House boats can be positioned as self-isolation holidays: Jobin Akkarakalam

Jobin Joseph Akkarakalam

The houseboats enjoy a unique pride of place in Kerala’s decorated tourism map. It’s an experience that most tourists cherish for a life time when they visit the state. It’s like the calling card of Kerala’s tourism brand. However, the corona virus pandemic has hit the segment hard and it will take months before normalcy returns to the industry, says Jobin J Akkarakalam, director, Spice Routes Luxury Cruises. The house boat segment involves high maintenance costs and hence the losses are even steeper. He estimates that the segment will see losses of Rs 2 crores every month. Excerpts:

Q: The houseboat industry is going through probably its worst ever phase. Did you think that the crisis would end up having such a devastating effect on the industry?

A: Yes the house boat industry is going through the worst phase in the history of back water tourism. We have faced tsunami, Mumbai terror attack, Nipah etc in the past. In fact ours was the epicentre of the great floods, but even we had hope. People of Kuttanad has seen many floods and we were sure that business would pick up as our source markets were all safe and sound whether it’s inbound or domestic. But this pandemic has taken us really back. We never thought that COVID – 19 will lead to such a crisis.

Q: What kind of losses do you think the industry will end up with, for the year?

A: Houseboat industry is one of the unique products developed by Kerala tourism over the years with 100% private partnership and it is said that there are about 1200 house boats in Alleppey and Kumarakom area that gives approximately 3000 to 3400 rooms. There are around 3500 people who are employed directly in the houseboat industry. Indirect employment would be almost double. The losses calculated would be huge approximately Rs 2 crore a month.

Q: What do you think are the steps that the industry can take to minimise the damage caused?

A: The damage is already done. To minimise the damage I would seriously suggest everyone to rework the budget. We should have tight cost control. Budgets for maintenance has to be get tighter, as house boats have to spend huge amounts on regular upkeep

Q: All tourism sector businesses are running out of working capital. What kind of measures do you think the government should take to help the industry. And I suppose the help has to be quick. Your take please.

Houseboat industry is purely an SME / small scale industry as most of the owners would have already pledged their lands or houseboats to do business as these are small scale units. So we are left with no other choice but to request government for soft loans with 4% interest or without collaterals. We are sure that banks would not be able to give interest free loans. But we also request the banks to enhance existing loans to have extra working capital.

Q: Can you please talk through the threat of job losses in the sector? How do you think the government can help to arrest job losses? What steps can they take?

A: We are worried when the business will start and when it does it will be at a slow pace. The bigger companies can only start with smaller inventories as each houseboat is a separate unit. So we can always start with smaller inventory. So they will have to send the staff on leave without pay. Some of us have already paid March salaries. Definitely we have to have our bread on the table but we are worried how to continue. I am sure we will have at least 95% staff without pay for month of April and may be 70% job loss in coming two to four months.

Q: How long do you think it will take for the industry to revive the interest of the tourists? In what way can the industry win back the confidence of the guests?

A: The houseboat industry will take at least minimum 3 months to revive. Only advantage I personally feel is that unlike a holiday resort or a hotel, on a houseboat the guests are going to be alone with their family and their interaction to others are limited so that it can be marketed as self-isolation holiday. I feel this confidence has to be built in the local market.

Q: Will the industry need to recalibrate the rates and other charges, once the COVID-19 scare disappears? What changes do you expect to see?

A: Recalibration is a good option but we also have to look into inflation. The hike in dollar rates has to be looked at when we recalculate the rates because each unit will have its own liabilities so that has to be also taken into consideration.

Q: What new offerings can guests expect from the houseboat sector, once normal services resume? Will the industry be the same again?

A: We will have to give new offerings and packages for Kerala tourists and travellers from neighbouring states. Domestic market penetration should be done in such a way the uniqueness of house boat should be highlighted as isolating yourself from rest of the world.

Q: The virus has put the spotlight on health and hygiene. From that perspective, the houseboat industry needs to gear up for the new standards. Please comment.

A: Houseboat classification has to be implemented at the earliest by Kerala tourism Department. Along with it Standard Operating procedures (SOP) should come into place. Protocol for health and hygiene should be the top priority.

Q: What have been some of the biggest learnings of the industry from this episode? How do you plan to put into practice some of these learnings?

A: The biggest learning is that we the tourism industry will be the first one to get hit and the last one to revive back . We should always look into the contingency funds. A positive approach has to be taken on all difficulties. Always support the people and your staff who have been always with you.