Houseboats that ply on Kerala's backwaters resume operation today

Kerala houseboats ready to greet tourists again
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Alappuzha: After seven long months, houseboats that ply on Kerala's famed backwaters resume operation on Sunday adhering to strict COVID protocols.

The State Tourism Department has issued a slew of guidelines for all to follow. These include wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and regular use of sanitisers.

Kerala resumed its tourist activities on Monday after the State gave the nod allowing tourism centres to reopen. Beaches, however, remain closed still and are expected to open only from November 1.

After the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, the businesses of over 800 houseboats plying the famed Vembanad lake had come to a grinding halt.

What were once traditional rice boats used to carry paddy from the fields to the markets or to the barns, these houseboats have come to define Alappuzha, considered the 'Venice of the East', making it one of the primary tourist destinations in the state.

Since Monday, the houseboat owners were engaged in last-minute cleaning operations, making the boats ready for welcoming the tourists.

Tomy Pulikattil, who owns a fleet of houseboats ranging from a single bedroom to six-bedroom, said they are all ready and are waiting for the guests.

"We have started to contact the guests who got in touch with us in the recent past to check if the houseboats were operating. We have decided to offer a 25 per cent discount to all our guests who travel with us. The last seven months were like a nightmare for all of us, as we were having a hand-to-mouth existence. We also had to pay our permanent employees," said Pulikattil.

The employees are also trained to follow the COVID protocols.

"We have been drained completely because of no business. We did raise our concerns with the Kerala government and the report is that all will be given a maintenance grant of Rs one lakh. Depending on the size of the houseboat, the total expenses will go up to Rs 4 lakh," Pulikattil added.

The biggest houseboat plying here is a 10-bedroom houseboat, while a huge majority are one and two-bedroom ones, and the minimum tariff is Rs 6,000 for a 24-hour trip.

According to the present COVID guidelines, tourists arriving from other states too are welcome to visit, i.e. if their return is within seven days. Else, they would have to undergo quarantine for seven days and take a COVID test at their own expense before venturing out.

Producing a COVID negative certificate on arrival helps bypass this rule. In any case, registration on https://covid19jagratha.kerala.nic.in/ portal is mandatory.

However, if they experience COVID-19 symptoms at any point during their time in Kerala, quarantine is mandatory and their return is likely delayed (possible only after they test negative again). Those who already have symptoms are advised to not travel.

Kerala has been witnessing an unprecedented surge in COVID cases these past weeks. The State has recent weeks enforced stringent measures to curb the spread of the virus, including the imposition of Sec 144 on October 3 that prevents the gathering of people in public places.

The reopening of tourism centres, which comes amidst this turbulent period, hopes to bring much-needed relief to those dependent on tourism for their livelihood.

With all means of travel taken off the air, rails and roads during the lockdown, the tourism sector, its destinations and attractions, had been reeling these past months. Unofficial estimates peg the losses accumulated between February and April alone at over Rs 15,000 crore.

It is also likely to help the state's cash-strapped economy. The money-spinning tourism industry brought in more than Rs 45,000 crore and contributed nearly 12 per cent to the state's GDP in 2019.

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