Sunday, December 03, 2006

Houseboats, backwaters becoming 'USP' of Kerala's tourism industry

Kerala's houseboats, lakes and backwaters are once again posing to be the ultimate brand ambassadors of the state's tourism industry by generating huge foreign exchange and employment.

The popularity of houseboats has returned as major tourist attractions in the state. Many find these beautiful flotels as an ideal means of exploring the beauty of the Kerala backwaters.

The number of houseboats in the Alleppey and Kottayam backwaters has increased drastically. In Alleppey alone it has increased from just 150 odd one to more than 350 in two to three years.

Houseboats or Kettu-vallams, which were once used in Kerala waterways for transporting goods from once place to another famous as rice boats, have now changed as the most wanted tourist attraction not only for domestic tourists but also for the foreigners who never miss a chance to take a 24-hour timeout in the backwaters of Kerala.

With these years tourist season remaining there from November till March, the houseboat operators and travel agents are well prepared and are looking forward for a good volume of tourists from various countries to book their houseboats and hope it will be much more than the last year.

Kerala tourism is aiming at a 20 percent increase in foreign tourist arrivals this season, while in the domestic tourists, an increase by five percent are expected this season.

Tourism that has emerged as a major sector in the State provides employment to over one million people in Kerala, which is the fastest growing tourist destination in the world. The World Travel and Tourism Council has predicted 11.6 pc growth rate for Kerala's tourism sector by 2013.

The tourism sector here hopes to get Rs. 100000 million revenue while investments to the tune of Rs. 10000 million are also expected in this sector.

The Kerala Government recently put forward a multi-crore project to utilize the inland waterways for cargo and tourism purpose. The project to be completed in four years, which according to the officials, will ease the road traffic for a large extent and can reduce the level of pollution and also will be an economical mode of transportation for the state.

Officially, the inland waterways in Kerala stretch to a length of 1,687 km, corresponding to 11.6 percentage of a total of 14,544 km in the country. The major stretch is the West Coast Canal connecting Hosdurg in the north and Poovar, near Thrivananthapuram in the south, which has a length of 560 km.

Presently, this sector directly employs between 1.5 lakh and 2 lakh people in the operation and maintenance of boats, and for each person directly employed, at least two others are indirectly employed in allied activities such as boat building, servicing of boats, tourism and so on.

The operators of private boats, including houseboats, generated 17 lakh man-days in the last year, according to a recent study. Another 1.5 lakh man-days of employment were generated last year by boat manufacturers, with 311 man-days of employment per lakh of rupees invested.

However, despite these seemingly healthy figures, all is not well with the Inland waterways sector. The full potential for movement of people and goods has not been utilised.

The absence of navigational aids, and the lack of modern Inland craft terminals and cargo handling facilities are some of the infrastructural constraints.

Several blockages continue to exist, including the lack of depth, the absence of any maintenance of navigation system, poor protection for the banks, the use of outdated crafts and engines, which creates environment threats like water and air pollution.

Recently, to promote houseboat tourism, the local tourism department has come out with plans to implement single window clearance to the boat operators as earlier they had to wander three different government departments to get the canal, transportation and pollution clearance. It will also be taking stringent actions against the workers and operators who carry out any malpractices in this industry, said the Secretary S. Vinu Kumar of DTPC, Alleppey.

Proper dress to workers in the houseboats, number plates like road vehicles to identify them from far places to avoid accidents, proper licensing system and pollution control methods will be in action from this month, added the DTPC Secretary Kerala, with its 44 rivers, ranging in length from 15 kms to 245 kms, flow across this small stretch. With two monsoons, rainy water pours down every year, replenishing the rivers and watering the entire flora. These factors have created Kerala as the 'God's own garden country' and one of the most sought after tourist destinations in the world.


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