges. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee did his bit by producing the first of his famous `musings' while holidaying at Kumarakom.

The KTDC has come up with an innovative service - free insurance cover worth Rs.2 lakhs when a holiday is booked at any of its resorts for three days or more. The insurance covers lost baggage or passport, accidents during travel and medical expenses for emergencies, including a bout of gastroenteritis or a heart attack.

Since most Kumarakom-based hotels have a `Kochi connection', they offer attractive packages combining a leisurely cruise along the backwaters with a stay in their own facilities at both ends for a night or two. Many foreign tourists come to Kerala through Kochi's spanking new international airport at Nedumbassery; check into a hotel in Ernakulam for the night, then take a cruise by a `kettuvallom' down the Vembanad kayal to a partner hotel at Kumarakom. After an invigorating Ayurvedic oil massage, which is usually part of the package, the tourists drive up via Kottayam to the Periyar lake sanctuary at Thekkady for that other big attraction of Kerala, elephants in the wild.

The District Tourism Promotion Council at Kollam as well as the Alleppey Tourism Development Cooperative Society have marketed their chunk of the backwaters with a wide choice of boat cruises. The starting rates for the cruises are $5 (Rs.250) for a dawn-to-dusk ride. For foreign guests who look for higher levels of comfort, there are a number of luxury houseboat operators, some of whose packages cost Rs.10,000 a day. In recent years, other districts have begun to exploit the `kayal' connection - places as far north as Kozhikode and Kasargod offer houseboats and local cruises to complement their other attractions.

In recent weeks, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts have launched possibly the most luxurious cruiser to be seen on the Kerala backwaters - the double-decker M.V. Vrinda, with the Oberoi's Trident Hotel on Kochi's Willingdon island as the anchor.

But not every tourist has the time or the inclination for a laidback cruise. To cater to the needs of visitors who like to combine business with pleasure, Kochi has seen an explosion of accommodation, with each hotel vying for its share of the waterfront. The Mermaid Days Inn at Vytilla, off the National Highway bypass outside Kochi, lays claim to being the city's first three-star waterfront hotel. By converting some of its units into self-catering apartment hotels, the Mermaid has explored yet another niche in the hospitality spectrum. The Riviera Suites housed in a single high-rise complex off the same bypass is another such hotel. For their guests, the Kochi-based hotels have come up with a number of innovative backwater cruise options, which provide a taste of Kerala's water-borne life - fishing villages, coir-weaving centres, and endless stretches of meandering coconut palm-lined canals. With prices starting from Rs.300, such budget cruises have enabled thousands of tourists - Indian as well as foreign - to experience the true magic of Kerala's inland waterways.

With so much tourist traffic on the Kerala backwaters, it was inevitable that some `rush hour' problems would emerge. Thanks to a vigilant Department of Tourism, some semblance of standards has now come to the backwater cruise business. Since 1999, houseboat and cruise operators are required to adhere to strict standards of safety, comfort and environmental awareness in their accommodation.

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