Wayanad: Monica Raj, from Bengaluru, was thrilled after the sky cycling at the Chellotte Estate, Vythiri. A first-time visitor to the hill district of Kerala she was exhilarated to ride on a steel rope tied across two hillocks. She said the trip, with a group of friends, turned out to be a memorable one with her cycling moments in the sky. “I was on the moon, very excited and will come back to experience more,” she added. Sky rides, sky cycling, plantation walks, ATV (all-terrain vehicle) rides, giant swings, tea factory visits, tea museums, mountain cycling and trekking are some of the activities that tea plantations offer to tourists as the cash-strapped plantations gradually wake up to the call of the tourism industry.
Crisis-ridden tea plantations are moving through the worst era in their history, say experts. So they are tapping into all sources of income in the struggle for survival. Hence the abandoned drying yards have given way to café restaurants and country markets. The single-bedroom labourers’ cottages, known as paddy cottages, built in granite by the colonial masters, are transformed into paddy suits and old hospital buildings have been metamorphosed into plantation hostels.
A defunct tea factory is now a tea museum, while the managers’ bungalows nestled atop scenic hillocks surrounded by tea plantations are now exclusive suits. It is estimated that 24 per cent of Wayanad's GDP comes from tourism. According to a survey conducted by the tourism industry, in 2022 as many as 10,93,175 tourists visited the district. No wonder then that plantations are also tapping into the market. And the tourists are not complaining.
It was the British who expanded the tea and coffee plantations in Wayanad. Vast tea plantations were introduced by 1853 in Wayanad and Nilgiris. By 1859 there were 27 small and medium estates in Wayanad where around 80 British planters concentrated developing coffee and tea estates, spread over 10,000 acres. They built palatial bungalows on the hilltops. For the labourers, tiny tenements with one bedroom, kitchen and living room were built with space for an open shower in the backyard.
With ‘plantation tourism’ finding many takers, many of the estates have started converting the colonial bungalows to accommodate tourists which provide a chance to enjoy the scenic beauty of the vast expanse of tea estates around.
While smaller plantations are experimenting with simple attractions like plantation walks, spice feel and farm trekking, the largest estates are adding more rides and adventure activities to tap into the youngsters' new-found love for Wayanad’s nature. According to Ashish Dev, deputy manager (New Business), Harrison’s Malayalam Limited (HML), plantation tourism will give a breather to the cash-strapped plantation sector, 'if they utilise it well'. In Wayanad, HML has introduced tourism activities in three of its five estates at Achur, Sentinel Rock and Chundel.
One can easily drop in at the Tea Museum at Achur during travel through the NH 766 connecting Bengaluru and Kozhikode, a few minutes drive from the NH from Vythiri. “Apart from the tea museum, we also provide plantation visits, tea tasting and factory visits," Dev said. “For the more adventurous travellers, we have a zip line, ATV rides and sky cycling at the Chundel Estate," he added.
“During the FY23, the company made a profit of Rs 2 crore from tourism,” Dev said. This year, the target is Rs 2.4 crore. But it has already achieved 79 per cent of it within the first six months of this fiscal, he said. HML plans to add a glass bridge near Soochippara Waterfalls and a camping site also at Puthumala at the Sentinel Rock estate, he added. Apart from this, the Zipline, sky cycling, and ATV rides at Chundel plantation are attracting a good number of visitors
A ray of hope
“Plantation tourism is the last ray of hope for the tea industry to tide over the crisis”, said Fr Franson Cherumanthuruthil, manager of the 800-acre Chellotte Estate. Owned by the Diocese of Calicut, the plantation, established in 1921, has been running up losses for many years. “During 1998-2000, we used to receive Rs 120 to Rs 140 for our tea dust and we were managing the plantations," he said. “After 20 years, prices have plummetted from that level whereas the cost of production has scaled up manyfold,” he pointed out.
According to Fr Franson, the plantation sector would profit from catering to tourists' needs. The estate is located along NH 766 in Vythiri. “Thousands of people visit Wayanad every day and if we are able to attract a tiny share of the visitors we will survive”, Fr Franson said. Moreover, the management also imparted training to the wards of plantation labourers in the hospitality industry. “We have just started and if things go well in the coming years, labour families will get an additional income as their own children are employed in tourism activities,” Fr Franson pointed out.
Chellotte Estate also has a moonlight dinner offer on its plate. “I hope tourists would enjoy a supper in the illuminated plantation amid the mesmerising view of fog wafting across the Chembra Peak in the moonlight”, he said. A proposal is also in the pipeline to convert an abandoned drying yard along the highway into an indigenous market where tourists can buy pepper, honey, teas, green tea, pickles and dry fruits.
While many plantation groups jumped on the bandwagon recently, small planters have been dabbling in plantation tourism since 2002. “It was during the Tsunami of 2004 that we hosted the first batch of foreign tourists who were stranded at Beypore Port,” said Ravindran K, considered the doyen of Wayanad Tourism. “Ninty-plus passengers came and spent a whole day on the farm. Some climbed a ladder to pluck tender coconuts, while a few others pick pepper, tea leaves or coffee berries,” he said.
Amazed by the excitement of the tourists, many travel companies started operating regular winter cruises to the Malabar Coast of which a plantation visit to Wayanad was an essential part of the itinerary.
The increased interest in adventure tourism has also sparked a high demand for adventure tourism experts as well as vendors that organise and operate such activities. Apart from companies like Muddy Boots Vacations, Liventure Vacations and Young Wind, more than a dozen tourism activity groups are already operating in the district catering to various plantation groups as well as tourism properties in organising activities. According to Pradeep Murthy, director and founder member of Muddy Boots Vacations, it is high time the plantation groups rise and tap the existing demand by setting up simple units without any damage to the ecosystem. “We patronise more than 20 groups that cater to activity-based tourism in plantations and properties,” he said.
However, the majority of plantations are still sceptical about the opportunities opened by the tourism industry and are scared to jump into the sector as it needs huge investment. Association of Planters of Kerala (APK) secretary Ajith Balakrishnan told Onmanorama that such non-plantation activities are permitted only on 5 per cent of the total area of the plantation of which tourism activity is permitted only on 10 acres of land. “It is good that many plantations are into it now as the possibilities are aplenty”, he said.
The Department of Industries and Commerce (DI&C) has recently constituted a Plantation Directorate to ensure special attention to the plantation sector and to tap all the possibilities including tourism in a better way. Expansion of the directorate to each district with opening offices is yet to take place. However, DI & C director S Harikishore who is also the Director of the plantation directorate told Onmanorama that a master plan for the plantation sector is taking shape at IIM Kozhikode with a multi-level planning which would also explore better tapping the tourism industry. “Measures are on to simplify the procedures once the office of plantation directorate gets opened in each district”, he said.