Seaside Indian state rolls out Caravan tourism in ‘God’s Own Country’
India’s Kerala state has flagged off its first caravan park and promised more as the latest attraction for Europeans who flock there but only to lounge in houseboats on the backwaters of the seaside region that prides itself as “God’s Own Country.”
Hoteliers eagerly enlisted with the state-run project which promises to bank-roll businesses planning to put out brand new luxury campers rarely seen on India’s bumpy roads.
Nearly 300 campers and 85 parks have logged in since the February launch of the project in Kerala as the authorities offered holiday packages and “caravan safaris” as sweeteners.
Local hotelier Prasad Manjali billed it as a blue-chip venture and said it would bring India’s first European-standard caravan parks to Kerala.
“We are trying to create a very niche tourism concept which is called the caravan tourism,” Manjali said, launching the first park across 25 acres with each bay boasting of a gazebo, lawn, barbecues and charging stations.
God’s Own Country
Holiday-makers especially from France and Germany prefer Kerala because of its natural beauty, exotic temples, quaint towns and religious coexistence that earned it the nickname ‘God’s Own Country.’
Tourism Minister Mohammed Riyas said holiday-makers renting caravans will be able to duck Covid-19 infections, which dipped to 600 on 1 April from earlier peaks of tens of thousands a day in Kerala.
“That is why it has become a very great success,” he told visitors from Germany in an online chat and also added the service would no longer be a toy of the rich in the state of 35 million people.
But some doubts have also surfaced. Kerala business tycoon Jose Dominic said the project involving chauffeur-driven large buses converted into campers could bog down in Kerala’s mud-bound and winding tracks.
“We think they are inappropriate as much of Kerala is beyond the reach of such heavy vehicles,” Dominic, who runs the CGH Earth luxury hotel chain, told RFI.
“The purpose is also defeated because caravan travellers look for privacy,” he added, arguing a large group in a single bus did not fit the definition of caravan tourism.
Dominic however insisted the project must be given the chance to test its popularity against the cruising boat houses which have raked in millions of Euros largely from European honeymooners.
Others say diesel-guzzling caravans would leave a high carbon footprint in the region famous for tea and cardamom plantations, inland lagoons and 550 kilometres of sun-drenched beach.
“Unlike foreign tourists, Indians prefer to keep the air conditioning of the vehicle running throughout. This could affect the pristine locales,” George Scaria, an industry expert, was quoted as saying.
But Tourism Professionals Club, which provides services to the local travel industry, disagreed, saying caravan parks were based on thought out studies crafted to protect the local ecology.
“We know how to promote our products and how to sustain our environment through responsible tourism,” Club President Muhammad Sheik Ismail told RFI.
Ismail, who also operates chartered flights for Western tourists, was certain the caravans would spin out profits for Kerala where the pandemic deflated its lifeline tourism industry, employing three million people.
The number of tourists dropped 72 percent in 2020 from 5.5 million a year earlier. It saw a further dip in 2021 as Kerala turned into India’s pandemic hotspot with 6.5 million cases.
Kerala’s Ukraine war
But the celebrations were dulled by the war in Europe. An unspecified number of visitors from Ukraine and Russia were stranded for weeks in Kerala where they had gone to seek an ancient Hindu healing method.
Ismail said most of them were left with no cash to pay for their rooms in pricey resorts and often clashed among themselves.
“Thank god, most are now gone,” added a police officer from state capital Thiruvanantha