Kochi: Feeling the pinch of a global downturn, Kerala’s tourism industry is starting to look at new markets such as Russia, China and Italy for this year’s tourism season, which starts mid-August and goes on till March.

Hot spot: Elephants at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady, Kerala. Tourism in the state is worth about Rs13,000 crore in annual revenues. Ajayan / Mint

The annual Nehru Boat Race, held in the backwaters of Alappuzha district on the second Saturday of August, heralds the beginning of the tourism season. The race was first held in 1952 to honour then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

With Kerala’s main markets—the US and Europe—yet to recover from the downturn, tourism secretary V. Venu is hoping efforts to draw tourists from new markets will begin to yield results. The Kerala tourism department has held roadshows and undertaken promotional activities in Russia and China over the past year. Excavations at Pattanam, near Kochi, over the past two years, pointing to a Roman link, have already attracted research scholars from Italy and the state government hopes this will translate into a flow of tourists from that country.

Tourism in the state, popularly known as “God’s Own Country" for its lush greenery, intricate network of backwaters and pristine beaches, is worth about Rs13,000 crore in annual revenues.

But the global slowdown kept foreign tourists away between January and March. Data from the state tourism department shows foreign arrivals declined by more than 18% to 19,000, while domestic tourist traffic increased marginally by 3% to 1.8 million compared with the corresponding period last year.

Venu said the downturn is an opportunity to look at newer markets. Kerala already gets a small number of Russian tourists, attracted by its beaches—and it is hoping to expand this market.

Tourists from China have generally not travelled beyond Delhi and northern India, particularly the circuit showcasing Buddhist heritage. “It is not the upmarket clients, but middle-level ones, and they come in large numbers," Venu said. Officials are hoping efforts to attract them to Kerala will start showing results slowly.

Excavations at Pattanam point to some of the earliest trade links with the Roman empire as well as ties with the Harappan civilization. They have also brought into focus the relevance of the legendary Muziris port, the entry for Romans into India in the pre-Christian era. The Roman link will surely attract tourists from Italy, said Venu.

The Kerala government plans to promote the Muziris port as a heritage site under a preservation-cum-tourism project, said Thomas Isaac, Kerala finance minister—Rs125 crore has been allocated for excavation, roads to the nearly 300 monuments around the heritage site and tourist facilities.

Experts from the University of Georgia in the US recently confirmed that wood artefacts recovered from the site, including a canoe, go back to as early as 56 BC.

“There should be equal importance for promoting domestic tourism as well," said E.M. Najeeb, president of the Kerala Travel Mart, a private-public venture to promote tourism in the state, and managing director of the Great Indian Tour Co. What is needed, he said, is a focused programme on nature tourism, including beaches, backwaters, forests and Ayurveda and rejuvenation packages.