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Kerala leaves the 'hippy days' to move upmarket

Innovative startups surprise holidaymakers in south India's most-visited state

A Theyyam Muthappan performance at Parassinikadavu, a riverside temple between Payyanur and Kannur in North Kerala (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

KOCHI, India -- Touted since the 1970s as an idyllic destination for backpackers, the wild beaches and jungles of the southern Indian state of Kerala have gone steadily upmarket over the years. Boasting a large selection of accommodations, from full-fledged resorts to eco-homestays, Kerala now attracts high-spending international tourists with yoga retreats, ayurvedic treatments, and luxurious properties.

"The type of tourists coming to our shores has changed, and we don't see that many backpackers anymore," said K.P. Francis, a senior hotel manager with two decades of experience in some of southern India's best resorts. He now runs the boutique homestay The Francis Residence on the first floor of his home in Fort Kochi, a seaside area in the city of Kochi, also known as Cochin, on India's Arabian Sea coast.

"Eighty percent of my clients are British, followed by Italians, Germans, Swiss and Spanish," Francis said. "They are not very adventurous, and most come for yoga retreats and relaxing."

Numbers are increasing steadily. Despite severe floods and an outbreak of the potentially deadly Nipah virus in 2018, tourist arrivals continued to grow in the first quarter of 2019, with a total of 4,612,937 travelers -- up 6.82% on the comparable period in the previous year, according to the state government's Department of Tourism.

However, the nature of tourism in Kerala is now changing again, especially outside established vacation areas such as Kochi, a transport hub that includes the world's first solar-powered airport, and tourist hot spots like the southern beach town of Varkala and the hill station of Munnar. A new series of tourism initiatives, coupled with the birth of innovative hospitality startups, is transforming the state into an experiential tourism destination.

Phantom Rock, one of Wayanad's natural sights that are waiting for foreign visitors (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

The less-visited Malabar Coast in the north of the state is working particularly hard in this direction. Started a year ago to promote small boutique homestays and exclusive local experiences, the Small and Medium Industries Leveraging Experiential Tourism (SMILE) scheme is putting the region on the map as an alternative destination.

"We are helping local entrepreneurs set up tourist businesses to revitalize our district," said T.K. Manzoor, a supervisor of the SMILE scheme and the managing director of Bekal Resorts Development Corp., a state government initiative set up to develop environmentally friendly and sustainable tourism in the Kasaragod district of North Malabar.

Only 1,115 foreign tourists visited the district in 2017, according to the state tourism department, even though it boasts two 17th century forts, the unspoiled Valiyaparamba Backwaters area, hiking routes and plenty of interesting temples.

A room at The Francis Residence, one of Kochi's leading boutique homestays (Courtesy of The Francis Residence)

Kasaragod already offered well-established luxury properties such as the five star Taj Bekal Resort & Spa, but to kick-start the "experiential tourism" concept, the BRDC offered free training to local entrepreneurs.

"We want to make a difference by developing our authentic local culture into proper tourism products that focus on special experiences," Manzoor told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The entrepreneurs were taught how to create personalized hospitality drawing on northern Kerala's cuisine and culture -- including Theyyam, a ritual art form encompassing dance, mime and music that exalts the area's ancient tribal beliefs in heroes and ancestor spirits.

SMILE homestays offer hand-cooked traditional North Keralan meals. This thali is served with the peculiar Kerala Matta Rice (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

"I believe that we, the people of North Kerala, still have a true passion for hospitality," said Anoop Ambujakshan, 33, who worked as a property scout for the Indian vacation-rental giants Stayzilla and Cleartrip before joining the SMILE program with his Bekal Fort Homestay. Anoop's guests experience handmade food and mingle with his family on the ground floor. But the upstairs rooms offer boutique-hotel-style bells and whistles such as rain showers and plush mattresses.

The BRDC has also launched the "SMILE Virtual Tour Guide," an English-language smartphone application that helps foreign travelers discover the sights of the Bekal and Kasaragod districts. Like a digital guidebook, the app provides information and videos of local attractions, while also promoting nearby accommodations where tourists can experience the region's authentic cuisine and hospitality.

A Kathakali dancer: This traditional Indian art has become a hit among tourists flocking to Kerala. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

Changes are also afoot in Wayanad, a North Kerala hill station in a mountainous area near Kerala's borders with the neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Ripe with luxury hotels and vacation rentals, Wayanad remained off the established trail for international tourists for years, but is now building luxury properties to accommodate Bangalore-based information technology workers flocking to the valley to escape the hustle of the city.

"We are now focusing on attracting more international visitors, raising the bar of existing properties by offering more nature-driven cultural tourism," said Vinod Puthanveetil, who manages high-end properties in the area such as Edakkal Hermitage Resort and Vistara Hotel.

The former, one of the first boutique hotels in the locality, is a collection of chalets and rooms blending concrete, wood and boulders near the Edakkal Caves, an archaeological site with dozens of rock carvings, including animal and human figures thought to be up to 6,000 years old.

The cave restaurant at the Edakkal Hermitage Resort in Wayanad offers an incredibly romantic setting. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

The emergence of readily available properties in less-explored parts of the state has also launched a revolution in the way Kerala's property agents manage vacation rentals. Traditionally, property owners worked with agents who offered rooms to tour groups on a revenue-sharing and commission basis. But this system was not efficient enough to keep up with the rise of the digital vacation rental sector.

"I immediately realized a source of great untapped potential. Most of these owners had amazing properties, but no time to engage with their guests, let alone sell their rooms on the many hospitality booking platforms available on the market today," said Raiyyan Nayeem, a former Airbnb employee who co-founded the Kochi-based technology startup Hubloft in 2018.

The startup currently works with properties in Kochi, Munnar, Thekkady, Kovalam and Trivandrum, helping vacation rentals and hotels to create experiential hospitality and providing management services for vacation homeowners.

Raiyyan Nayeem, left, and Basil PA, the duo behind innovative Kerala hospitality management startup Hubloft (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

"We don't want to offer yet another place to sleep, so we only look for beautiful locations where guests can truly feel a personal connection, a real homely feel," said the co-founder, who goes by the name of Basil PA and also runs the Thekkady Homestay from his family home next to the Periyar National Park.

Hubloft is also sourcing and renovating the inhabited homes of Keralans working abroad, many of whom have built beautiful properties that they rarely use.

"This is the hidden story of Kerala: You can't imagine how many of these homes lay forgotten. Owners can't rent them out on a permanent basis because they are not maintained, so we decided to step in and help," said Nayeem.

"Most importantly," added Basil PA, "we want to standardize everything from commissions, which used to be applied randomly by unscrupulous agents, to cleaning services and room booking management. But the core idea remains to offer highly localized and personalized services. That's the least we can do to take out the guesswork for both owners and travelers."

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