Kerala's houseboat industry comes of age

When a few bold entrepreneurs converted a traditional country boat (Kettuvallam) of Kerala used for transporting goods to a floating hotel with rooms for stay in 1991, a few believed in its commercial viability.

A house boat at Kumarakom.

Many expressed doubts as to who would prefer to stay in such boats considering its limitations. But the success of the new venture seems to have definitely surpassed the
expectations of the visionary entrepreneurs.

Currently, houseboats have become an important attraction of Kerala’s tourism industry and the state has more than 800 houseboats of different sizes, attracting thousands of foreign and domestic tourists and creating vast opportunities for locals.

The decline of houseboat industry in Kashmir following escalation in terrorism also helped Kerala’s houseboat sector.

A houseboat, a roofed country boat of over 70 feet long and around 18 metres wide, is generally with a wooden hull. Many of them have air conditioned rooms, toilets, dining area, sundeck and kitchen.

Charges range from Rs 5,000 a day and above, depending on facilities. The boats cruise through backwaters of Kerala enabling tourists to view life in the villages on the banks.

Recounting the growth of Kerala’s houseboat industry, T G Reghu, secretary of Alleppey Tourism Development Cooperative Society (ATDC), one of the pione­ers in the houseboat industry, said: “The inspiration came from occasional trips conducted for western tourists for watching full moon.

Some of the western tourists enjoyed such trips which enabled them to watch full moon in silence and loneliness of backwaters. Big “Kettuvallam” which had a length of around 60 feet were used for the trip,” said Reghu. Some of the rowers used to prepare snacks on boats for tourists, he added.

The popularity of moon watching trips gave rise to the idea of converting Kettuvallams to houseboats, recalled Reghu. During that period many of the “Kettuvallams” were being dismantled by owners as improved road transport facilities were leading to decline of water transport sector in Kerala. In 1990, there were only 50 “Kettuvallams” in Kerala in place of thousands of such boats operated through canals and backwaters of Kerala till early 1980s. “We bought 15 of them and converted to houseboats,” said Reghu.

He said the basic idea of houseboats as floating hotels with bedrooms, kitchen and toilets is still followed though amenities have improved vastly. Presently, some houseboats are big enough to conduct conferences. While houseboats were manually rowed earlier, presently they are fitted with inboard engines. While boats were made of wood earlier, steel and fibreglass boats are increasing now, he said.

Reghu saidhe is happy that a large number of people, including big corporates have entered houseboat industry and it has become a face of Kerala’s tourism sector.

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