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Will chikungunya spare Kerala's tourism industry?
George Iype in Alappuzha, Kerala | October 11, 2006
Peak tourism season begins in God's Own Country from the middle of October. After the successful Kerala Tourism Mart last month, the state's waterways, villages and resorts were all set to get peak bookings.
But chikungunya, the relatively rare form of viral fever transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes, could spoil this year's tourism party in Kerala, warn tour and travel industry operators.
Says E M Najeeb, chairman, Indian Association of Tour Operators, Kerala Chapter: "Chikungunya has already led to some cancellations. Many domestic tourists and foreigners have postponed their journey. The industry will be badly hit if the disease is not checked immediately."
In the last month, some 106 people have died of chikungunya. Most deaths have come from Kerala's coastal district of Alappuzha, which is surrounded by backwaters, thus making many villages breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Health experts say small canals, inlets and muddy pools located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake that are carpeted with African weed are mainly responsible for the mosquitoe menace.
And even though tourism boomed in Kerala in the last few years, attracting international attention, nothing substantial has been done in cleaning up the backwaters, ponds and villages surrounding them.
Kerala Tourism -- as the state tourism department is known -- registered a 34 per cent increase in foreign tourist arrivals in the first half of 2006. Domestic and foreign tourist arrivals to the state have grown over the past few years, rising from just over 50 lakh (5 million) in 2000 to nearly 70 lakh (7 million) in 2005.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Kerala will register the world's highest growth in the field of tourism. As a matter of fact, destinations in Kerala has been virtually 'sold out' till next March.
Today, the question that lurks in everybody's mind is: Will chikungunya kill Kerala's tourism industry?
Director of Kerala Tourism B Suman says the disease is fast getting contained, and thus chikungunya would not affect the forthcoming tourism season. "We are expecting a 16 per cent increase in international arrivals. There are no cancellations till date," he said.
But Suman admitted that the disease has created anxiety in the market.
Tourism experts say health hazards have always had an impact on the tourism industry in India. "Alappuzha in Kerala is one of the best tourism destinations, and since chikungunya has been widely reported from this district, it would affect tourist arrivals," said Jose Dominic, president, Kerala Travel Mart Society.
According to Tomi Joseph, the secretary, All Kerala Houseboat Owners Association, the disease has proven that the biggest threat to tourism is garbage.
"Government departments, tourist properties and local bodies should take steps to find a permanent solution for the proper disposal of garbage," Joseph said.
He feels tourism in Alappuzha and neighbouring Kumarakom would be hit if chikungunya is not contained.
As the disease threatens to drive away tourist arrivals to the state, Kerala Tourism has embarked upon a marketing campaign. It has already sent messages to overseas tour operators and the international media, stating that chikungunya is 'well under control' and that there is no need to 'panic.'
The statement issued by T K Kuttamani, the state director of health services, said: 'We are keeping a close eye on the situation and have taken necessary measures to control the spread of the virus.'The statement also quotes the US Centre of Disease Control's travel advisory that chikungunya usually resolves on its own within three to seven days.