One of the most-sought-after tourist destinations in Asia, ‘God's Own Country’ Kerala has been hit by the coronavirus scare just when it was on the recovery path after the Nipah outbreak and back-to-back flood havoc of the past three years.
Kerala's serene beaches, tranquil stretches of backwaters, lush hill stations and exotic wildlife offer an enchanting experience to travellers worldwide, and the tourism industry is a major contributor to the state's economy.
The industry was gearing up to beckon more visitors to showcase its unexplored inland locales, trekking trails and new romantic destinations in 2020, when it suffered the latest setback with all three positive cases of coronavirus in India being reported from the state, triggering "mass cancellations" of bookings.
The Nipah outbreak of 2018-19, two consecutive monsoon floods in 2018 -- the worst in a century -- and last year had hit the state's tourism sector hard and it was slowly on the path of revival with new products before the novel coronavirus came as a bolt from the blue.
Three medical students from the state studying in Wuhan university in China, have tested positive for the infection, and 2,528 people have been put under home quarantine. Ninety-three people are in isolation wards in various hospitals, according to the latest figures.
Key players in the field have claimed that mass cancellations of hotel bookings and tour packages have already begun across the state.
After the Kerala government declared the coronavirus outbreak as a 'state calamity', as the three positive cases were detected from Thrissur, Alapuzha and Kasaragod, tourism minister Kadakampally Surendran admitted that the sector had suffered a hit.
The sector had aggressively launched promotional advertisements in the domestic and international markets after the floods to revive the sector.
However, all the efforts took a beating, with mass cancellations of hotel bookings after the outbreak of the infection in the state was reported.
According to tourism department sources, during the 2019 calendar year it was projected that there would be an 18 per cent growth in the domestic and 8 per cent growth in foreign tourist arrivals.
In the first nine months of 2019 (January to September), domestic visitors to the southern state touched 16.48 per cent against 4.8 per cent in foreign tourist arrivals.
The peak season for foreign tourists is from November-February while for the domestic guests it is during April-May, August-September (Onam festival) and December-January.
Noted travel and tourism entrepreneur E M Najeeb said tour programmes and packages are being cancelled widely from the state.
Declaration of the epidemic as a 'state calamity' by the government would adversely impact the economic situation in the state, he said.
"We completely appreciate the steps taken by the government to protect the infected persons, create awareness among the public and tackle the situation.
“But, as far as tourism industry is concerned, such measures will scare the people. Not only tourism but all the business activities of the state will be affected," Najeeb, also senior vice president, Indian Association of Tour Operators, told PTI.
While Najeeb said "over-reaction" would not augur well for the state, Jose Dominic, a key player in the hospitality industry, felt there are cancellations of hotel bookings but not as much as was being projected by the media.
Dominic said he personally felt that the state's reputation of having a robust healthcare system would help in such situations.
"We cannot say that there is no cancellation of hotel bookings. There are 15-20 per cent cancellations after the reporting of the coronavirus cases. But there are bookings also," he told PTI.
Though people were worried about the development, the state generally has a reputation that the safest place to be in India, especially during the time of a health calamity, is Kerala, he said.
"We have a reputation that we will put travellers' health first before commercial interest," Dominic, CEO of Kochi-based CGH Earth, added.
Meanwhile, a senior official of the state tourism department said the exact number of cancellations were not yet available, but he agreed that the repeated instances of flood and other epidemics were affecting the industry.
"As of now, the exact numbers are not available. But industry sources told us that many hotel bookings, including that of KTDC (Kerala Tourism Development Corporation) have been cancelled," he told PTI.
The help desks of Kerala Tourism at various centres were receiving several enquiries from people wanting to know the situation in the state, he said.
"As of now, the situation in Kerala is under control. There is no need to worry. But still people are worried and some have cancelled their bookings," the official said.
However, Praveen Muraleedharan, who runs a couple of resorts in the state, said uncertainty was looming over the industry due to the virus scare.
"We are getting lots of cancellations. Many confirmed hotel bookings, events, conferences have got cancelled. The industry is extremely worried about the business. There is an uncertainty looming over the industry. We don't know from when we can start taking bookings," he said.
Muraleedharan said the industry was also affected by the hartals or strikes even as the government had claimed that the protests will not affect the tourism sector.
"Earlier, hartals used to affect our industry. Even now, the situation is not different. Sabarimala protests, two consecutive floods and landslides in Wayanad, Nipah, anti-CAA protests and now this coronavirus.
“All are directly affecting the tourism industry. Inflow of inbound tourist and the domestic tourism movement are affected," he said.
According to T K Manzoor, managing director of the Bekal Resorts Development Corporation, despite the floods and Nipha, they had recorded a remarkable increase in tourist arrivals. There is 40 per cent growth in foreign tourist arrivals in 2019 (upto September) in North Kerala districts of Kasaragod and Kannur, he said.
"We hope to manage the present catastrophic situation due to the coronavirus. In the coming fiscal, Malabar Tourism is expected to record an uptrend though more efforts have to be put in," he said.
Kerala Tourism, which attracts international and domestic tourists, plays a significant role in the economy of the state by contributing over 10 per cent of the GSDP and providing employment to over 1.5 million people in the state.