Tourism > Heritage?  

According to him, the streets of Fort Kochi are the state’s barometer to gauge how successful the year’s tourism season will be.

Published: 21st November 2023 10:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st November 2023 10:23 AM   |  A+A-

(Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)

Express News Service

KOCHI: If it had not been evident already, the cruise ship Celebrity Edge calling at Kochi port on Saturday heralded the advent of tourism season in Kerala. As if on cue, Fort Kochi streets this weekend were once again abuzz with visitors — native and foreign — soaking in the splendour of everything that this heritage town has to offer.

“It is a very heartening sight — to see this level of activity [on the streets] again,” says Sudhir K, who, with his son Suhail, manages a small textile shop near St Francis Church, a stone’s throw away from the waterfront.

According to him, the streets of Fort Kochi are the state’s barometer to gauge how successful the year’s tourism season will be. “After all, it is here and in Kochi where the bulk of the tourists first arrive,” he adds.Indeed. Kochi has been the preferred arrival city for most travellers visiting the state due to its proximity to Alappuzha and Munnar. The twin towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry in Kochi,

(Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)

Alappuzha and Munnar make up one of the most popular tourist circuits in Kerala. Many more foreign visitors are on their way, say authorities. According to the Cochin Port Authority, Celebrity Edge is the first in a string of 31 foreign cruise vessels slated to call at port in the coming months. The next vessel, Azamara Journey, will arrive on November 26.

Unlike in the past, tourism in the state is no longer dependent on these vessels, explains Suhail Abbas, who owns a handicraft store on Fort Kochi’s Quiero Street. According to him, the tourist season began with Diwali, long before news of the cruise vessel’s arrival.

“Thanks to an influx of visitors from nearby districts, other Indian states, and even foreigners, we were able to do good business. With more travellers arriving in the coming weeks, business is bound to pick up even more,” says Suhail.

This bustle is despite the absence of a major crowd-puller event like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the largest art exhibition in the country. It gives all — the street vendors, the homestay owners, tour 
operators, and even the government — hope that this year’s season will see the return of pre-pandemic levels of activity.

Perhaps the happiest of the lot is David Lawrence, who, with his wife Flowery, manages Delight Homestay. Nestled in the very heart of Fort Kochi’s fabled heritage zone, it is arguably the oldest homestay in Kerala.

(Photo | TP Sooraj, EPS)

David is happiest to be proven wrong. When TNIE met him in March, during the tail-end of the  Biennale, he had a cautionary tale for all, uncharacteristic of his otherwise optimistic nature. Attributing the then rush to the ‘Biennale effect’, David had expressed doubts whether this surge would continue the next tourism season as well when there is no major art festival to bank on.

“I’m happy to report that business is good. In fact, it is better than expected, perhaps even more than what we saw when the Biennale was on,” David tells TNIE. This success is echoed by other homestays in the vicinity. Part of what facilitated this resurgence is the influx of domestic travellers who invariably come, if not for the art festival, then certainly for Fort Kochi’s winding roads festooned with colonial-era homes, historical buildings, hipster cafes, art galleries, antique shops, and Instagram-worthy nooks. 

“Fort Kochi has its charm, drawing a perennial stream of visitors,” adds David. However, this “charm” is a depreciating asset, warns Ramkumar, a street vendor who operates from the Fort Kochi “beach”, a beach that is no longer there. During the past 44 years, Ramkumar has, from his vantage point near the Dutch Cemetery, seen how the sea has robbed the beach, which was once wide enough to play two football matches simultaneously, off its sands.

A similar decline has befallen the entire town, laments Sivadathan M P, the director of Kerala Homestay and Tourism Society (HATS), an organisation that had been instrumental in the snapping of red tape that hindered the seamless operations of homestays. “What makes Fort Kochi and Mattancherry such alluring places is their history, the quaintness, and our cherished culture. 

Sadly, recent efforts to drive tourists here have come at the expense of all that which make the places what they are,” says Sivadathan, the former president of Kumbalangi panchayat. Some of the evident problems that caught TNIE’s attention here were the lack of signs to distinguish the key places for the benefit of travellers, stray dog menace, no well-defined places to park big buses in which tourists come in (now, they take up space on Fort Kochi’s playgrounds thus inhibiting play), and a proliferation of illegal street vendors, who are now slowly encroaching on sidewalks.

In addition to this, there are the ever-perennial problems of improper waste management and the lack of toilets. “The two are a blight for tourism prospects across the state. Though easy to remedy, there is no 
political will to get it done. Our association has been floating proposals for the longest time now. We have almost given up,” says Adarsh S, a tour operator.

According to Sivadathan, what compounds the problem in Fort Kochi is the lack of communication between the many agencies that govern the place. “You have the Kochi Corporation, the Cochin Smart Mission Limited, the Tourism Department, the Archaeological Survey of India, and many more. As they say, too many cooks spoil the broth. All are eager to shift the blame and not take responsibility for any 
action. It is what plagues Fort Kochi and Mattancherry the most,” he adds.

“We must pull the veils from Fort Kochi’s historic buildings and endearing culture. It is, after all, what tourists really seek,” says Sajith Saj, who runs the popular Saj Homestay. Many residents share his opinion. There are very real concerns that this once-quaint heritage town is slowly becoming very commercialised. The decimation of the 500-year-old and historically significant Laurel Club to make room for the Water Metro and the scarring of the stretch near the 

Chinese nets to set up a food corridor are tell-tale signs of the doom that awaits, they say.“For a town that is an amalgamation of culture, history and a way of life, our only task is its preservation. It is the general ethos of the town that sells,” points out Tanya Abraham, whose family has been living here for over 200 years. Fort Kochi is at a crossroads now. It can be the history-soaked cultural haven that it has always been, or it could be another Panampilly Nagar, a residential neighbourhood-turned-commercial street. 

Earlier, KSRTC ran Volvo buses every morning from Fort Kochi to tourist destinations like Munnar and Alappuzha. It was very ideal for travellers to get around. With these services discontinued, tourists are left with limited options. TNIE recommends that these services be resumed 

A new tourism season dawns in Kerala. While many establishments in Fort Kochi are upbeat about their prospects, there hovers genuine concerns that recent efforts to draw tourists are coming at the expense of this heritage town

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