The boom in tourism at the exotic island village in Kollam began in 2010, witnessing a constant flow of tourists till the lockdown in March this year.

A boatman kayaking a boat across the Ashatmudi Lake at Munroe Island in Kerala
Coronavirus Tourism Wednesday, November 11, 2020 - 17:25

Sayipps, as Malayalis refer to white men, would come once in a month. They would roam around, do some boating and leave. They would give Remanan a tip. This was in the 1980s. Remanan was one of the boatmen who ferried people across the Kallada river to Munroe Island. Mundrothuruthu, as the island is known in Malayalam, was not a tourist destination then. Speaking to TNM, Remanan, now 63, recalls, “I hadn’t even heard of the word tourism then.” The few foreigners who visited wrote about the exquisiteness of the island after returning to their home countries. “Gradually the word spread,” Remanan says. More foreigners began to come by the 90s. By then, Remanan and other local people had learnt about the concept of tourism. The boatmen began charging tourists per hour rather than being content with the tips they received.

If in the 80s there were one or two foreigners visiting per month, by the 90s 50 or so foreigners began holidaying at the island in a month. The beginning of the millennium saw a constant flow of tourists, which transformed into a boom by 2010. By then tourist agencies in north India too began adding Munroe Island to their vacation packages.

Munroe Island is a confluence of the Ashtamudi lake and the Kallada river, falling under the Chittumala block panchayat in Kollam district. It is named after Colonel John Munro, a British official who ruled the province during colonial rule. Consisting of eight islets, the island became a flourishing tourist spot. Varkala, a sought-after beach destination in the state, is just a 1.5-hour drive away and this proximity also boosted the tourists’ inflow to the island.

Located about 24 km from Kollam city, the island can be reached by crossing the Ashtamudi lake from Perumon or by road via Kundara and Chittumala or by passenger trains that stop at Mundrothuruthu station.

Hopes crushed by pandemic

The COVID-19 induced lockdown has left its impact on tourism in Munroe Island too. Remanan had set up a two-room homestay in 2017. Nearly 150 bookings for the homestay had to be cancelled after the lockdown was put in place.

“The season starts by October every year and lasts till February-March. We usually have both rooms booked every day during the season and half the time in the off-season too,” Rahul, Remanan’s son, tells TNM. Rahul takes care of the homestay while Remanan continues as a boatman. 

                                                 Remanan and Rahul 

It’s estimated that Munroe Island, sprawled across a 14-km radius, brings in Rs 5 lakh per day from tourism. However, this year, from March till now there has been no revenue from tourism though a few tourists began visiting since last Sunday after Unlock 5.0 opened up sightseeing spots too.

“It was in the 2000s after social media became influential that we began witnessing a boom in tourism. In a month on an average 5,000 people used to visit here. In the beginning it was only Europeans, later north Indians too began arriving, and since 2010 it has become a popular destination with local tourists too. The tourism boom has led to the overall development of the region as well. The local people were mostly dependent on traditional occupations such as fishing and harvesting of clams in Ashatmudi lake. With the advent of tourism, homestays and restaurants began to flourish while many turned to operating boats as well. But we didn’t have a single booking post the lockdown,” Remanan says.

In March, the district administration started using homestay rooms for institutional quarantine when COVID-19 began to spread. “The keys were with the officials till now. Recently we applied to get the keys back, but we didn’t get any payment. It’s been harder for boatmen and others too who depend solely on tourism,” Rahul says.

The island is surrounded by the Ashatmudi lake and is connected to the Kallada river through canals. Tourists are taken boating in small country boats through the canals for about Rs 1,000 per hour. With the pandemic and the lockdown, they have been left without a job.

“A few people began coming since last Sunday. But we have cut down the rate per hour to Rs 600 and for two hours from Rs 2,000 to Rs 1,000,” Uthaman, another boatman, says.

“Post the lockdown, we had to shift to other daily wage work in the traditional jobs we used to do earlier, but that too was not regular. We managed to survive with the ration rice provided by the government,” he adds.

Asokan and Pradeepan, two other boatmen, have also been waiting for the boom days to be back. “This was our prime source of income, now we’ve to start all over again,” Asokan says. 

                                                 Uthaman, Pradeep and Asokan

Vijeesh, Remanan’s nephew, who also runs a homestay, shares the same feeling. “All nine rooms in our resort used to be occupied every day during the season, ensuring us a daily income of Rs 10,000. We’re all wishing that a vaccine for COVID-19 be invented soon, so that life and in turn tourism can come back to normal. It’s like we have to start everything again,” Vijeesh says.

                                                             Vijesh 

For Sethu, another resort owner, the loss per day is in the thousands. “I’ve been struggling to retain the staff. We have five regular staff members and nine others, including boatmen, we used to arrange for tourists. We’ve dropped the rates now, expecting a new beginning,” he says.

 

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