Munnar, hit hard by Cyclone Gaja now

Just as the tourism industry in Munnar was picking up the pieces after the August floods, it was left crippled again following Cyclone Gaja’s trail of destruction in mid-November.

With winds gusting up to 120 km per hour, Cyclone Gaja ripped across the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala on November 16, uprooting 3.4 lakh houses and displacing over a million people in the stricken areas, according to a government estimate. Heavy rains, mudslides and landslides soon followed in the wake of the devastation, leaving Munnar’s tourism industry in the lurch.

Munnar Hotel and Restaurant Association (MHRA) president VV George agonised about the double whammy of natural disasters that have befallen Kerala in recent months. He revealed that the hotel bookings have reduced to a trickle. He said that though Munnar had “totally recovered” but “the cyclone has hit our hopes and now, some groups have started to cancel their bookings.”  

The Kerala government has its hands full now. The challenge is to bring the tourism industry back on its feet again. In the aftermath of the August floods, the state dispensation had pulled out all stops to revamp its branding and marketing strategy. It invited tour operators and travel bloggers from across the country so that they spread the word about Kerala having recovered from the deluge. 

Munnar has been the most popular tourist destination in Kerala’s Idukki district. Nestled in the lap of the Western Ghats, the hill town received 6.28 lakh travellers in 2017. The revival of the tourism sector is crucial for Kerala as it remains the backbone of the state’s economy.

Cyclone Gaja dumped huge quantities of rain across the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The devastatingly strong winds and rains caused heavy damage to the local infrastructure in Munnar. Cable wires snapped and houses got uprooted, while some of the bridges that connected Munnar were also a part of the widespread wreckage. 

Two major bridges — a newly-constructed temporary bridge in the Munnar-Mattupetty route and the Periyavara Bridge — were damaged, causing heavy traffic gridlocks in the area. While the Periyavara Bridge has been completely destroyed, the bridge in Mattupetty has been partially restored to mitigate the traffic chaos. “Two minor landslides occurred on the Mattupetty route. We immediately cleared it and resumed the traffic,” said PK Shaji, a local revenue official.

The state Public Works Department (PWD), meanwhile, has sounded out plans to reconstruct the Periyavara Bridge. In a recent meeting, the PWD minister of state G Sudhakaran directed his officials to construct a temporary bridge quickly. PWD officials said that the makeshift bridge will be ready in 15 days’ time. The construction work started on November 30. 

Tourists often used the Periyavara Bridge because it connected Munnar to Eravikulam National Park, a popular destination among tourists.

The water levels of the Muthirapuzha river — a tributary of Kerala’s longest river, Periyar — rose as well. As a result, the river water swamped the older parts of Munnar town, disrupting traffic on the Kochi-Dhanushkodi highway for almost three hours and destroying about 50 hectares of winter crop.

Political tensions

The ongoing Sabarimala temple controversy has also kept tourists at bay. The state has been on the edge following the Supreme Court’s decision to allow women of menstrual age to enter the Sabarimala temple. Matters came to head when a senior Sangh Parivar functionary — KP Sasikala — was arrested when she wanted to go to the temple on November 17, on suspicion that she was going there to organise protests.

Though the protesting Hindu outfits said that tourists and devotees would remain unharmed, a posse of German tourists were attacked while they were travelling from Kochi to Kozhikode on the same day. Reports stated that the bus carrying the two dozen tourists were attacked with stones by the protesters. “The continuous hartals and attacks against tourists have also adversely affected tourism inflow into Munnar in recent weeks,” George said. 

He warned of the dangerous precedent these hartals were setting for the public, saying these strikes would spook people from visiting the state in the future. The Munnar Hotel and Restaurant Association took out a peaceful march of their own this week to protest against the violence being perpetrated by Sabarimala protesters. About 600 people came out in support of the peaceful march.

Natural disasters and political tensions have brought Munnar’s tourism industry down to its knees. The winter months between the first week of December and the second week of January will be crucial for the local tourism industry.

Tourism officials will be eagerly hoping that all the natural and man-made calamities will take a backseat and tourists drive down to the hill station in hordes and help lift up the local economy again.

(The writer is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media start-up)

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Munnar, hit hard by Cyclone Gaja now

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