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Kerala and India's first cruise boat
Kishore Singh | July 26, 2003
The rains may have played truant in the state this year, but that doesn't seem to have dampened the enthusiasm hospitality developers show for Kerala, that sliver of God's Own Country that is putting up a valiant struggle against Rajasthan for the best packaged tourism infrastructure in the country.
A decade back, Kerala was a difficult product to sell, with few hotels, almost no resorts, and certainly no interest to speak of, despite a rich social and inter-racial history of colonisation and trade.
Today, all that is of the past and the state, besides competing aggressively with destinations in the north, is also holding out strongly against Sri Lanka which, over the years, is emerging as its chief rival for visitor footfalls.
Prime Minister Vajpayee's retreat two years back isn't the only shot in the arm the state has received, as the tourism industry has begun an affair with the romance of the region's backwaters.
This is particularly true for those tourists tired of India's invasive sightseeing. Kerala imposes fewer options, leaving visitors enough time to relax in an environment that is far more appealing that anything man built.
No wonder the Spice State is actively being wooed by large hotel chains who would like to make their presence felt more strongly in what could be India's premier destination in another few years.
Testing the waters currently is the Oberoi Group.
Represented so far only by Cochin's Trident, the chain will enter its new phase of interest when the MV Vrinda , a luxury cruiser, will be launched in the state's backwaters on November 1.
India's first cruise boat, it will mark the Oberoi Group's foray into the hedonistic brand of tourism for which it has become known with its Vilas properties, most of which are in Rajasthan or nearby Agra.
It is hardly surprising that the hotel chain has been the first to deviate into the Indian cruise segment -- it has, after all, been running cruises on the river Nile in Egypt for several years, though the scale of the two operations are hardly comparable.
On the other hand, the backwaters have hosted a few houseboats that, despite their charming ambience, can hardly hope to compete with the extravagance of the Vrinda.
Wood panelled flooring, picture window views, airconditioning, opulent bathroom amenities, in-cabin digital video players, the 32-mt long boat has two decks and a passenger holding capacity of 16 in eight cabins (with a king-size bed in each).
There is a dining room that will offer Kerala's range of cuisines as well as an international selection, besides a bar, lounge and sun deck.
Initially, at least, the cruiser will be available as part of a 4 nights/5 days package, of which two nights each will be spent at the Trident and on board the Vrinda.
At $ 1,250 for single occupancy (approximately Rs 60,000), the package doesn't come cheap, even though the price includes all meals.
And, of course, since the sailing days are fixed, there is little room for flexibility where dates are concerned.
Already, the group has tied up with the Kumarakom Lake Resort on a similar arrangement for a 4 nights package that is on offer till September 30.
As in the case of the Vrinda, the package is split into two nights each at the Trident in Cochin and Kumarakom on the banks of Lake Vembanad.
The Rs 22,000 package includes local pick-ups, all three meals, and a sunset cruise on the lake.
If the Oberoi Group is getting its feet wet in Kerala, it's for a very good reason. For one, it too has a sprawling piece of land at Kumarakom that it hopes to develop into a resort.
Though no one in the group is willing to offer an opinion yet when construction will start, or indeed what the nature of the property will be, it is safe to speculate that it could be an extension of the group's Vilas experiment, since no resort in Kerala offers the luxury of such indulgent hospitality.
On the other hand, the group also has a joint venture arrangement with Kerala Tourism for the development of two or three properties, at least one of which is to be in Thekkady, the base for the popular Periyar wildlife reserve.
If information is somewhat sketchily available, it is because the course of tourism investments has been unresolved ever since 9/11.
"The tourist numbers in Kerala still have a long way to catch up," says a group spokesperson, "and though the leisure cruiser will add to it, any future course of action will also depend on the forthcoming tourist season."
But that serious thinking is afoot is clear from the expectations being raised from next month's board meeting when, according to the spokesperson, decisions on the direction the group will take in Kerala will be forthcoming.
That Kerala interests the hotel company should be little surprise for it continues to make a positive impression in the international market as a leisure destination.
Indians, as much as their overseas counterparts, are coming under its spell. The natural topography is enchanting, the sightseeing impressive but not exhausting, and there is a fair bit by way of shopping options.
The regional cuisine on offer is not only exotic, it has more choices than most states would offer, though north Indian and international choices are more limited on the menu.
More than anything else, in a state notorious for its strikes and calls to boycott work, tourism continues to flourish. It has also been packaged well, so instead of growing haphazardly, there seems to be an optical masterplan to which all development appears linked, no matter how tentatively.
The Cochin airport is one of the best in the country, and the harbour with its man-made islands offers cruising opportunities of short duration.
Already, the other established hotel chains have a foothold in the state, and while new entrants have begun to cast around for viable options, the Oberoi Group seems to be chalking outs its plans discreetly but distinctively.