River cruising will be a major part of Kerala Tourism’s ambitious Rs 325 crore project to develop the Malabar region. Speaking exclusively to FE Online in the office of the Directorate of Tourism in Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, P Bala Kiran, IAS, Director, Kerala Tourism stated, “Nearly 92 per cent of tourists come mainly to south Kerala circuits – Kochi, Munnar, Thekkady Kumarakom, Varkala and Kovalam and go back from Thiruvanathapuram. Most of them don’t even go to North Kerala. So what we thought is if we want to double our tourist arrivals, the only way to do it is increase the geographical spread, apart from increasing the brand equity of Kerala Tourism and expanding the season to a 365 day destination. When we were searching for products in North Kerala, we realised that river cruise tourism has not been exploited in a big way. We already have a presence in the sense that we have the houseboats but only they don’t go on cruises. They go for a short picnic tour and return.”
He added that seven of the rivers are already connected in Kannur, Kasaragod and Calicut districts. “So we thought of starting this product. We chalked up a Rs 325 cr project proposal to develop this and approached the Government of India. We expect to get around Rs 100 crore from the Centre. The remaining funds will raised by the state government. In fact, this year’s budget itself has allocated Rs 37 crore for creating the boat jetties along the river courses and to procure the boats as there are hardly any houseboats plying on these rivers except in the Valiyaparambu backwaters. By Onam this year (September) we hope to have the river cruises up and running in North Kerala.”
This will coincide with the Kerala Travel Mart (KTM) being held in Kochi around that time. Ironically, the theme of KTM 2018 is Malabar tourism.
Commenting on whether the river cruises may face the environmental hurdles or objections from locals like the seaplane project did, Bala Kiran informed that the demand for river cruises has come from the locals themselves. “When Government of India officials came to do a site inspection recently, they received a warm welcome from the locals. People in North Kerala are generally very welcoming and hospitable,” he said.
Many of these rivers have small islands which are populated. So each of these islands have been given a tourism task to entertain the river cruise guests. Thus the eight rivers will have eight separate circuits to give guests different experiences like say a Theyyam circuit, a food circuit, etc.
Bala Kiran also stated that as it is difficult to attract bids in virgin territories initially the tourism department will buy and operate the cruise boats. “Later when there is good response from private players, we will gradually withdraw, ” he said. He added that the Tourism District Councils in North Kerala will drive the river cruise initiative as the Malabar region is very far from the capital city.