Cruising in a houseboat down the many intricate channels of the charming network of the world’s most famous backwaters in Kerala’s Alappuzha was a fascinating experience for me in 2018. The presence of the arching bridges crisscrossing the canals evoked memories of the waterways and gondolas of the lovely Italian city immortalised by the world’s painters and bards, earning Alappuzha the sobriquet ‘Venice of the East’.
But what lends charm to the backwater trip is the spectacular scenery and the rich, vibrant cultural melange of Kerala itself. As the boat floated down through a labyrinth of intricate canals, the scenic allure of the magical green land unfurled before us. Cruising past lush paddy fields, palm thatched hamlets, red tiled-roof cottages, tiny waterfront churches, ancient wood and stone temples, cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, we had fleeting glimpses of the simple lives of the villagers living along the banks of the waterway. Other interesting waterside activities like copra drying, fishing, houseboat building and rice farming on reclaimed lands below sea level also unfolded before us.
As we drifted down the backwaters, our boatman regaled us with bloodcurdling tales of raids and piracy on merchant ships that plied these intricate waterways carrying valuable cargoes of ivory, gold, coconut, rubber and spices as well as silks and incense to Kerala’s busy coastline. These slow boats were raided by pirates using the swift snake boats of Kerala in times of yore.
The scenario changed when the waterways of Alappuzha witnessed the scenes of great post-harvest water wars, which have now evolved into the great water pageants and boat races of Kerala held in different part of the district. Reputed for its boat races, houseboat holidays, marine products and coir industry, Alappuzha has evolved from a prime trading outpost of yore to an important backwater tourist centre attracting scores of tourists from all over the world. The coir city has metamorphosed into the houseboat city.
The genesis of houseboat tourism can be traced back to 1993 when Babu Verghese, an enterprising entrepreneur, transformed the humble kettuvalloms (rice boats) that used to haul grain from the paddy fields through the backwaters into houseboats to ferry tourists. With rail and road taking over a major chunk of transportation activities, kettuvalloms were fast disappearing from the scene.
With the revival of the houseboats and innumerable cruising options, the backwaters witnessed a spurt in water tourism. Subsequently the backwaters of the state became great money-spinners luring several thousands of foreign tourists from all over the world each year. With more than 2,300 houseboats operating in the Alappuzha-Kottayam region, 180 companies engaged in the houseboat business, the backwaters have become the hub of houseboats.
All these have become part of colourful history. The COVID-19 scourge and the resultant lockdown have brought the houseboat industry to a shuddering halt. All the 2,300 houseboats in the Alleppey-Kottayam region lie anchored in the backwaters, leaving 5,000 employees and 20,000 families in the lurch.
“The Nipah outbreak, the two floods and now COVID-19 have put the houseboat owners in a tight spot. We find it find it difficult to keep the business going in the face of recurring setbacks like sharp decline in tourist arrivals following mass cancellations, high diesel prices, refunds and mounting loans and interests,” says Jobin Akkarakalam, Managing Partner, Spice Routes Luxury Cruises.
Explaining the financial hardships of the ailing industry, Jose Arathumpally, General Secretary, Kerala Houseboat Operators Federation, says, “We have invested a substantial amount in our business by availing loans. As banks do not accept houseboats as mortgage property, many of us have availed huge loans from cooperative banks at exorbitant interest rates, pledging our property.”
“Most people have taken overdrafts from banks to keep the business going. Though the government has declared a moratorium on loans, those of us who have taken loans don’t get any benefits,” he laments.
“We have requested the government to provide interest-free moratorium for bank loans based on the existing license, an extended period of one year for renewal of annual license, a grant of Rs 1 lakh per boat for houseboat maintenance from March and an extension of three years for pollution control board certificates,” says Arathumpally.
With the grounding of the houseboats, the whole economic ecosystem has gone haywire. The crisis in the houseboat industry has directly impacted the local economy as a majority of the workers hail from local areas. There are allied industries and workers, and an entire market that depends on the houseboat industry throughout the year.
As per estimates, the houseboat sector suffers a Rs 2 crore loss daily. Thousands of people associated with the houseboat sector have lost their livelihoods. “With no job and an uncertain future, we are completely devastated. In the absence of welfare schemes, we’re not entitled to ex-gratia allowance. Coronavirus has ruined us,” says Rajesh who has been working in a houseboat for 5 years.
The backwater resorts, members of the tourism fraternity, local Self-Help Groups like Kudumbashree, NGOs, farmers, fishermen and others actively involved in the implementation of the Responsible Tourism initiatives also are bearing the brunt.
“Since the houseboats are lying idle and there is no requirement for diesel for generator, fuel pumps have lost a considerable revenue. Suppliers of sanitaryware, fish, vegetables, groceries, and laundry service providers have also lost their regular earnings,” adds Akkarakalam.
Embroiled in debt traps, it is tough times ahead for the beleaguered community of houseboat owners, workers and suppliers. Akkarakalam feels that this unprecedented crisis is only temporary. On a positive note, he believes that houseboat owners can see this as a unique opportunity to promote contactless tourism where travellers can experience the luxury of having a whole houseboat to themselves.
All pictures by Susheela Nair
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.