Just when life was beginning to return to normalcy after the first wave of the COVID-19, the second wave started. Kerala was rattled by the second wave of pandemic, which cast a shadow over the livelihood of several people. Among them, tourism was the one of the worst-hit sectors.
Around 10 per cent of the state's total revenue comes from tourism. About 23.5 per cent of jobs are directly or indirectly linked to tourism. In such a scenario, the impact of the socio-economic downturn caused by the pandemic has been far-reaching.
Jaison Anithanam, managing director of Serviette Hotels, talks about the efforts needed to revive the tourism sector. Anithanam, who is also the former secretary of the Chamber of Vembanad Hotels and Resorts Association, has over 25 years of experience in the hospitality sector.
Excerpts from an interview:
When will the resort tourism make a complete recovery in Kerala?
Any talk on a complete recovery can be made only on the basis of how the Covid situation will be for the next 3-4 months. But still as per the current situation, if there is no third wave and if the vaccination drive continues in the same pace, there is hope for revival. That is, around 20 per cent of the local tourism could be brought back by December and a small per cent of the domestic tourism (from north Indian states) by April-May in next year. And with that the domestic tourism might be on the path to recovery by next October.
Nothing can be said about the foreign tourists now. For that we need to consider the international scenario too. Everyone is hopeful of a small change by November-December next year. Even then a complete return to normalcy is likely in 2023 only.
Shouldn’t the tourism sector be expecting more, now that the lockdown is being lifted?
The lifting of lockdown gives fresh hope for the tourism sector. Some of the government's decisions and policies are affecting the tourism, especially in Kerala. In north India, mainly in states such as Uttaranchal, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the tourism was back on track around four months ago. But the frequent lockdowns and curfews in Kerala are proving to be a setback for tourism.
The government should also focus on giving out more positive news and be involved in better PR work. This does not mean that the Covid figures should be concealed. The health department and the tourism department should work together with a good PR agency to better convey on how we faced the Covid pandemic.
Even if the resorts now open amid the pandemic, wouldn't there be added expenses of maintenance and cleaning? Wouldn’t this also affect tourism?
Certainly. When the hotels and resorts are opened, there would be more expenses than before. Several factors have to be taken care of such as replacing tattered linen and disinfecting the rooms. In most of the hotels that have opened in the Munnar region, only 70 per of the rooms are in service. The rest are being used by the staff or for other purpose. Only some small resorts are fully opened. Several hotel and resort owners had been postponing their maintenance works for the last 2-3 years. All that will have to be completed now and this would cost a huge amount. It could take two or three years to make up for the revenue loss of the last two years.
What further assistance should the government provide to revive the resort sector?
Though active interventions were made in several sectors after the first wave of Covid, the central and state governments had shunned the tourism sector altogether. Even though the state government had made several good decisions, many people were not benefited enough from these. For example: giving Rs 10,000 as financial aid to tourist guides. It should be acknowledged that giving at least Rs 10,000 was helpful as the Kerala Tourism had been in a complete standstill for 1.5 years. But we also need to understand that this amount is not enough for a common man to survive. Even the Finance Minister had said that the state's fiscal situation is not good, but what the government can do is to come up with policies that will help tourism.
On the World Tourism Day itself, there is a hartal in Kerala. This creates a very bad impression about the state among travellers from outside. Just as the tourism sector is getting on the path to revival after overcoming the Covid crisis, a hartal has been called on the World Tourism Day. Those working in the sector point out that this sends a wrong message to the tourists, including those heading to Kerala from north India.
Kerala is not a place that can offer a different type of tourism. For example: Kerala cannot offer a night life or club culture like in European countries. Tourists come to Kerala to enjoy the scenic landscape, Ayurveda, interact with the local people and get to know their lives.
When it is said that tourism has been exempted from hartal, it only means that the tourist vehicles have been given exemption. Those living in hotels might be able to step out. But the shops are not open, therefore they cannot go for shopping. Nor can the tourists visit any tourist destinations or museums. Without any of this, there is no point in saying tourism has been given exemption when all a tourist can do is just travel in a taxi.
Hartals should be avoided completely. Some compromises have to be made to save tourism, which is one of the most important businesses in Kerala. The state needs to make some changes.
The government should also need to ease the regulations in connection with licensing of resorts. Even a small business needs a lot of licenses. And even for this, there are different laws in various parts of Kerala.
We need to learn from other states over certain aspects. Tourism policies of most states are explicit. We need to learn these and to implement whatever changes possible here.
When will Kerala destinations see more foreign tourist arrivals?
No one is expecting a revival in the arrival of foreign tourists next year. But if at least 30 per cent of that can be brought in by 2022, it will be a great achievement. Kerala would make big gains if we were able to bring back the Arab Tourism in June-July or the European Tourism in October, November and December. If there are no further problems, we are hopeful that we will be back on track by 2023.
Other than tourism, what are the alternatives that can better drive the growth for resorts?
Several new trends are becoming part of tourism. Now, wedding destinations are a major part of tourism. Another trend also came up during the Covid pandemic - IT professionals from several IT companies staying at resorts together and working from there. This has been working to some extent during the last two years. As school were also holding online classes, students could stay at hotels and attend online classes from there. But this trend could reverse once the classes go offline again. However, the youngsters can still continue with such an option. Even then, I do not think of it as a big trend or major change. This category is a very small percentage. After sometime, the IT companies are likely to adopt a hybrid method with only half the employees working at offices, while the rest work from home. This would also help them to cut costs.
What is the primary assistance that government needs to provide for the tourism sector?
Financial assistance. But the tourism sector is aware that there are limitations for this. Therefor exemptions in licensing and tax, and policy changes are expected. If the government makes more tourism-friendly policies, that would also be really helpful. Also, giving more importance to infrastructure development would definitely lead to a significant change in the tourism sector. Instead of initiating more projects, the government should focus on properly implementing the existing projects and setting up the basic requirements at the tourist destinations. Today, most tourist centres have no proper roads, no washroom facilities, or a good tourism information centre. Among the beaches, most still don’t have lifeguards. All these issues need to be resolved. Though policies such as tourism police were introduced, the sector has not fully benefited from these. If the focus is on proper implementation of the existing projects, then the Kerala Tourism can scale new heights.
Will Kerala now give more importance to domestic tourists than foreign tourists?
For the next one year, more importance will definitely be accorded to the domestic tourists. This is because a significant number of foreign tourists are unlikely to head to the state. But going forward, both domestic and foreign tourists are equally important. Kerala sees foreign tourist footfall mainly for four to five months. The remaining six months witness the arrival of domestic tourists.
Kerala is making significant revenue from this. Both are equally important. Today Kerala Tourism gives more importance to tourists from Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Gujarat. If tourism marketing can also be done in countries such as China and southeast Asian nations, it will give fresh hope for the tourism sector.
Will Kerala witness a new tourism culture post-Covid? If so, what kind of change?
There will be definitely changes. But still no major changes are likely. However, small resorts, homestays and tourist destinations are likely to benefit as more number of people seek to spend some quality time amid their hectic lives.
The local tourism in Vagamon and Kuttikanam areas has been on the rise for the last one year. That area does not have luxury or premium accommodation. Only if tourists show more inclination towards that will the Kerala Tourism make significant progress. Most of the people who are coming to these areas now are budget travellers. The demand for smaller villas and the like is likely to increase in the future. Villas with pools are also likely to come up. The Kerala Tourism would expand to more areas.