RAMESWARAM: As dawn breaks, young men and women on picture-perfect beaches, the sea a blinding blue, gear up, to kite-surf. An image right out of a Goa Tourism brochure? Actually, this is becoming a common scene on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu, with Thoothukudi and Rameswaram among towns turning water-sport hotspots.
‘Mother of Winds’
Water sports are of two kinds: water-based adventure joyrides such as jet-sking, glass boat rides, and professional sporting activities such as kayaking, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, kite surfing and sailing. “Water sports have the potential to transform a one-day visitor into a seven-day visitor,” says 37-year-old Jehan Driver. Driver is one of India’s top three kite surfers and managing director of Quest Academy, set up in 2011, at Pirappanvalasai in Ramnad district.
The Mumbai native says the Coromandel Coast is the privileged recipient of both the North Eastern winds (in winter) and South Western winds (in summer). “Consequently, the Coast is a natural paradise for surfing, sailing and kite surfing as the winds blow throughout the year. Yet, the Konkan Coast that receives favourable winds only two months in a year has thrived,” he points out. Sri Lanka, which has wind conditions similar to TN, has also done well in promoting sustainable wind sports and helped local communities, shares 31-year-old Arjun Motha, another of India’s top kite surfers and managing director of Aqua Outback at Veppalodai in Thoothukudi district.
Motha, whose family owns a vast expanse of salt pans in Thoothukudi district, in 2015 converted an old pump house on a salt pan along the shores into a water sports centre. He teaches tourists to kayak, surf and kite surf and provides certification as well. There is a need to shift focus from temple tourism to coastal tourism along the Coromandel Coast for it to evolve into a hub of water sports in India, argues Driver.
Experts are of the view that it is time the State tourism department focused on revenue generated by tourists rather than on the number of tourist arrivals. Driver believes development of water sports centres along this Coast has the ability to push tourists to spend on joyrides and extended stays.“The Konkan Coast has thrived due to the availability of infrastructure (hotels and resorts) to support water sports.
Whereas, along the Coromandel Coast, hotels mushroom primarily around temples (Tiruchendur, Rameswaram, Kanniyakumari), churches (Velankanni, Thoothukudi) and mosques (Erwadi) while most breathtaking, exotic locales along the Coast remain out of bounds for tourists,” Driver says, batting for the development of eco-friendly, sustainable accommodation. Further, the fragile eco-system of the Gulf of Mannar must be protected, he adds. An official from the TN Tourism Department agrees water sports-based tourism could be encouraged. Water sport festivals could be organised annually, the official mused.
Communities benefit too
Engagement of local fishing communities at water sports centres has also changed lives, says 36-year-old M Maria Roger Fernando, who hails from a fishing family in Thangachimadam near Pamban. After living in Australia for four years, Fernando started the Holy Island Water Sports at Olaikuda in Rameswaram in 2014. “The eight fisher-turned-lifeguards at the water sports park have tales of rehabilitation to tell. Most were smugglers of exotic marine species,” he says.
“A few years ago, one lifeguard shifted to Abu Dhabi after he took up a job offered by a tourist who was fond of him,” he recalls. A beach lifeguard at Roger’s adventure water sports park and a commerce graduate P Arul Antony John Sundar (30) says fishing does not provide a stable income and is stressful. “This line of work is nothing but fun. It is the most gratifying experience to see tourists who are initially apprehensive to step into the sea indulge in joyrides, refusing to return to shore,” he says.
“A lot of locals in their mid-20s want to get trained as they seek an alternative livelihood since they are unhappy working in cities. Many who were trained and certified have stopped drinking, become health-conscious and feel empowered,” Motha says.
He says that local fishermen youth are naturally great swimmers, with innate knowledge about the winds and ocean currents and only require professional guidance. Also, TN has rich potential of producing athletes in water sports, especially as kite surfing becomes an Olympic sport in 2024. “In Chennai, nearly 40 fishermen-turned surfers take part in national-level surfing competitions while there are 10-20 kayakers and five-10 kite surfers in South TN who take part in friendly competitions,” he says. Locals should be empowered to start their own surf or kayak schools, he adds.
Keeping it green
According to the former Head of Department of Marine and Coastal Studies at Madurai Kamaraj University, AK Kumaraguru, encouraging any tourist activity close to the chain of 21 islands in the Gulf of Mannar is a strict no-no due to the presence of coral reefs. “Barring eco-sensitive zones, non-motorised water sports could be developed along the seashores where coral reefs usually do not grow. Even for snorkelling, only a small group should be allowed, after they are adequately sensitised,” he says.
“The coastline has to be showcased and protected at the same time, due to which we don’t wish for an explosive growth but only linear growth,” agrees Motha. Kumaraguru says controlled eco-tourism could be the way forward but fears that lax implementation of laws and rules may leave the environment vulnerable to harm.