When the COVID-19 pandemic started to wreak havoc across the globe earlier this year, the houseboat sector was one of the first to come to a grinding halt. Now, after a seven-month pause, the sector is among the last to resume operations.

On Monday, the first day of resumption of houseboat services, there was no jostling of vessels or rush of tourists in Alappuzha, a major backwater destination. Only a couple of boats, carrying a small number of domestic tourists following COVID-19 protocols, chugged along the palm-fronted backwaters of Alappuzha. Majority of the houseboats will only resume services in the next couple of days after completing the cleaning and maintenance of the vessels.

Houseboat owners, who are struggling to stay afloat after COVID-19 blew a hole in the sector, have welcomed the government decision allowing boat operations adhering to COVID-19 protocols. “It is the first step on the long road to normalisation. All arrangements are in place to welcome tourists. However, with the COVID-19 graph continuing to climb, we are not expecting tourists to come in hordes any time soon. There are hardly any bookings or enquiries at present. Opening the sector is a positive move, but the government should also take steps to promote the destination,” says Kevin Rozario, general secretary, All Kerala Houseboat Owners and Operators Samiti.

Mr. Kevin has urged the government to extend the moratorium on banks loans to one year and release the maintenance grant to houseboats at the earliest.

Earlier, after the pandemic severely hit the business, several houseboat owners and employees turned to other jobs to make a living. Vinod V., president, All Kerala Houseboat Owners Association, says it will take at least another six months to achieve some sort of normalcy in the sector. “Given the pandemic situation, we are not going to get many trips as tourist flow will be minimal. As such the government should extend the soon-to-be-expiring survey, fitness registration and other certificates of the boats,” he says.

Resuming houseboat operations are expected to provide an impetus to the entire backwater tourism sector. M. Malin, secretary, District Tourism Promotion Council says the COVID-19 protocols will be strictly followed. As part of it, check-in will be allowed only from Punnamada finishing point and Pallathuruthy houseboat terminals. As per the guidelines, a maximum of 100 tourists who follow COVID-19 protocol will be allowed in terminals at a time.

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