Kochi: Kerala's tourism sector is pinning its hopes on the relaxation of quarantines rules and opening of bars to bounce back to normalcy after the heavy loss inflicted by COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly 6-7 months of inactivity saw the sector, which accounts for 10% of the state GDP, suffer a loss of about Rs 15,000 crore, according to Abraham George, former president of Kerala Travel Mart Society, an organisation formed by the service providers to promote Kerala tourism.
“We are hoping that the state government will bring about changes in the quarantine rules by the end of this month,’’ he says. Several states have opened up to outsiders by easing quarantine restrictions. However, Kerala still insists on 7-day quarantine for the travellers from outside the state.
The main tourism season in the state starts from October and extends till April. The stakeholders in tourism sector are expecting that relaxation of quarantine rules will increase the flow of domestic tourists to the state. “We have given up hope of attracting international tourists this year in the absence of flights and other restrictions. Maybe they will start coming for the winter season in 2021,’’ observes George Dominic, secretary of Association of Approved and Classified Hotels of Kerala.
Domestic travellers form the main chunk of tourists to the state. In fact, almost 94% of the 1.96 crore visitors to Kerala in 2019 belonged to this category. Last year saw a boom in the arrivals after the state was devastated by one of the worst floods in recent times and Nipah virus contagion in 2018. The domestic tourist arrivals went up by nearly 18% from a year ago. International tourists showed a healthy increase of 8.5%.
Coronavirus has dashed the tourism prospects of 2020 and it now appears that the year will be an echo of 2018 with tourist flow down to a trickle.
In the last couple of months, a feeble flow of local tourists has been seen at several destinations. The trend helps hotels to just stay afloat but it doesn’t bring in much revenue. “We see a weekend crowd in destinations like Kumarakom, Wayanad, Thekkady etc who come to relax and enjoy. Many hotels are offering room at discounted rates and there is around 50 to 60% occupancy,” points out George Dominic, who is also the ED of CGH Earth group.
Some resorts are even trying celebrity endorsements as a promotion tool. Tentgram that specialises in adventure tourism, has been inviting film stars to their properties. They go there by invitation or by choice and often puts the pictures on the social media thus helping to popularise the destination.
Typically, largescale arrival of the domestic tourists to the state starts after Diwali which falls in November. This time the service providers are keeping their fingers crossed. “We have been getting lot of enquiries. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and Chandigarh account for majority of travellers to the state,’’ says Dominic.
Availability of liquor is another aspect that is worrying the hospitality segment. The government has allowed hotels along with shops of state-owned Bevco and Consumerfed to sell liquor. But as the number of COVID cases are on the rise in the state, it has decided to wait further to open the bars. The hotels are expecting the government to throw open the bars to the public by next month. They feel that it will be embarrassing for the tourists, especially families, to find queues of local people in the star-hotels to buy booze.
“We have requested the government to relax the quarantine rules after October 15. Every tourist can be tested for COVID -19 and if found negative should be allowed to visit the state. We can follow all the health protocols,’’ says E M Najeeb, MD of Indian Association of Tour Operators Kerala.
While medical sector in the state has been in the vanguard of the fight against the pandemic, ironically, it is the health tourism which has suffered heavily from the after effects of coronavirus. Medical tourism--a sort of game changer for Kerala with its chain of Ayurveda treatment centres and other healthcare facilities--has seen a rapid rise in the last few years.
The state attracts hordes of Arab tourists during monsoon who come for Ayurveda treatment. “We have lost out on that without any flight from the Gulf countries,’’ says Dr Anvar, chief physician at Raha Ayurveda.
He admitted the group has been receiving lot enquiries from North India for treatment in the coming months, which may be possible only with the relaxation of quarantine norms. According to him the Ministry of Ayush had recently recommended Ayurveda for treatment of mild and moderate symptoms of COVID-19.
Meanwhile it has been decided that Kerala Travel Mart, the biennial tourism event in the state that brings together sellers and tour agents from across the world, will be conducted virtually in November in the wake of the pandemic.
(P K Krishnakumar is an independent journalist based in Kochi.)