Riding the Ripples, Houseboats Cross a Milestone

Alappuzha: Kerala has been chosen as a ‘destination to watch’ in 2017 by the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), the largest body of travel agents and tour operators in the UK. The State is the only Indian entry in the list of 12 tourist hotspots named by ABTA. The list, featured in ABTA’s ‘Travel Trends Report 2017’, has Kerala, described as a ‘true haven for travellers’, in the eighth position, higher than premium destinations like the USA, Sardinia, South Africa and Vietnam. The list consists of locations that are expected to capture travellers’ imagination over the next year. And, it is true that no trip to Kerala is complete without experiencing a backwater cruise either in Alappuzha or Kumarakom.

At a time when houseboats, the mascot of Kerala tourism, are celebrating their silver jubilee year, Destination Kerala takes a look at the backwater/houseboat tourism industry in God’s Own Country.

The backwaters in God’s Own Country were the only link between remote villages and mainland settlements. The total expanse of backwaters in Kerala is 1500 km, comprising a network of 44 rivers, lagoons and lakes stretching from the south to the north. Alappuzha has a peculiar geographical feature – the water level of the backwaters and the land mass are at the same level, making both appear like a seamless unending network. This helps the traveller take a close look at village life on the banks while on a backwater cruise. No doubt we can say that, in a way, it was the houseboat industry which facilitated the development of Alappuzha, which was once a port town. It has even changed the face of tourism in Kerala and emerged as one of the major revenue-earning industry in the State. It was 25 years ago that the first group of passengers travelled in a Kettuvallam (Houseboat) through the enchanting backwaters of Alappuzha.  Houseboat cruising in the district was launched on November 15, 1991.

“The Alappuzha Tourism Development Co-operative Society (ATDC) began motorboat service on November 1, 1987, from Alappuzha to Kollam,” says T G Reghu, Secretary, ATDC.

ATDC, along with All Kerala Houseboat Owners’ Association, House Boat Owners and Operators’ Samithi and Kerala Houseboat Owners’ Federation, kick-started the year-long silver jubilee celebrations on November 15, 2016.

‘‘Only three passengers were there in our first service. In 1989, Shivraj Patil, the then Union Minister of Tourism, who came to Alappuzha to inaugurate a function organised by ATDC, expressed hope that the houseboats would become a tool for the revival of tourism industry. In the early stages, tourists were taken to the backwaters in kettuvallams during night, which caught the fancy of foreigners, and soon, many people started warming up to the idea,” says Raghu.

The traditional kettuvallams transported rice, fish and other items from Kuttanad to Kochi and other regions, but it took days to reach the destination. Availability of better road connectivity and other modes of transport led to a sharp decline in the use of kettuvallams. It is at this juncture that tourism enthusiasts found their utility as a ‘tourism product’ for carrying travellers and the realisation prompted a sudden surge in the demand for abandoned kettuvallams. The once-abandoned kettuvallams were given a facelift and converted into luxury houseboats. In the initial years, they were operated only two to three months during the season and were preferred only by international tourists.

With the houseboats, other allied industries also registered a steady growth. Coir, fisheries and hospitality were a few of the many related sectors that received a major fillip. The growth of the houseboat industry had also led to an increase in job opportunities for the unemployed youth. There are almost 10,000 people who are attached directly and indirectly to the industry.

“There are more than 1000 houseboats being operated today in the State; majority of them are in Alappuzha, a few hundreds in Kottayam, around 20 in Kollam and nearly two dozen boats in Ernakulam, Kannur and Kozhikode. Over 1,600 tourists avail the service of houseboats on a daily basis,” says Josekutty Jose, President, All Kerala House Boat Owners’ Association.

The surge in domestic tourism was the outcome of the unprecedented media hype around the camping and houseboat ride of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, at Kumarakom in 2000. Also in 2002, former Beatle rock band member Sir Paul McCartney honeymooned on a Kerala houseboat and had to write this about their experience: “Heather’s birthday was on a flower-bedecked houseboat in the middle of a star-lit lagoon.” This tremendously helped boost the houseboat industry’s image at the national and international levels.  The present form of houseboat tourism has evolved as per the demand of the domestic travellers who wish to move faster compared to foreign tourists who prefer a steady cruise. Some of the houseboats are floating palaces equipped with Jacuzzi and swimming pools. All have living/dining rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and verandas.

There has been a growth in the arrival of domestic travellers in recent years which is a positive sign for the industry. The increase in domestic travellers is a boon especially when the flow of in-bound tourists declines owing to many reasons such as recession, travel advisory etc.,” says Suni, General Manager, Riverscapes.

Reji Cherian, Managing Director of Ramada Alappuzha, strongly feels that if houseboats are allowed to operate during night, it would really be a shot in the arm. There are strict orders that houseboats should not be operated after 5 pm and before 8 am. The boats have to halt at various spots along the backwaters.

In this regard, he suggested that the industry can negotiate with fishermen and arrive at a consensus on marking separate paths for the houseboats and fishing boats.

There are a handful of projects announced in the recent past waiting to take off, including a floating waste collection unit and floating ambulances, for which Rs. 70 lakh has been earmarked. Apart from these, Rs. 1.40 crore for fire fighting boats, Rs. 14.72 crore for building a dry dock and Rs. 60 lakh for waste collection boats have been set aside.

Ensuring a Safe Glide

Safety concerns are one thing which prevents certain groups from going for houseboat rides. As Sunil of Riverscapes rightly points out, “ensuring that all boats possess a licence will help the industry run smoother as there are large number of boats in Alappuzha still operating without any valid license issued by the competent authority.’’

“Lack of well-qualified and well-trained staff is also an important concern,’’ says Reji.

In a bid to ensure the safety of houseboats, the State Tourism Department has started a project that will help track the houseboats from monitoring stations. The project, run in collaboration with the police and district administration, will keep an eye on houseboat traffic using GPS.

The government has released Rs. 160 lakh for the implementation of the project. Keltron will be installing iTAC, a device that can identify real-time location, route, stops, distance from shore and primary power failure. SOS & panic button-led alerts and geo-fencing (a software that uses GPS or RFID to determine geographical boundaries) are also possible with iTAC.

Around 110 boats have fixed this device so far. The government is planning to fix it on all the licenced boats by March 31, 2017. The master control room will be overseen by Keltron. When a houseboat faces an emergency (accidents or casualties), alerts will be received by the houseboat owner, police, fire and rescue services personnel, port and tourism departments.

Houseboat cruises are a wonderful way to experience the beauty and tranquillity of Kerala backwaters. In recent years, however, concerns have been raised by various environmental agencies, tourists and even the local people about a range of issues that are threatening the sustainability of the industry and adversely affecting local communities and environment. These include pollution caused by houseboats, health and safety issues, and disturbance to the lives of the local people and livelihoods. It is true that the houseboats have emerged as the mascot of Kerala Tourism, but the concerns regarding safety and environmental degradation are also at its peak. It is high time the government and houseboat operators took necessary steps to address the ecological damage caused by the houseboat industry.

A Synonym of Ultra Luxury

The Blue Jelly Marina, Kerala’s only ultra-luxury houseboat docking bay & resort, is all ready to welcome guests.

Situated in the picturesque village of Champakkulam in Alappuzha, the backwater resort has the finest-in-class ambience. The facilities at the resort include an Ayurveda centre, library, indoor games area and an open-air swimming pool.

Travellers crisscrossing Kerala’s magical backwaters are often faced with a question of what is to be done after a houseboat ride. Options include spending the night in an inland resort, to sleeping in the houseboat itself. Blue Jelly is built considering this requirement of the travellers.

Situated by the backwaters with a direct view of village life on the opposite bank and the lush green paddy fields right behind, the Marina will take you on a visually-pleasing journey.

The Marina’s residential building draws inspiration from the artistic appeal of a houseboat. Two-storey and minimal, it houses a total of four rooms on the upper floor. All rooms are air-conditioned and come with modern amenities, including a mini-fridge, LED TV and water heater. The interiors are wood finished, and each room is fitted with broad French windows facing the backwaters.

Ramada to Launch New Luxury Houseboat in April

Ramada Alappuzha is all set to launch its first luxurious custom-crafted houseboat in April. “The houseboat is going to be a replica of our hotel. We are planning to provide all the five-star amenities of the hotel and proper security to our guests, says Reji Cherian, Managing Director of Ramada Alappuzha.

The houseboat will have two bedrooms with balcony and a separate sitting area. Both the rooms will be separated by a passage and have dedicated stairs to access the upper deck, which will have a common dining area and an open kitchen.

The staff can access the rooms and the passage only if the guest permits, which ensures the safety of the passengers. Apart from sightseeing and other amenities, the houseboat will also have recreation facilities to engage the guests.

Reji is of the opinion that the staff of the houseboats are the ones who need to be carefully chosen and the new initiative will have the hotel staff attending to the guests. “Once the houseboat is launched, it will change the face of houseboat tourism in Alappuzha,” Reji added.

Abad Adds One More Luxury Houseboat

Abad Hotels and Resorts recently launched a luxury three-bedroom houseboat in Alappuzha. ‘‘Eco-friendly materials like bamboo and coir have been used which give the roof an old-world charm. Local experts have worked on the beautiful interiors to create a heritage look,” said Jibran Asif, Director, Abad Hotels and Resorts, which owns another one-bedroom premium houseboat also. ‘‘We are able to give consistant service as the crew is our own team. The last three months saw lot of foreign tourists coming to enjoy the cruise, and our one-bedroom houseboat attracted a lot of Indian honeymooners,’’ Asif added.