Jeemon Jacob, AFP
Thiruvananthapuram: It’s a dream holiday for anyone willing to spend as much a $500 a day to float through the palm-fringed backwaters of India’s southern Kerala state.
Traditional wooden dhows decorated like hotel rooms carry tourists on an idyll through what advertisers are dubbing “God’s own country”.
Since the Indian government made Kerala a highlight of its worldwide “Incredible India” campaign tourist arrivals to the state have crossed 300,000 — while the total for the country rose to a record 4.4 million in 2006, up 14% on the year before.
Overseas tourists spent $1.7 billion in the state alone last year visiting beaches and colonial-era coffee and tea plantations, viewing elephants and other wildlife, and floating on the houseboats, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
But tourism appears to be taking off faster than local authorities can ensure the industry is up to the task.
Following a recent tragedy that left 18 dead, state regulators found many of the boats that are central to Kerala’s tourism boom lacked fire equipment, licenses and food permits.
Several vessels have been impounded and the owners of dozens of others plying the estuaries of the Arabian Sea town of Alappuzha fined.
“Our inspections of the houseboats in Alappuzha revealed that the majority of them do not have safety measures or valid licenses to operate in the backwaters,” said Govindan Sali, Kerala’s inspector of boats.
“We have impounded nine houseboats for operating in the backwaters without a valid license and fined another 63 houseboats for not keeping safety measures in the boats.”
Sali estimated that 350 houseboats plied the backwaters. Since the end of February, he said, he had inspected about 200 and described most as makeshift.
Many of the vessels offer elaborate services including fresh seafood, cocktails and an enclosure where couples can watch elephants being transported on barges, and enjoy moonlit nights and soft breezes.
The trips last up to a week and offer travellers an opportunity to witness daily life in the region, famed for its spices, fruit, and seafood curries.
But Sali said the tourist image of the state was at stake, particularly after 15 children aged under 11 were killed in a boating accident in Kerala’s most popular state-run park in mid February.
More than 50 children were packed into a boat intended for six people. They had no life jackets and none of the staff were trained in water safety.
“We have conducted raids after the boat tragedy in Thattekad reservoir that killed 15 school children and three teachers. We want to ensure the safety of tourists holidaying in Kerala,” said Sali.
The focus of the inspections, Alappuzha, is 150 kilometres (94 miles) north of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, a hub for backwater cruises.
“Our inspection of the houseboats found that majority of the boat drivers do not have a valid license,” Sali added.
The state’s minister for water resources, N.K. Permachandran, told AFP he had ordered the inspections to ensure that both houseboats and ferries were safe.
“I don’t want another tragedy to happen and we are taking precautions to ensure passenger safety,” he said.
Tour operators, however, feared the inspections would scare away tourists and hurt the industry.
“It takes more than a year to get a license. Hundreds of applications are pending for the last one year. Now they are punishing us for no fault of ours,” complained Analan Sukumaran, an Alappuzha boat owner.
Sukumaran, 35, said he converted his fishing boat into a houseboat last year to take advantage of the boom.
“I became a tour operator when I lost my job as a fisherman,” he said. “We carry only one or two guests in our boats. Being a fisherman, I can swim and save my guests if any incident happens.”
But Sali said that accidents do happen and many of the boat owners are unprepared.