In the past three decades, Abad Hotels and Resorts Private Limited has etched its unique mark on the tourism and hospitality sector of Kerala. When the organization began its long and arduous journey with a modest 20-room lodge in 1982, no one thought that the business venture would grow into one of the major players in the tourism industry. The Abad Group with 11 resorts in major tourist destinations of Kerala had spread its wings along with the growth of tourism in the state, which was tagged as ‘God’s Own Country’ on the world tourism map. In a free-wheeling chat, Managing Director Riaz Ahmed reveals the success mantra of Abad Hotels.
Aspired to be a doctor, but ‘luckily’ couldn’t be one
I was born and brought up in Kochi. My desire during my school and college days was to become a doctor or engineer. When I look back, I feel that I was lucky not to realize my dreams to be a doctor for the simple reason that I reached this position today only because I joined the family business. I belong to the family’s fifth generation. We lived in a joint family and all the family members used to collectively discuss business matters. These deliberations within the family circle helped in firming up my business outlook right from a young age. Business is in our blood and the business credos passed on from generations are to keep one’s word and not to compromise on quality. Profit is not the only motive as there are other missions too and there should be honesty in them.
Forefathers from Kutch
Our ancestors migrated from Kutch to settle in Kerala. My grandfather Usman Mohammed Hashim started a venture by the name of Ibrahim Mohammed Hashim and Brother in 1932 to export dry shrimps. Dry shrimps were exported to Ceylon and Burma, which were part of British India. We had to face many hurdles and our cargo ship that was on the way to Burma was bombed during World War II. After that incident, we had to start from scratch and my grandfather’s three children joined the family business. Subsequently, canned seafood and block-frozen seafood were exported to countries such as Australia, the US and Japan. The economic reforms ushered in by the Rajiv Gandhi government benefited our business a lot.
All started with a small hotel in Mattancherry
We entered the hotel industry in 1982 when we were staying in Mattancherry. At that time, Mattancherry didn’t have any quality hotels and people who came to Mattancherry for business-related work had to either go to Willington Island or to Ernakulam to find a decent place to stay. We started Abad Hotel with 20 rooms and a restaurant to provide a comfortable stay to travellers coming to Mattancherry. The venture was not a means to enter the tourism industry but after five years we opened a hotel in Ernakulam after realizing the huge potential of the tourism sector.
Land at M G Road for Rs 15,000!
The stumbling block every entrepreneur faces before starting a business concern is the availability of adequate land. We were able to buy 40 cents of land for Rs 15,000 at M G Road and a hotel, which was later scaled up, was opened there. Abad Plaza came into being in 1987. The stupendous success of Abad Plaza acted as a catalyst to put in place hotels in major tourist spots in Kerala and presently there are six Abad hotels in Kochi. Moreover, the Abad Group has Copper Castle Resort in Munnar, Green Forest in Thekkady, Whispering Palms in Kumarakom and Harmonia in Kovalam. Two years ago, Abad opened Brookside Resort at Lakkidi in Wayanad.
Tourism needs timely changes
Earlier, it was an uphill task to get the requisite nod for a proposal. The tourism department was then basically taking care of the guesthouses and arranging transportation for representatives of the Kerala Government. But things started to change for the better. Kerala tourism grew exponentially as the successive state governments gave due importance to the tourism sector considering its immense potential. The laws that stand in the way of viable new projects should be amended in tune with the changing times. Appropriate changes in tax structure and land reforms are imperative. The tourism industry will scale new heights if certain laws are relooked.
Ideal location must for resort
We decided to open resorts in all major tourist centres in Kerala in 2001. It is worth noting that location is important while opening a resort. If you are launching a lake-view resort in Kumarakom, travellers staying in the retreat should have a view of the lake. If it is a beach property, the beach should be in front of the resort and a hill station resort should have a feel of the high ranges. I get directly involved in choosing the place where the resort should be put up as location is pivotal for a retreat to hit jackpot.
A unique place indeed
A three-hour drive from Kochi will take a tourist to the picturesque hill station of Munnar. It would take another three hours from Munnar to step into the charm of green-covered Thekkady. The enchanting tourist destinations of Kumarakom, Marari and Kovalam are also not far away from Thekkady. The Abad resorts have benefited from this circuit that connects many of the sought-after tourist destinations in Kerala. The guests of Abad reserve their rooms through the central reservation system and this helps the tourists to touch the highlights of the state. Nowhere in the world can you have such an expansive visual treat in the form of hill station, tea garden, spices garden, lake and beach after travelling a short distance.
Better roads needed, privatization an option
The travellers coming to Kerala depend on cars or buses to move around in the state. As the chances of travelling by train or opting for some other mode of transportation are quite grim, the roads should be of superlative quality. Besides good motorways, the tourism infrastructure should also be spruced up. There should also be facilities that can ensure ample rest for tourists while travelling. It may be noted that the government doesn’t have do everything and can entrust certain responsibilities with the private sector.
The government is putting effort into broadening the scope of Malabar tourism and the new state tourism minister had held meetings with all the stakeholders. The players in the tourism industry categorically stated that the Malabar tourism will grow only if the basic infrastructure is improved. Just having tourist centers won’t do any good if there are no quality roads and related facilities to ferry tourists to these destinations. The tourism circuit is mainly in central Kerala and Kovalam is the only place that is in the south. Though efforts were made to improve infrastructure in other places, nothing concrete materialized. The tourists visiting Wayanad are mainly from Kozhikode, Kannur and Malappuram districts.
Domestic tourism is the backbone
Close to 90 percent of travellers visiting Kerala are domestic tourists. Only 10 percent constitute foreign holidaymakers and majority of them come to Kerala between the months of September and March. But domestic travellers visit the state throughout the year.
Government’s helping hand during Covid times
The Kerala tourism was gasping for air for the past three years due to Nipah disease, floods and Covid-19 pandemic. The epidemic had forced all establishments to the down the shutters for the past 18 months. During these times of distress, we did everything to support our staff and the employees in Kerala were given 50 percent of their salary. Minimum number of employees was asked to come for work to undertake cleaning and maintenance activities as the hotels and resorts can’t be closed indefinitely.
We can’t say that we didn’t get any help from the state government. The government granted additional loans at 5 percent interest rate to face the adversities of pandemic. Besides giving preference to people working in the tourism sector to get vaccinated, the state government also disbursed small loans to those in various segments of the tourism industry. But travel agencies are in doldrums and many working in that sector had migrated to other fields.
Plantation tourism projects required
The full potential of tourism in Kerala is still untapped. If one percent tourism project is allowed in the plantation sector, then that segment, which is incurring losses, will undoubtedly get a boost. It could be great if laws are amended to facilitate the opening of a certain percentage of the plantation sector for tourism-related activities and the move would also create lot of job opportunities. Though the new rules relating to Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), which are being codified, were passed by the central government, they are yet to take effect in Kerala. Even now the no-development zone along the coast is 200m as the dispensation here has failed to make adequate changes in the rules and also inform the central government about the situation. The tourism sector will get renewed energy if the rules are revised according to changing times.
Waste management is pivotal
Cleanliness, like basic infrastructure, is a major cog in the growth engine of the tourism sector, and all tourist destinations should be made plastic-free. The state government and the local self-government institutions have the responsibility to undertake other related activities to keep the tourist centres spick and span.
For example, one the main attractions of Kerala are the houseboats. It is very important to keep Finishing Point, where there is high concentration of houseboats, in Alappuzha clean with superlative facilities.
Expanding footprint to other states
Abad Hotels has establishments in all tourist locations in Kerala. The group has started production of seafood in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and is planning to expand its hotel business to other states for which the initial steps had been taken. The hotel and hospitality sector is once again brimming with activity after the spread of coronavirus has slowed down to a certain extent.
The current trend is that people in Kerala are touring within the state itself and because of that bookings in hotels and resorts had spiralled. Things will be rosier when travellers from other states come to Kerala.
I am optimistic that bright days are ahead for the tourism industry as a whole.