Houseboat business struggles to stay afloat (Kerala Newsletter)

June 23rd, 2012 - 5:30 pm ICT by IANS  

Thiruvananthapuram, June 23 (IANS) A houseboat trip on the backwaters of Alappuzha or Kumarakom is billed as one of Kerala’s exotic tourism products. But the future may not be bright for the ‘product’.

For five days, nearly 650 houseboats did not ply due to a tiff between owners and employees over payments. The impasse ended Friday evening after the two parties had conciliatory talks with Tourism Minister A.P. Anilkumar, and the employees were given pay hikes.

“We do not see a bright future for this exquisite tourism product,” said Tomy Pulikattil, owner of 12 houseboats in Alappuzha.

“For obvious reasons, many of us are looking for other avenues. We are leaving for China early next week to look for other lines of business,” said Pulikattil, who has tried several innovations to rev up business — from conference houseboats that can seat 100 people to ayurveda clinic houseboats.

The impasse began after CITU-backed Kerala House Boat and Resort Workers Union sought higher pay and perks before the annual review of wages.

“Normally, once every two years, we do a review and increase the pay package of our employees. This time it was due in August,” said Pulikattil.

“But much before that, they demanded a wage hike from Rs.4,500 to Rs.10,000 a month and an increase in the daily allowance from Rs.125 to Rs.300. We refused and decided not to ply the boats.”

Each houseboat usually has three full-time employees.

However, following Friday’s talks, the salary of the employees was hiked to Rs.6,850 and daily allowance to Rs.170.

Jacob Samuel, president of All Kerala House Boat Owners Association, told IANS that the situation were not rosy.

“This was a product, which, for some years, was unique to Kerala. But things changed. Sri Lanka and Kashmir are now competing with us,” said Samuel.

“Moreover, air fares to Kerala has sky-rocketed. Now, the increase in wages is going to be a big burden.”

The new wages will be effected from July.

Currently, the rates for an overnight houseboat ride for a couple, inclusive of three full meals and tea and snacks, starts at Rs.4,000 on an average. This may go up.

“We have no other but to hike the daily rates. To break even, we have to charge at least Rs.5,500,” said Samuel. “The annual maintenance charges has also gone up and we have to shell out a minimum of Rs.two lakh. Things are going from bad to worse.”

Members of the association said that during off season, they do not get more than 10 bookings a month while during the season (August to February), there are 22 bookings a month.

However, houseboat employees rue that since the cost of living was going up, they had no other option but to demand a pay hike.

“On an average, we get make Rs.7,000 inclusive of daily allowances. How can we run a family on this? Please tell us what we should do?” said a houseboat employee, not wanting to be named.

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