Coronavirus: In God’s Own Country, the biggest casualty is tourism

Gifted with sweeping mountains, rolling tea estates, tranquil backwaters, and pristine beaches, Kerala’s tourism potential is recognised globally. It is a ₹35,000 crore cash cow, providing jobs to 1.5 million. Tourism accounts for 40% in revenues of the state’s services sector, the mainstay of the economy.

Kerala saw 1.67 crore visitors last year, according to the latest economic survey, despite the double-whammy of the Nipah outbreak and the unprecedented floods in 2018 and 2019 that ravaged the state.

Things are different this season.

Chinese fishing nets against the Fort Kochi skyline no longer overlook luxury cruises, while beaches and bars are bereft of customers. Small ferries and houseboats in the famed backwaters of Kuttanad float at anchor, alongside the home-stays that employ them, and Kathakali dancers are jobless. The elephants are idle too.

Among the biggest hotel chains in Kerala, one saw cancellations worth ₹2.5 crore on Wednesday, and another lost businesses worth ₹5 crore earlier in the week, according to a state government employee who is tasked with tabulating data from each district, requesting not to be named.

“Until corona(virus), we were actually seeing great numbers. The December-January peak season had bookings extended till March. But they are either getting postponed or simply cancelled now,” the person said.

More than a month after it was first identified in Wuhan, China, in late December, the novel coronavirus continues to confound experts, with no clarity yet on the source of the virus. Lack of effective countermeasures and vaccines has not helped the matters.

Efforts are on to contain the spread of the virus and the World Health Organization has declared it a global public health emergency. But the virus has proved tricky – there are now 31,377 confirmed cases in 27 countries while the death toll has touched 638.

In India, three cases have been confirmed, all in Kerala with no casualties so far.

And there lies the irony. The first outbreak of the deadly, brain-damaging Nipah virus in 2018 killed 17 people, the floods claimed hundr.

The three who have tested positive for the virus remain in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world.

Yet, for the international visitor, the state poses danger. Kerala declaring a “state calamity”, rattled by the virus, and tightening quarantine efforts, has done little to calm the fears. Doubling down on prevention was the sensible thing to do, but it has added to the fears of already squeamish travellers.

Gopinath Parayil, founder of travel company Blue Yonder, said it has become harder for small and medium tour operators to manage. He lost a booking worth ₹4.5 lakh this week, and his agency now employs two people instead of 12 earlier. But, he believes, there is a way out.

The state government’s handling of the repeated crises have underscored Kerala’s image of a responsible host but could do with better marketing, Payaril said. “The government is laying out a strong protocol as they did with Nipah. The way it’s done is transparent and accountable. That’s what makes us a responsible destination. Tour operators or travellers will prefer to go to a place that’s acknowledging a problem and being proactive than to a place that’s hiding information to save the temporary image,” he said.

“The positioning of Kerala should be based on its resilience. That’s the future,” he said.