Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nowhere in Kerala - exploring Bekal

(This piece features in the November 2010 issue of India Today Travel Plus. There's no direct web link to the piece online).

(On a nowhere land in Kerala, and on its ambitions of being a tourist destination).

Country roads
The first conversation was almost entirely about bumpy rides. One of us said “there was hardly any tar on the road”, but was countered by “there wasn’t even a road – the car actually bounced”. The one person who tried “it wasn’t that bad” was silenced by a ‘what-were-you-smoking’ glare from the rest.

The conversation was with some of the other travelers who I had happened to meet at Bekal. Bekal is in Kerala, but it’s not quite the Kerala you’ll usually have heard or read about. Bekal is in North Kerala, some 400 odd kilometers from the more famous parts of Kerala – the backwaters around Alleppey, beaches of Kovalam and the hills of Munnar.

The bad roads and relative remoteness are the first signs of the fact that Bekal isnt your typical tourist trap. There are no bright or gaudy hotel and resort signboards on the highway near Bekal. There are no curio shops with bizarre artifacts pretending to be ethnic. Beaches here aren’t lined by alcohol bottles and plastic packets. Passersby don’t make unsolicited offers of dope or sex. The road leading up to the Lalit Resort & Spa, where I’m staying, is a pinched narrow village road lined by coconut trees and thatched houses.

Swimming across

There is a thin line between inaccessible and pristine, between desolate and idyllic. This is a line that Bekal has attempted to go across over the last decade and a half. What makes Bekal’s journey unique, though, is that it’s been a carefully planned effort.

In1995, Government of Kerala formed the Bekal Resorts Development Corporation(BRDC) to develop Bekal as a tourist destination. The Government expected tourism in Kerala to grow over time, and wanted to develop alternatives to traditional destinations to accommodate the increased number of tourists. Another less immediate objective was that tourism would promote an ecosystem of development. Resorts would lead to shops, malls and recreational facilities, all of which would lead to employment for locals and economic growth.

At least that was the idea. But when the BRDC was set up, there were absolutely no roads, hotels or tourist infrastructure to speak of at Bekal. The BRDC had nothing to start with - they had to begin from scratch.

The BRDC decided to adopt a strategy of what it called ‘integrated resort development’. The BRDC spoke to hospitality groups and resort chains and offered them concessions to set up resorts in Bekal. The BRDC proposed a revenue share arrangement, and made commitments on ensuring road and infrastructure development. The idea was that because the Government had a financial stake in the project, they’d have an incentive to ensure the development of ancillary infrastructure like roads and facilities.


The first step

But the waters were completely untested. Resorts coming up there would still have to face huge risks. Supply chains would be difficult to set up, it’d be difficult to convince staff to relocate. Most importantly, a hitherto unknown destination would be difficult to sell to visitors. It was a chicken and egg problem – nobody wanted to set up shop until someone else did it and proved that it was profitable.

Undiscovered lands

For all its growing pangs, Bekal still had plenty of raw material with which to make itself into a tourist destination. There are backwaters of the Valiyaparamba around Bekal. There are the hills and ghats that lie between Kasargode district and the more popular Coorg in Karnataka yonder. Then of course, there are long stretches of beaches. All of these are quite bereft of hordes of tourists, so they still give one the thrill of a new discovery, of finding a new land.

There was just the small matter of convincing everyone that the place was good enough.

Seaside fort

The Bekal fort is perhaps the only thing most people know about Bekal. The Bekal fort is a mystery of sorts. It seems so out of place and context, simply because there is nothing else around that’s related to it – palaces, towns or places of worship. Yet, because the fort lies on the seaside, the unprecedented views from there have made it a favourite short stop for travelers driving on the National Highway 17.

I take a quick tour of the fort. At the entrance to the fort is the garish brown front wall of a Hanuman temple, the loud blaring of whose songs follows me into the fort. The ramshackle tea stall inside the fort sticks out amid the neatly trimmed lawns like a sore thumb. There are Archaeological Survey of India signboards - I wonder if the Survey has done anything at the fort other than put up those boards.

The fort thankfully is big enough for me to leave the music and the tea stall behind, as I walk along the 1.5km circumference of the fort. Walking along the moss-covered fort’s ramparts is like having a gallery-view of the entire district. Every bit of my view that’s not taken by the sea is occupied by a vast expanse of coconut trees. A row of boats lie immobile on the sand at a nearby fishing village. From the upper-circle viewpoint, I see the evening sun slowly descend upon the open, empty sea.

Baby steps

The Government’s integrated resort development program made slow progress – Kerala Tourism and BRDC advertised Bekal at travel tradeshows and travel marts. Resorts were cautious about taking the plunge. Eventually the Lalit Resort & Spa became the first of the resort groups to agree to set up shop – their property became operational a few months ago. They took the chance mainly because they had a long term strategy of developing properties in relatively unknown areas. After years of the initial hesitation, other resorts slowly bought into the possibility that lay in Bekal. Right now, 15 years after the formation of the BRDC, 5 of the 6 areas earmarked by the BRDC for resorts have been booked.

So resorts have said yes. Investment of Rs. 750 crore has come in, and the BRDC is set to start making money. Yet the promises of infrastructure development haven’t materialized, as partly evidenced by my ride there. I’m surprised at the tardiness, partly because Kerala tourism’s marketing is so ubiquitous and well thought out. A familiar lament I hear from people I speak to is that Government agencies are enthusiastic and optimistic when they invite investments, but once it’s their turn to keep up their end of the bargain, progress is slow.

One reason for the slow pace of development, I’m told, is that any on-ground project needs approvals from a myriad of Government bodies – water deparment, PWD, highways department, local bodies and more – which slows down progress enormously.

Flowing quietly

The absence of tourist fixtures in a way accentuates the natural charms of Bekal. The road to Bekal passes close to the sea, sometimes opening up to reveal the yawning empty openness of the water.

The Lalit resort lies on the banks of the Nombili backwater. The Nombili is a sea change from the waterways of Alleppey and Kumarakom I’d visited a while ago. The water here is clear and transparent, unlike the algae-and-weed-choked waters of South Kerala. There are no houseboats chugging by or speedboats rushing past every few minutes. There is none of the effluvium of mass travel – plastic and waste floating atop the water surface. The Nombili emerges quietly from amid a green blanket of vegetation unbroken by buildings or houses, and placidly tiptoes to the sea.

There are 12 such rivers in Kasargode district around Bekal, all of them as yet untouched by tourism – so there’s immense possibility here.

New shores

The beach near the resort appears brand new. It looks like it’s just been discovered. There’s just the endless unblemished sand on either side, unbroken by plastic or dirt. There are no bathers or picnickers, there’s no noise or bustle. There are no shacks, stalls or eatouts. The glimmering steely grey of the water is unbroken by speedboats. As I take a languid walk on the sand, a blue kingfisher flits by. There’s a pinprick on the placid water surface, a solitary dolphin punctures the horizon.

(Photo credits: Bhavati HG, the print article also has pics by Amit Parischa)


Anonymous said...

Who's soda's daddy?

From the name Ravi Sudarshan Mandayam Aji the answer is anybody's guess.Notably,RVCE has got it's back offices in Montreal,Zurich and of course,Bekal in Kerala.

Kodi said...

Hi Shamanth

Wonderful piece ! I will go to Bekal soon :) Btw, is this the fort they show in the movie "Bombay" ?

Shamanth said...

Hey Kodi,

Thanks for coming by!

Oh yes, this verily is the fort in Bombay. I heard this fact mentioned so often I somehow tuned out and missed it while writing.