Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Euro 2008 football mania grips Kerala

Kerala delirious with bout of soccer fever

Goooaaall!! That's the resounding call that shatters the late nights in Kerala homes and hangouts, as hundreds of soccer fans all across this football-crazy State take in the past-midnight telecasts of the Euro 2008 matches now going on in Europe. In public places, on large screens, they can savour those crisp and tense moments of the best of European football as Euro 2008 enters the final stages.

It is the coastal areas of Kerala that contain the most number of diehard fans, especially in the northern Malabar region of Kozhikode, Talasherry, Mallapuram and Kannur districts. Here, on the beaches can be found huge screens on to which television projector systems beam the matches live to hundreds of fans, most of whom are fishermen.

The coastal belts of the State are also home to several football clubs that organize regular matches between local teams. They also conduct annual coaching camps to hunt out new talent and groom the fresh finds into match-winning footballers. Expenses are usuall covered through the conduct of "sevens" football tournaments, which are a Kerala version of abbreviated football, with seven members in each team. Some clubs manage to get sponsorship from local businesses and companies, while others depend on generous contributions from non-resident Keralites.

One such club, according to a report by ANI, is the Nynanvalap Football Fans Association (NFFA) in Kozhikode, which started conducting beach soccer matches in 1996. The club has received various items from the official sponsors of Euro 2008.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Monsoon weak over Kerala

Still not too many monsoon clouds over Kerala

Over a fortnight into the southwest monsoon season, Kerala is still not yet seeing the kind of torrential rains that normally heralds a good monsoon. A report from PTI in The Hindu says "Despite its timely onset, southwest monsoon has been weak over Kerala with the state registering an average deficiency of 40 per cent in rainfall in its first lap.

While north Kerala received fairly good rains in the first phase, the southern areas, especially the tail-end districts of Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram, had gone without any substantial rainfall in the last fortnight.

According to sources in the India Meteorological Department (IMD), lack of sufficient wind speed was the main factor constricting the monsoon activity in the region.

Shortly after its weak onset over Kerala coast on May 31, a low pressure was formed towards south of the Lakshadweep, which took a good portion of humidity towards the Oman coast. This came in the way of the monsoon activity gaining momentum over the Kerala coast, IMD Director M D Ramachandran told PTI on Sunday.

Now, a low pressure had been formed off the Orissa Coast in the Bay of Bengal, and, if it strengthened, the monsoon would pick up in the coming days bringing good rains across the state, he said.

In its initial phase, the state would have received an average 225 mm of rainfall but till last mid-weak there was deficiency of about 40 per cent.

Traditionally, the first fortnight after the onset of the monsoon -- known in local parlance as 'edavapathy'-- should have brought heavy rains. This was critical factor for farming operations and also essential to sustain the hydel power base of the state."

Qatar flight connections to Kerala

Flying from Qatar to Kozhikode in Kerala

Qatar Airways launched a new flight route to Kozhikode in the popular Indian state of Kerala today. Formerly known as Calicut, Kozhikode is Kerala's third-largest city and home to beaches, historic sites, lush green scenery and Ayurvedic health treatments.

Travellers will be able to link the direct non-stop scheduled service from Doha to the coastal city in southern India with daily connections from London's Heathrow and Gatwick airport, as well as flights from Manchester.

The new route takes Qatar Airways' capacity to India up to 58 flights a week spread across nine cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Trivandrum, Cochin and Nagpur.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

God's own dishes

Kerala's exquisite cuisine

The next time you curse your spouse for serving up puttu and kadala or appam and stew for breakfast, pause and count your blessings. There are people around the world who are prepared to spend precious money to travel all the way to Kerala to sample some of God's own dishes.

Apparently - if an international travel magazine is to be believed - these two dishes, along with tapioca and fish curry, constitute the best and healthiest of breakfasts. That conclusion may or may not be the outcome of the public relations efforts of Kerala Tourism, but it certainly drives home the need for a concerted and focused campaign to win the hearts and souls of globetrotters.

For a State that has generated few avenues for industrial aggrandizement, tourism still appears to be the silver lining. But the recent efforts of neighbouring States could well push Kerala to the back benches.

The Union Government, for instance, has allotted Rs 1.5 crore for the development of infrastructure necessary to boost beach tourism in Tamil Nadu's Kanyakumari district, specifically in Muttom and Thekurichi.

And Karnataka's Tourism Department has embarked on a project to prepare an archaeological directory of the important monuments and places of interest that could be projected as tourist spots to visitors from both within the country and abroad. The archaeological directory is expected to list 1,360 monuments - including Humpi - out of the estimated 20,000 monuments in the State. A directory of artistes of culture and folklore of the State is also planned.

The problem that Kerala now needs to tackle is how to reinvent itself as a destination of choice for the international traveller. As marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout say, "Marketing battles are not fought in places like Dallas, Detroit or Denver. Marketing battles are fought inside the mind."

Remember the old proverb: the way to the heart is through the stomach. Cuisine is as good a way to capture the mind of the weary international traveller as any other. Kerala has a bouquet of cuisines to offer ranging from the Malabar Muslim delicacies to the exotic Travancore Syrian Christian dishes. Not to forget the traditional food of the Hindu extended families.

The Casino Group had a visit from a large delegation of US chefs, food and travel writers. And their taste buds were really impressed by the bite and tang of the Kerala spread. Several of them have promised to come back for a second helping. And, the Casino Group was optimistic that they will be the ambassadors for Kerala's cuisine in foreign lands.

The foreign traveller is not interested in soup and soufflé. That he can get in large measure in any part of the world he travels. But not so, the puttu and kadala or the appam and stew. And that is what the large hoteliers as well as the smaller resort keepers are banking on today.

Can Kerala continue to capture the minds and imaginations of weary travellers? The answer to that will have to come from beyond the backwaters.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Kerala: The Alert Independent Traveller's Choice Destination

Alert independent traveller's destination

Kerala is best known for two things - travel and tourism. The State is now unfurling its choicest charms to woo increasingly sophisticated international travellers, some of whom are so enamoured by Kerala's charms that they end up doing fairly exotic and atypical acts.

Take the case of 37-year-old Englishwoman Ms Clair and 45-year-old Dutchman Mr Arnold who decided to get married in Kerala - and how! They chose to tie the knot on a bedecked barge on the Chaliyar river, near Kadavu Resorts in Kozhikode.

The rituals were conducted in a makeshift "mandapam" on the barge, to the accompaniment of the traditional "panchavadyam" and "kottum kuravayum". Nearly 140 guests had flown in from different parts of the world, including the UK, the US, South Africa, Sweden and Australia, to witness the wedding ceremony, which lasted nearly three hours. "We are happy to get married in typical Kerala manner. It is different and interesting," Mr Arnold, the groom, told The Hindu.

That is the sort of international guest that Kerala has managed to woo, as was reiterated in the second tourism-related event of the week. Though much less dramatic than the Anglo-Dutch wedding, the national seminar on issues and trends in eco-tourism in India organised by All-India Tourism Teachers' Association at Kerala Institute of Tourism and Travel Studies focused on the "alert independent traveller".

As Mr E.K. Bharat Bhushan, Principal Secretary, Tourism, elaborated, unlike the more common conventional "sun, sand and surf traveller", the alert independent traveller moves around for experience and has a mind of his own.

For such a person, Kerala offers a dazzling variety of authentic social, cultural and political experiences, not to mention the geographical wonders of a land characterised by lush greenery, undulating hills, quiet beaches and the unique backwaters. As Mr Chris Moss reported in The Guardian a couple of months ago, "This rich masala of ideologies, fashions and native character means our experience of Kerala might be rather more than a week of fish curries and sunbathing. As a branding exercise, Kerala ranks with Bollywood and Bangalore, and there's no doubting the soft adventure appeal of the fertile coastal region when compared with other, more clamorous corners of this vast nation. But Kerala is built on coming and going, trading and touring and the current trends - whether package tourism, boutique hotels or massage-and-meat-free health sojourns - will no doubt be absorbed into the Keralan world-view with time."

It is that world-view that, over the ages, has attracted travellers from across the world. And they have, in turn, actually helped mould the Kerala world-view. Malayalees themselves may regard the majority of their kind as fairly insular, with an outlook decidedly far from cosmopolitan, but the outside world remains fascinated with the `lunatic asylum of castes', as Swamy Vivekananda labelled Kerala at the end of the 19th century.

Nonetheless, as Mr Moss writes, "There may still be a kind of madness to the mix here, but there's nothing like variety for encouraging neighbourliness and understanding - from the beaches to the backwaters, Kerala offers strict Hinduism, genteel hedonism and everything in between."

That is reason enough for a great deal of good cheer in the State's travel and hospitality industries. By continuing to focus on the alert independent traveller, Kerala can hope to remain the flavour of the month all year around, which would be a rather rare achievement.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Medical tourism makes headway in Kerala

The next health trip

As healthcare costs in the West rise and the number of uninsured burgeons, medical tourism could well be the next big trip for Kerala as a destination.

Late in 2006 a news report from Kottayam said the Federation of Kerala Associations in North America (Fokana) was urging the Centre and the State Government to promote Kerala as a destination for medical tourism. "If Kerala does it," the Fokana president, Mr Sasidharan Nair, told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram, "there will be an unending stream of US citizens arriving in the State for their medical needs."

And the reason for that potent attraction was plainly explained by the Fokana General Secretary, Mr Aniyan George: "An open-heart surgery in the US costs Rs 9 million whereas it can be done at less than half a million rupees in Kerala. Dental treatment is another sector that has huge potential here." Little wonder then that Fokana has plans to bring out a directory of Kerala-based hospitals and doctors in the US.

Already, some non-resident Indian entrepreneurs have begun cashing in on the potential. According to a report by Kyle Arnold in The Brownsville Herald of Texas, Mr Hari Namboodiri, who grew up in Kerala, is setting up a travel-health company called Health Options International to send people to India for cost-effective medical surgeries.

"It's only about one-quarter or one-fifth of the cost to have a procedure done in India, even after travel costs," Mr Namboodiri told The Herald. He hopes to be able to arrange operations within just a week or two, saving patients thousands on elective surgeries such as gastric bypass or angioplasty. And guess where his sights are set for his health guests? Kerala.

Medical tourism - the practice of travelling to a foreign country for medical treatment - is becoming a booming industry as healthcare costs in the West rise and the number of uninsured burgeons. According to the US National Coalition on Health Care, about 46 million Americans have no health insurance at all, and about 500,000 people went out of the country last year for medical treatment.

No longer are developing countries suspect when it comes to technology and expertise. Arnold explains why: "One of the reasons that medical care in countries such as India has improved so dramatically in the last few years is the number of Indian doctors who are being trained in the US.

About 30 per cent of all graduate students in American universities are Indian, according to the US Department of State, and about 20 per cent of US doctors were born abroad, many of them Indian. That has allowed hospitals to gain international accreditation and even align themselves with well-known American institutions such as Johns Hopkins and Harvard University."

By combining medical procedures with tourism packages, the health tourism sector hopes to dangle a double attraction - along the lines of "Get your knees replaced and then sprint around to take in the sights and sounds of God's Own Country!" The handsomest draw to potential customers would be the savings, which, in some cases, could be more than $80,000 after travel arrangements, according to Mr Namboodiri.

Kerala's historically sustained emphasis on public health seems to be paying off in all this. Kerala has long reported the highest per capita expenditure on public health among all the Indian States. Kerala today has the country's most advanced and equitable healthcare system. The average Keralite's penchant for therapeutic and curative treatment transcends systems of medicine. The modern Western-oriented allopathic and homeopathic systems co-exist happily with a host of alternative indigenous systems, including ayurveda.

During the southwest monsoon months of June to August, ayurveda clinics and spas do brisk business since the rainy season is traditionally acknowledged to be particularly congenial for ayurvedic therapies. Rejuvenation packages range from the simple body massage with herbal oils and powders at Rs 250 ($6) to an intensive four-week package costing Rs 350,000 ($8041).

A 2003 study by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the consultancy firm McKinsey predicted that by 2012, medical tourism alone could contribute up to Rs 10,000 crore (approx. $2.3 billion) in additional revenue to upmarket tertiary hospitals in India and will account for 3 to 5 per cent of the total Indian healthcare delivery market. In 2003, of the 2.5 million who visited India, about 12 per cent opted for health tours.

Kerala's comparative advantages in medical tourism are, of course, the cost of medicare and the skill levels of its trained doctors and surgeons. A hip replacement surgery that could cost up to $12,000 in the West can be done in Kerala for less that one-third that amount. A regular dental filling that would cost Euro 400 in Austria would cost merely Euro 10 in Kerala. Most surgeries can be done in Kerala at a tenth of the cost that would be charged in a Western hospital. Clearly, medical tourism seems to be the next health trip for Kerala.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Niche tourism in Kerala

Kerala cashes in on the tourist dollar

As Kerala opens its doors to the thousands of tourists who are expected to come to taste the offerings of God's Own Country this season, some recent happenings in the State's travel and tourism sector do not augur well for the future of the industry.

Thanks to the blitzkrieg of advertising campaigns by Kerala Tourism touting the charms of the land and thanks also to dozens of press meets and public addresses by the State's tourism ministry and bureaucracy, it is easy to get carried away by the impression that Kerala's success as an increasingly upmarket and pricey destination is due to the State Government's single-handed dedication and unstinting promotional efforts.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Paradoxical as it may sound for a State that is not exactly renowned for an abundance of entrepreneurial gung-ho, history tells us that the first few important breakthroughs in niche tourism came from a handful of pioneering tour operators and hoteliers. By innovating new experiences for the alert independent traveller, they turned what was essentially a one-trick (read Kovalam) pony into a bouquet of vivid and enticingly different destinations.

Be it the houseboats that opened up the backwaters - and revived, to some extent, the dying tradition of boatbuilding - or the treetop layovers amidst thick woods or the ayurvedic spas that rejuvenate both body and mind, all these were radical departures from the official brand of government-sponsored tourism - which boiled down to a chauffeured romp in an Ambassador car from one government guest house to another.