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Kerala’s houseboats
In what is turning out to be a difficult patch for Kerala’s tourism sector, a strike by houseboat-workers demanding a better deal in terms of wages has upset the plans of a number of visitors to the picturesque State for the fifth consecutive day, and left many entrepreneurs worried on the eve of peak season.

One of the cash-cow segments of the sector in the State, the houseboat industry in Alappuzha district has over 600 of the huge, slow-moving, exotically modified country boats that are popular among high-end domestic and international tourists. They offer leisure trips on the Vembanad Lake and along the palm-fringed canals of Kuttanad, a uniquely below-sea-level agricultural region.

Though the tourist season here used to be confined to the October-March period with mostly foreign tourists coming in hordes, the last few years have seen a growing flow of domestic tourists round the year. The daily charges, depending on the facilities, from air-conditioned, deluxe rooms to conference and party-wedding reception services, ranged from Rs.3,500 to Rs.25,000. This added up to an approximate daily income of Rs.25 lakh for the industry.

That has all changed over the last four days. Several tourists have cancelled their trips, either on hearing about the strike or after coming to bear the brunt directly, just when they were about to board the boat. 

There were tourists, including a high-ranking Indian Air Force official, families from Delhi and a team of holidaying engineers from Hyderabad, who were prompted to look for other avenues of pleasure. A couple of tourist teams, including British nationals, cut short their cruise when a group of persons, reported to be striking workers, stopped their houseboats from operating. 

Conferences, including an international doctors’ conference, have been cancelled. Tomy Pulickattil, credited with introducing the very concept of houseboats here, has been forced to let all his 12 houseboats idle. 

“The doctors’ conference was to have delegates from various countries. They were disappointed. Being the Onam festival season, several domestic tourists have cancelled their bookings. The impact is being felt on the general [tourism] market as well,” Mr. Pulickattil says. 

According to P.A. Aslam, president of the Kerala Houseboat and Resort Workers Union, the demand for a wage hike came after the wage contract expired in August. The monthly salary for the 1,800-odd workers was Rs.2,500, besides a daily allowance of Rs.100 payable on days when the houseboat operated.

“We wanted that to be revised to Rs.4,000 and Rs.200 respectively. After five rounds of talks, we agreed for Rs.3,500 and Rs.125. But two of the four owners’ associations are adamant that they will pay only the higher salary and no allowance.” Mr. Aslam says.

District Collector V.K. Balakrishnan, who held talks with both sides on Monday, said the government was trying its best to solve the crisis and that he was ready for further talks. 

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