V. Venu, Additional Chief Secretary of Kerala Tourism
The south Indian state of Kerala had back-to-back issues hitting its tourism prospects. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The South Indian state of Kerala wants to return to its pre-COVID-19 eminence as one of the leading tourism destinations in the country in the shortest possible time. The best way to go about doing it is try and get more flight connectivity.

It is not just the pandemic that Kerala has to overcome – devastating floods had wreaked havoc in 2018 and the tourism infrastructure had yet to recover from that when COVID-19 struck.

“We are down 80 per cent (compared to 2017 levels) and that includes tourists from UAE,” said V. Venu, Additional Chief Secretary of Kerala Tourism. “Although visitors from the Gulf country have been low, they are very significant given that they are high-value tourists.

“(From UAE), we were getting about 16-17 per cent annual increase, but the last four years we have had natural disasters one after another, so we have to get back to the drawing board to get old business associates back.

“The primary aim is to re-engage with businesses and operators here to see if we can fast-track the revival – it will take a couple of years of work.”

Get all flights back

The first priority for Kerala’s tourism authorities would be to get flights back on track. India, which suspended normal commercial flights in 2020, has ‘bubble’ agreements on a bilateral basis with countries. Although most major airlines are now operating between the two countries, they face severe capacity constraints and longer times to get approvals – all this resulted in a surge in airfares.

“Right now, it’s a really artificial environment and so are flight ticket prices,” said Venu. “Because supply is very limited, only people who need to travel are travelling. Once international routes open up, the market will take over and the prices will drop. We had very robust services to all the three airports in the state”

Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode airports handle passengers flying in and out of the state. These cities are also the main points of entry for UAE-based Kerala expats. Venu is optimistic that Kannur airport – Kerala’s newest air hub – will begin serving foreign airlines.

“That’s one growth area – I can see the permission being granted by the government, opening up the fourth airport in the state’s aviation sector.”

It’s not just a new airport that has got the tourism official excited. Air India, under the control of Indian conglomerate Tata Sons, could breathe new life into Kerala’s pandemic-hit tourism sector by introducing more flights and launching new routes.

“Air India will take more pragmatic decisions and they might identify the Kerala-UAE sector as their most lucrative route,” said Venu.

Tough competition

When it comes to attracting visitors from Dubai and UAE, the tourism official has his work cut out for him. “Dubai is one of the most challenging and competitive markets in the world,” said Venu. “For someone from Dubai, the choice is between four hours to Kerala or places like Maldives, Sri Lanka or even Europe – the Dubai traveler is spoilt for choice.

“It is a very crowded marketplace to create our brand and to maintain that brand in the minds of the consumers is a very tough task, particularly for a small state like ours. We don’t have deep pockets like some of our competitors. But it’s an interesting challenge for us – we draw on the goodwill of a lot of people working in UAE and the positive word of mouth.”