P. Bala Kiran, Director of Tourism, Kerala has been in the post for four years, one of the longest serving civil servants in the department. In a freewheeling interview with Sudheer Goutham, Resident Editor & Head APAC News Network he shares his plans for the future of tourism sector.
On coming to terms with the pandemic
Tourism is one of the sectors that brings a fair amount of revenue to the state but the ‘great floods’ of 2018 followed by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020has had a crippling effect on the economy and tourism sector in particular. Bala Kiran says, “The State Government took the ‘Great Floods’ in its stride and within no time the state bounced back but the pandemic affected the sector in unimaginable ways”.
Explaining the growth trajectory, Bala Kiran says, “In 2019, the state touched the highest growth rate of 17.2% Tourist arrivals in the last 24 years. The average growth rate of Kerala in tourism was 6-7 %. The tourism sector was on a high and several plans to make Kerala a365-day tourism destinationwere bearing fruit when the pandemic happened.
To restart and revitalize tourism marketing, we ran a promotion campaign -‘A Change of Air’ – stressing on the need to travel safely as people are bored sitting at home during the lockdowns and Kerala is providing various avenues for tourism with social distancing and Covid-19 safety protocols. Now slowly domestic tourists started visiting Kerala. Restrictions on international flights are still a reason for foreign tourists not coming but with all other sectors slowly opening up, the future is bright for Kerala tourism.
How did you help the stake holders?
Please throw some light on 365 days tourism Tell us about sports tourism The industry employs 15 lakh people and the sector contributes 10-12 % of the state’s GDP. Under the Chief Minister’s Tourism Loan Assistance scheme, Hon Tourism Minister has declared a Rs 465 crore loan assistance package, the biggest such package in the country. A Rs 100 crore loan package was allotted for the employees in the tourism sector wherein loans up to Rs 30,000 are being granted at a nominal interest of 3%. The State Government bore the remaining 6% interest component.
A working capital support scheme of Rs 355 crore for the tourism entrepreneurs wherein the units are provided loans from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 25 lakh for their working capital requirements, of which the half of the first year’s interest is borne by the Government. A scheme of one time maintenance grant upto Rs 1,20,000 is provided to all the houseboats and an assistance of Rs 10,000 is provided to all the registered Tourism guides.
Please throw some light on 365 days tourism
The aim of the State Government was to consolidate Kerala’s position and attract domestic as well as international tourists around the year. Tourism predominantly was confined to the southern part of Kerala and we decided to expand it to the 14 districts. The government invested Rs.650 crorefor the infrastructure development in Malabar (North Kerala). After the ‘Great Floods of 2018’ we undertook a 10-month campaign and called it ‘It’s time to come to Kerala’. The new campaign “Human by Nature”, spearheaded by Secretary Tourism Mrs. Rani George, was received very well by the stakeholders across the world.
In the past, tourism in Kerala was mainly based on leisure and wellness tourism. Now there is a sincere and concerted effort from the Tourism Department to extend it further and include the heritage tourism as a predominant tourism component. Then, there is great importance placed on the adventure, sports and MICE tourism.
Tell us about sports tourism
The conduct of Champions Boat League, an IPL style Snake boat raceleague, as a tourism product in 2019 has been a huge success. 1.87 crore people watched the snake boat races on television and social media. Star Sports aired the nine boat races live on their channels. The commentary was done in 6 languages and 20 lakh audience were presentat the venues cheering their favourite teams. The Champions Boat League is a major success story.
In all, 1,500 players competed for the CBL cup. The prize money of Rs 5.9 crore in the first season was the highest after IPL, ISL and PKL. We are very optimistic about snake boat races and will take it to the next level in this season.
The boat races are held between August and October which is not the tourist season and this goes well with our plan of 365 days tourism.
The Malabar River Cruise project is a part of our plans to encourage adventure tourism. There are few states in the country that offers a river cruise trip and we are very optimistic of this tourism product.
In several forums you have spoken about heritage. Tell us how you plan to leverage this component.
The idea is to move from leisure to heritage tourism direction. We want tourists to not only explore the beaches, backwaters and the hills but also get a feel of the rich cultural heritage including architecture of Kerala. The idea is to bring heritage into the forefront.
The colours of blue and green which is known to the people who visit Kerala should also explore the sepia tone. Museums, buildings, monuments, art and culture are so rich that people would stay here longer exploring the same.
We have four major heritage tourism projects. Thalassery has a rich history of ancient Kingdoms, Portuguese Dutch French and English influence, Muziris was an ancient port and urban centre in the Central Kerala. Muziris was a 1,000-year-old Port and its rich heritage has a great tourist potential. Alappuzha is known for its backwaters and houseboats but it also has a rich maritime, coir and social movements history. We are exploring on that aspect as well. The Travancore Heritage project is being launched now to showcase the extremely rich heritage of south Kerala. A total of Rs 800 crore are being spent to give a boost to Heritage Tourism. These projects will revive tourism and show Kerala in a new light.
Have tourist increased after the discovery of treasure inside Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple? What are the beautification plans around the temple?
The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is the centre of attraction as far as Thiruvananthapuram city is concerned. Tourists have been visiting the temple for as far as one can remember but there is a renewed interest after all the publicity after Treasury chests are opened.
Under the Swadesh Darshan project Rs 76 crore was sanctioned and a lot of beautification works have been undertaken and completed including footpaths leading to four temple Nadas (Gates), underground ducting of utilities, heritage lighting, pilgrim amenities and cleaning of the temple pond. The developmental works on the ring road around the temple is also going on.
Snake boat racing comes of age.