The backwater inlands running parallel to the Arabian Sea coast have been one of the biggest tourist attractions in Kerala. But the devastation wrought by the worst-ever flood in a century will take longer than a season to bring the tourist spots into normal.
Houses in the flood-hit areas are still submerged, roads are waterlogged and the sewage from drains is washed into channels that are too slow-moving to effectively flush out the effluent.
Sudarsanan TK, a houseboat owner in Alappuzha district, had been looking forward to the peak tourist season, but as his home disappeared under 8 feet of water his family now have to live aboard the boat he would otherwise be renting to tourists from Europe, China, Malaysia and India.
“I've nothing left, but this houseboat. I don't know how I can repay my bank loan in this condition. The bank may take back my boat. I will have nothing at all then,” Sudarsanan, a 64-year-old father of two, said.
Some 1,500 houseboats are tied up at Alappuzha, going nowhere, with many of the owners still paying off loans taken to buy the boats.
Sudarsanan owes over Rs 6 lakh on the loan taken eight years ago to buy the boat, and he could have earned up to Rs 5 lakh by December if the deluge hadn't washed away his hopes.
Hundreds of people perished in the flood and more than one million of Kerala's 35 million people were forced to abandon their homes and take shelter in relief camps.
Dubbed ‘God's own country’ the government reckons it will need 21,000 crore to rebuild over the next two years.
“Kerala's GDP growth may fall by 2 per cent,” state Finance Minister TM Thomas Isaac said, forecasting growth of 6 per cent for the financial year ending next March.
Crops have been lost, the construction industry was dead for a month, and tourism, which contributes 10 per cent of the state's economy but accounts for about 25 per cent of jobs creation, has been badly hit.
Kerala is a popular tourist destination. However it doesn't draw numbers like India's so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ running from New Delhi to the Taj Mahal in Agra, and Jaipur's palaces in Rajasthan, but it has carved out a sizable niche.
Last year, one million foreigners visited Kerala, along with 15 million domestic tourists, but state government and industry officials reckon the flood will result in losses for the tourism sector of $357 million.
The floods struck just as Kerala was gearing up for the state's harvest festival Onam. Festivities, including the spectacular Vallam Kali races involving traditional war canoes, some manned by more than 100 paddlers, were postponed.
“Kerala has lost out on one of the best seasons, as the calamity struck during the 10-day run up to Onam,” said Ranjini Nambiar, who heads a travel consultancy.
Thousands of volunteers have joined a clean-up campaign mounted by the state, and Shilendran M, an executive with the CGH Earth luxury hotel chain, expected some kind of order to be restored within the next few weeks.
“The state administration is working on a war footing,” said Shilendran, whose group has more than a dozen properties in Kerala. “We are limping back to normal.”
Hardly anywhere in the state escaped the calamity. Ernakulam district suffered major damage and its busy international airport was shut for nearly two weeks.
Munnar, the popular hill resort overlooking the tea and cardamom plantations high in the Ghats was cut off, as bridges were washed away and landslides blocked roads.
Once every dozen years a bright purplish-blue bell-shaped flower called the Neelakurinji, blossoms on the slopes around Munnar - and this was one of those years. (With inputs from Reuters)
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