We overdid backwater tourism, now is the time to preserve it: Maneesha Panicker

Maneesha Panicker

Maneesha Panicker is the founder of Silk Route Escapes, an experiential travel company that wants to handpick experiences that bring you closer to India’s culture. She is a former New Yorker who knows the heart of an avid traveller. Maneesha’s latest project is Kayal, an Island Retreat in the backwaters of Kerala. At Kakkathuruthu, she has built an intimate 4-cottage resort where fisherfolk and farmers share their life with guests, not far from the ancient port city of Kochi. She feels Kerala built too many hotels and houseboats and choked the backwaters here. We have to learn to tread carefully and watch what we do to a destination. We must ensure we don’t disrupt the natural way of life, she says. Excerpts from an interview:

Q:  As a tourism entrepreneur, how do you think the coronavirus crisis will affect backwater tourism in Kerala?

 With many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns, the virus has already affected travel. We, like all others in India, have no travellers since mid-March. Depending on how long the world takes to get back on its feet, travel may be affected for a good six months to a year.  

Kerala has done a phenomenal job in containing the virus. We are currently phasing out of the lockdown. When tourists are back, conscious travel to small hotels in remote locations will be in big demand. Well run, small hotels, guesthouses and homestays will do really well, both in the backwaters and beyond. With our excellent healthcare facilities, great leadership, an aware and literate population, scenic locations and a good network of hotels, we will be a top choice for many travellers.

Q: How do we ensure that we limit the impact of the crisis?

 The sooner we are able to conduct large scale testing, empower our health workers and educate our population, the faster we will be able to come out of this crisis. Kerala has been a leader in this, and kudos to the state government for setting an example for rest of India, and the rest of the world really.  

Since we are a country with limited public resources and since we need our private enterprises to function well to move India forward, once the virus is contained we must get back to business quickly. 

All small and large businesses have suffered extensively and to ensure many businesses don’t lay off their staff or shut down, the Government must consider some ways to help businesses pay their staff, offer tax holiday and make business loans available at low interest to help us get back on our feet. 

Businesses must use this time to engage with their customers, upskill their staff, innovate their business and improve their operations.

Q: What sort of protocol do we need to adopt to make sure tourists would feel safe when the season opens again?

 With our Covid response, Kerala is the safest destination in India, and possibly in the world right now. Many Kerala businesses are aware of WHO and State guidelines and are following social distancing and safety precautions. 

 Some things that come to mind are improving our emergency protocols based on our learnings from Covid 19, setting up an emergency task force immediately, having clear and consistent guidelines across the state on how to handle clients on the ground etc.   

 Also, if Kerala can bring back warmth and compassion to post-Covid travel, it would be great. With masks, gloves and social distance, travel has become very sterile at the moment.   

Q: Inbound tourism may take a long while to materialise. What are your plans to attract domestic tourists?

 Post lockdown, many Indians will be ready to travel. They may skip international travel this summer, and pick locations like Kerala. If Kerala government can negotiate with airlines and ensure cheap fares to Kerala, we could do very well. 

Wellness will be a big draw. We are looking to launch some wellness holiday packages at our backwater retreat.   

Q: What kind of marketing campaign do you propose to drive awareness about your resort in the current context?

 Currently no one can travel, so we are not aggressively promoting anything, but we are still engaging with our customers via social media. Now, more than ever, it’s a great time to listen to your customer. We are getting to know them better, collecting feedback on their past experiences with us, figuring out their aspirations for India / Kerala. 

Q: There is bound to be a shortfall in footfalls this year. How will you ensure that you don’t bleed too much as a business enterprise?

 We were operating with a great team. We hope to retain every single one in our team through this crisis. They were paid in full in March and we’ve gone to a reduced pay in April. We will assess the situation as a team, every month and figure the best solution. 

May, June and July are typically our off-season months where we spend our time taking a break, improving Kayal, and upskilling our team. We will look to tap into the Indian market, and look local in and around Kochi. If international travel doesn’t pick up, we may pivot and make Kayal a local restaurant / event space.  

Q: Backwater tourism has always been a big draw for Kerala tourism. How can we ensure that we keep it attractive enough for future generations to come and enjoy?

Backwaters were really big, till we overdid it. We built too many hotels and houseboats and choked the waters and killed tourism here. We have to learn to tread carefully and watch what we do to a destination. We must ensure we don’t disrupt the natural way of life, and build extensively. 

 Kayal, our project at Kakkathuruthu has been very successful, as we only have four rooms that blend into the island, and we have employed locally. Much of our food comes from the local backwater and the village, and we offer loads of local experiences where the traveller is not an intruder, but a passerby. 

 If every entrepreneur in Kerala, can think about preserving and giving back, we will keep Kerala attractive enough for generations to come.