Kerala targets long weekend stay visitors from GCC

`Kerala’s houseboats are popular with international tourists

Kerala is set to market itself as a short-haul destination to travellers from the Gulf, reports JULIA STEWART who visited Kozhikode recently.
The southern Indian state is currently enjoying phenomenal growth in international tourists. Last year 515,808 people from around the world visited the region famed for its emerald backwaters, Ayurvedic treatments, and dense coconut groves - a 20.37 per cent increase on the previous year. And now it plans to target people in the Gulf seeking a mini break from the region’s punishing weather.
“We have been enjoying a very healthy growth rate for the last few years, partly because Kerala has been marketing itself intelligently in the international market which is now paying dividends,” said Dr Venu Vasudevan, secretary for Kerala’s Department of Tourism.
“If you look at the established markets – UK, Germany and France – a holiday in Kerala has certain iconic experiences, such as its Ayurvedic wellness therapies, and cruising on the houseboats. There has been an increase in the number of tourists from the Gulf, but it’s not the same as those we are enjoying from Europe,” he said.
He said this was due in part to their marketing within the GCC, which was “still remains a little undeveloped”, but saw the GCC countries as offering a potential market, particularly during the summer months and monsoon -its weather offers GCC residents an interesting contrast to the dry, hot summers they are used to.
“Kerala offers a very interesting short-haul holiday, particularly for long weekends. I think that is the area that is going to grow the fastest in the Gulf. We are planning to strengthen our marketing in the region, and increase the number of fam tours and media visits from the various cities in the GCC countries.”
In June, Qatar Airways launched its third destination in Kerala, with a non-stop daily service between Doha and Kozhikode, formerly known as Calicut. The four hour service has attracted a high number of advanced bookings. The airline already serves Cochin and Trivandrum, both well established tourist destinations.
“During 2007 alone Qatar Airways launched three new routes to India,” said the carrier’s chief executive officer Akbar Al Baker. “Our new services to Kozhikode will only strengthen our position in this highly important market. There is a large concentration of expatriates from Kerala living and working in the Gulf region, and together with tourists from across Europe and other parts of the world, Qatar Airways looks forward to welcoming passengers on our new services to make it a highly successful launch into our third gateway in Kerala.”
Tourism in southern and central Kerala, which are serviced by Cochin and Trivandrum airports, has developed tremendously, and as a result the regions boast many luxury hotels and ethnic resorts. However, Kozhikode, which is in the north of the state, is a relatively new tourist destination and still lacks accommodation for the luxury traveller. Al Baker, who stayed at the five star Taj Residency during the destination’s launch, said it would be classed as a three-star hotel in Europe and the Far East. Equally, the Kadavu Resort & Ayurveda Centre is gloriously landscaped with a perfect river setting, excellent food and delightful staff, but its rooms fail to match its five star status.
“When you want high spend tourists you have to provide infrastructure to attract them,” said Al Baker. “There needs to be more five star hotels and easy access to them. There are a lot of things that need attention. India is sitting on a gold mine in terms of tourism.” The country’s marketing slogan “Incredible India” created high expectations, he added, and facilities needed to be in place to match them. “What sustains tourism is return travellers,” he pointed out.
A number of four and five star hotels and resorts are currently under construction in northern Kerala, which will increase the number of available rooms by over 1,000 in the next two years.
Kozhikode’s city tour includes the Portuguese-built Mother of God Church, dating from 1573AD, which is currently being restored; the Mishkal Masjid mosque, a four-story structure supported by wooden pillars dating back to the 14th century;
and a demonstration of kalaripayattu, a martial art. Travellers can also relax on the river in a houseboat or take Ayurvedic treatments.
In 2007, nearly a quarter of all foreign tourists to Kerala came from the UK. Visitors from Saudi Arabia were the 13th most frequent, with 8,560 travellers compared to 6,213 the previous year. Last year also saw 8,174 tourists from the UAE (an increase of almost 3,000 compared to the year before), 3,418 from Oman, 3,247 from Qatar, and 2,607 from Bahrain.