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Houseboat industry in turbulent waters

Clouds of uncertainty further thickened over the scenic backwaters of Alappuzha as the soaring inflation sucker-punched the pandemic-stressed houseboat industry.

Houseboats, the mascot of Kerala Tourism, have faced numerous knock-backs in recent years in the form of Cyclone Ockhi, the Nipah outbreak and back-to-back floods. The vessels that had ceased chugging across Vembanad Lake since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020 remained anchored for several months. The sector, which has seen the first signs of revival of late, is being propelled back into uncharted waters with the rising prices of fuels and essentials.

50% hike in operation cost

Alappuzha-based Biju K. has been associated with the houseboat sector for more than 15 years. He says the cost of operation has jumped around 50% in recent months. "After all the pandemic-induced troubles, the houseboat sector was slowly getting back on track with tourists starting to flock back. But it appears to be short-lived. The price of diesel and petrol that power vessels and air conditioners has touched new highs affecting our operations. The skyrocketing prices of commercial liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and provisions have further added to the woes. The high inflation came at the most inopportune time for the sector," Mr. Biju says.

According to industry people, on an average a houseboat consumes 25 litres of diesel for a 50-km trip. Houseboat operators charge around ₹6,500 for a normal single bedroom boat for an overnight trip. “To make a trip happen, we spend approximately ₹2,500 on diesel, ₹2,750 for paying three employees, besides other miscellaneous costs. We also need to spend money on maintenance, renewing annual licence and obtaining pollution control certificate. The increasing cost of operation is making the business unsustainable,” says Sajin G., a houseboat operator.

Uncertain future

The crisis caused by the pandemic has pushed several houseboat owners and employees into a debt trap. Now with inflation playing spoilsport, thousands of people associated with the sector directly or indirectly are staring at an uncertain future.

There were around 700 houseboats plying on the backwaters of Alappuzha before the pandemic, which used to attract visitors from across the globe. With few foreign tourist arrivals, the business now depends largely on tourists from north Kerala and other States. Industry insiders say that one way to tide over the crisis is to increase the rates. Though a few operators have raised the rates, many seem reluctant due to local competition and fear of tourists skipping backwater cruises citing exorbitant prices.

30% stopped ops

According to Tomy Pulickattil, a veteran of the houseboat industry and former general secretary of the All Kerala Houseboat Owners Association, of the total vessels in Alappuzha, 30% have stopped operations in recent years. “After the pandemic, we are facing yet another headwind. The soaring prices of fuels and essentials have pushed up the cost of a trip by ₹1,500. At the same time, we cannot hike the rates due to the prevailing situation as inflation has adversely affected all sections of society. If things continue like this, it will spell doom for the sector,” Mr. Pulickattil says.

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