Editor's note: Described as one of the worst since 1924 by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the rains in Kerala have left over 350 dead and rendered thousands of people homeless. According to the latest tally, 80,000 have been rescued so far. Over 1,500 relief camps have been set up across the state that currently house at least 2,23,139 people. In a multi-part series, Firstpost will attempt to analyse the short-term and long-term impact of these unprecedented floods on the lives of the people, economy of the state, and the environment.
"Yes folks. The long wait is now over! The hills of Munnar will soon be bathed in a dreamy shade of blue. The neelakurinji blooms only once in every 12 years, and it sure is a sight to behold" — This is how Kerala Tourism had started beckoning tourists to the state through its website to witness the spectacular natural phenomenon a year earlier.
A month before the neelakkurinji flowers were expected to start blossoming, online reservations for hotels and resorts near the Eravikulam National Park, which has several beautiful flowering sites, were 98 percent booked out. Several new resorts came up, and the existing ones were renovated and expanded with new rooms to meet the heavy rush of tourists they see once in 12 years.
But nature had other plans. The Southwest Monsoon put a dampener on everyone's efforts. The heavy rains that pounded nearly the entire state in two spells blocked access to not only the flowering sites but also to the whole of Munnar, which attracted 11.32 lakh tourists last year. Idukki district, where Munnar is located, has the fourth highest tourist arrivals in Kerala after Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur.
Manorama News TV channel reporter Jayson Kuriakose, who covered the destruction on camera, said all major roads leading to Munnar were cut off in the rain and the landslides it triggered across the district. It will take at least two months to clear the mess, he said. Kuriakose highlighted that the destruction caused by the rain and landslides and its effects on tourism and the plantation sector, which is also popular with tourists, had broken the backbone of Idukki district's economy.
"Many of the resorts and hotels there have been badly damaged, while the others are lying empty. Most small shops that cater to tourists and many street vendors, who sell curios, antiques, handicrafts, spices and other products, have been washed away along with the paraphernalia they procured for the season. Munnar, which is still cut off from the rest of Kerala, looks like a ghost town," Kuriakose said.
The journalist added that the tea estates, which offer magnificent natural beauty in Munnar, had also suffered extensive damage. All the tea estates are closed at the moment, with workers idling in their homes, adding to the woes of the flood-ravaged district. The authorities may be able to reconstruct the damaged infrastructure, but it will take a long time for the famed hill station, which is thronged by thousands of tourists from the world over, to regain its old glory.
Zeeland Tours and Travels CEO Raji V Raju said that the impact of the calamity was more on Idukki's image than on the infrastructure. She said the wide coverage the floods received on national and international media had created an impression that Idukki was a hazardous zone. She added that social media had inflicted the biggest damage to the region's reputation.
"We may be able to reconstruct the damaged infrastructure, but the damage to Idukki's image may linger on for a long time and affect the (tourism) industry badly in the future, too. All bookings till October have been cancelled. We are not getting any fresh inquiries for what is usually the peak season beginning from November," she said.
The situation is no different in Wayanad, a hilly district which has the sixth highest tourist footfall in Kerala. Asianet reporter Jaison Maniyankad said the heavy rain and the landslides it triggered had wreaked extensive damage to the tourism infrastructure in the region.
"The three major ghats through which tourists travel to Wayanad have suffered heavy damage due to multiple landslides. Although traffic through the Thamaraserry ghat, the major gateway to Wayanad, has been partially restored, another two are still closed. It will take at least six months to restore them," he said.
Like in Idukki, landslides are a major bane of Wayanad, but the havoc in the district was wreaked more by the water discharged from the Banasura Sagar Dam. Vast areas of the district were inundated after the shutters of the dam were opened. Roads leading to most of the resorts were destroyed.
Located in the southern tip of the Deccan Plateau in the Western Ghats, with high hills and a number of high mountain passes as well as several hairpin turns, Wayanad is a favourite stress-busting destination among software professional from Bangaluru, Kochi and Hyderabad.
The backwater tourism industry in Alappuzha district is now haywire because of the two spells of floods. With the Pampa river in spate, waters of the Vembanad lake spilling over its banks after heavy rainfall and shutters of three major dams in Pathanamthitta district being opened during the second spell, resorts and supporting facilities suffered heavy damage.
While Kumarakom, the main backwater destination, was cut off, floodwaters entered the rooms of most resorts on the banks of Vembanad lake, inflicting severe damage to swimming polls, furniture and furnishings. The floodwaters have not receded from many of the resorts even now.
A large number of small shops along the banks of canals, which support the tourism industry, have been washed off. All 850 houseboats plying in the backwaters have been lying idle since June. Tomy Pulikkattil, a major houseboat operator in Alappuzha, said that the floods had washed off the Onam festival season, during which houseboats are usually fully booked.
"There are no new inquiries for the peak winter season. Although the flooding in the backwaters will recede, the ripple effect of the massive destruction to the industry as a whole may keep backwater tourism paralysed even during the coming season and inflict heavy losses to the boat operators," he said.
EM Najeeb, senior vice-president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, said the deluge in Kerala had caused extensive destruction to infrastructure in all major tourism destinations in Idukki, Wayanad, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam.
Tourists, especially foreign tourists, are left confounded about safety concerns as the floods occurred close on the heels of the Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala. Lack of new bookings during what is usually the peak season between November and February indicates that the industry will remain paralysed for a long time, unless the apprehension and safety concerns of tourists are addressed.
“It will take some time to restore the rhythm of growth as resetting connectivity, cleaning the destinations and regaining the confidence of tourists will be a time-consuming affair. We have to work hard to allay the safety concerns of tourists,” Najeeb said.
Kerala Tourism director P Bala Kiran said the industry had suffered heavy damage because of the floods, which had left several major tourism destinations, including Idukki, Wayanad, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam, devastated. The government has yet to assess the extent of the loss and damage to the tourism industry, he added.
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Updated Date: Jan 08, 2019 13:18:00 IST