No Muziris Biennale means revenue dip for Kochi’s tourism business

Tourism industry, local businesses earn handsomely during the three months of event
 Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Kochi-Muziris BiennalePhoto | Express

KOCHI: The Kochi-Muziris Biennale has been facing troubles since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. Now, the situation is such that the conduct of the sixth edition of India’s largest contemporary art exhibition scheduled to be held later this year is under a cloud owing to the unavailability of a permanent venue and, above all, fund crunch. The news that the Biennale might be cancelled this year has hit the tourism industry and local businesses in Kochi, which earn handsomely during the three months of event, the hardest.

The Biennale has garnered wide acclaim since its inception in 2012 and is considered to be one of the top 10 art exhibitions in the world, indirectly contributing to Kochi’s transformation into a cultural tourism destination.

“The Biennale gave a new dimension to Kochi and is the lone exhibition in India with quality, magnitude, and global acknowledgement. It will be a huge loss to Kerala if it is not conducted,” said Jose Dominic of CGH Earth Group.

“Several tourists are planning and scheduling their visits to Kerala around the event. The Biennale also brought everyone’s attention to another asset of Kerala – its heritage,” Dominic said, adding that the old streets of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are the lone reason why tourists visit Kochi.

“The art exhibition benefited the local community, and they began referring to it as ‘Nammude Biennale’ (Our Biennale). More than 50% of the income of the local community in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, which includes homestays, eateries, local vendors, handicrafts, autorickshaw, taxi drivers and others, is dependent on tourism,” said Dominic.

M P Sivadathan, president of Kerala Homestay and Tourism Society (K-HATS) said, “We have been on tenterhooks post Covid. Rumours were rife that Kochi will lose Biennale. Lack of a venue was the main issue. It had been a long-pending demand that the event be allotted a permanent venue, but it did not happen.”

He said the three months of the Biennale provide a big boost to the revenue of homestays. “Participating artists mostly prefer to stay in ‘low-fare’ accommodations like homestays. Sometimes, they book the facilities for a month or more. Even after giving a discount, a homestay owner can earn around Rs 60,000,” said Sivadathan.

He said the Biennale also generates employment opportunities for locals, who, among other things, get jobs as artists’ helpers. “The Biennale was a business ecosystem and tragically, we have lost it,” Sivadathan said.

Rizwan Sheikh, who works at a souvenir shop in Fort Kochi, said the spike in tourist arrivals during the Biennale months directly benefits airlines, railways, roadways, autorickshaws, and ferries. It also helps general stores, tour operators, and clothes and souvenir shops, he said.

“The Biennale has created a unique economic zone that supports the tourism sector and brings money to the local community,” said Johann Kuruvilla, a history enthusiast who runs the Kochi Heritage Project.

Meanwhile, the Biennale’s likely cancellation has also upset the plans of the Kerala Travel Mart (KTM). “The Biennale is a huge selling point for us when it comes to promoting Kochi and Kerala. It not only projects art, but also the state’s culture and heritage. The state government needs to take proactive steps to ensure such events, which have gained global recognition, are held as per the calendar. It doesn’t happen though. Some things never change,” KTM president Jose Pradeep told TNIE.

Meanwhile, Johann Kuruvilla emphasised the need to preserve the heritage property of Aspinwall, the Biennale’s main venue. “If the property is not preserved, it will be a huge loss for the government. Tourists visit Kochi to see heritage properties. If those are not preserved, people will stop coming here, and it will affect state’s economy,” Kuruvilla said.

Sivadathan agreed. “None is bothered about the heritage sites in Kochi. The top brass in the tourism department is unaware of the historical importance of the buildings and structures in Fort Kochi. Everything is slowly fading away,” he said.

Shamseer, an autorickshaw driver in Fort Kochi, said after the pandemic, Biennale helped him improve his finances. “The last Biennale was held from December 2022 to April 2023. The four months helped me improve my financial situation as several tourists came to the city,” Shamseer said.

What’s at stake

  • More than 50% of the income of the local community in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry is dependednt on tourism

  • Biennale also generates employment opportunities for locals, who, among other things, get jobs as artists’ helpers

  • The spike in number of vistors benefits airlines, railways, roadways, autorickshaws, and ferries

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