A long horn blares through the morning mist announcing the arrival of yet another ship to Kochi. “Not a cruise ship,” says Zakir Hussain as he quietly sips his tea. Shanu agrees from behind his counter waiting on another pot to brew. “Yes, not that one. It will be a while before we get another cruise liner.”
We are huddled outside Shanu’s tea shop in Vasco da Gama Square in Fort Kochi, mere metres from the beach. A dull grey vessel has appeared on the horizon. From the looks of it, it’s likely making its way to the Container Terminal on the other shore.
A cruise liner would have meant foreign tourists. And foreign tourists are good for business. It’s been six months since a cruise vessel called to port. Zakir, and many others like him, had been counting on there being a few more to make a financial upturn.
Things had been dire over the course of two years. Bereft of tourists and the usual buzz that accompanies them, Fort Kochi had cast a desolate scene for long. The struggle has left most businesses in the region in a sea of debt. “Many have shut,” Shanu tells me.
“If Shanu says so, then it must be true”, goes a famous saying in Fort Kochi. His teashop is where the town congregates to exchange daily news and gossip.
“But with daily COVID cases on a downward curve, things are starting to look up. It certainly is for Zakir,” Shanu adds. Zakir has donned his khaki uniform today. Adding one more tea to his tab at Shanu’s, Zakir races away to where work awaits, on The Indian Ferrari, “the fastest autorickshaw in the whole of Fort Kochi.”
Overlooking the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea, Fort Kochi is a quaint little town in central Kerala boasting rich history and cultural significance. Its winding roads festooned with colonial-era homes, historical buildings, hipster cafés, art galleries, antique shops and Instagram-worthy nooks are a far departure from what makes up other tourist circuits in the north. The rich cuisine also adds to the delightful experience.
Before Fort Kochi became the must-visit epicentre of arts with the inception of Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012, what drove tourists here were primarily three things: homestays, backwaters and Ayurveda.
I made my way to one of the popular homestays here. Cocooned in the heart of the Fort Kochi heritage zone, Delight Homestay is: “beautiful and full of character”, reads a review. According to its owner David Lawrence, it is “one of the earliest homestays to begin operation here”—1994.
Delight Homestay stirs to life early. Today is an exceptionally busy day—a rarity given the times we are in. “All the six rooms are booked,” David tells me as he shows me the rooms. “And March too looks good. There are a number of reservations already.”
It’s still far short of what Delight managed before the pandemic outbreak, but the glass is never half empty for David. “It won’t be long before we are back in full swing,” he tells me. Awash with the golden rays seeping through two giant colonial-era windows, the room is majestic and with all the amenities that you’d usually find in a hotel.
From our vantage point on the balcony overlooking the Parade ground and Delight’s little garden, David explains the reality of the hardships that have befallen businesses here in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We closed the homestay in March 2020 and reopened only a few months ago—just before the tourist season (November-March). We were anticipating good footfall during the peak December-January period, but the Omicron wave put a dent to all our plans.”
He had spent nearly ₹3 lakh redoing the place ahead of the tourist season. With March already here, David knows that it will be another eight months before the next wave of tourists arrives.
Also Read: Time Flows Backwards in Fort Kochi
But David is one of the fortunate ones. “At least he owns the property,” says Sujith, who ran the popular Breathe Inn Homestay. “We were paying roughly ₹30,000-40,000 as rent for our space. With limited guests, it was difficult to break even.”
Breathe Inn, which began operations in 2016, was one of the finest homestays in Fort Kochi boasting of 5-star reviews (save for an uncanny few). But at the height of the second wave in 2021, Sujith and his partner Hanoko were forced to make the uncomfortable decision to quit. Not shut the business like many homestays here did, but quit.
Sujith tells me he has no plans to return to the industry. At least not immediately. “The pandemic has changed many things. It would be years before we return to normalcy.”
Breathe Inn is not the only one to shut. “More than 60 per cent of homestays in the state remains shut,” says Sivadathan MP, the director of Kerala Homestay and Tourism Society (HATS). “Even those still functioning are incurring heavy loses,” he adds.
The Kerala Tourism Department classifies homestays based on the facilities and qualities of the accommodation provided. There are three labels—Diamond, Gold and Silver.
The classification rules had always existed, but with an explosion of homestays in the region seen in the last decade, authorities were forced to tighten them, making it more difficult for anyone to start a homestay. The already-established homestays too had to comply with these new rules.
Only those homestays that had classification by the Tourism Department received funds to tide over the coronavirus pandemic. However, Sujith does not regret his decision. The sum is so small that it does not even cover a month’s overhead if one does not own the property.
For a town that relies primarily on tourism, the cancellation of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and Cochin Carnival in the aftermath of the virus outbreak stung the hardest.
The four-month-long Biennale, which overlaps with the tourism season in Kerala, is when homestays and local businesses in Fort Kochi thrive. According to a 2013 study conducted by the consultancy KPMG, the Biennale alone was responsible for raising Kerala’s income from tourism by 4 per cent.
On the outbreak of COVID, the first homestays to shut were those that were operational only for the Biennale months—November to March.
For Fort House, an upscale hotel in Fort Kochi that was relying heavily on the business they did during the Biennale months to counter the non-season’s sluggishness, the cancellation of art festivals and carnivals had rung like a death knell.
“We had made new rooms, an elaborate menu just to cater to the Biennale crowd,” says Daniel Kiem of Fort House. “With the Biennale cancelled, we were struggling to stay afloat.” Fort House had to shut for half a year. Several people were out of work as a result of this.
“No one is insulated from the hardships that have befallen Fort Kochi.” COVID, the cancellation of major art festivals, mismanagement, the tardiness of government processes, the sheer apathy for the region’s long history: David’s list is a long one, but no item on it seems outlandish or wrong.
The closure of hotels and homestays had a lingering effect on the Fort Kochi economy as well. Many local businesses which relied on these establishments and foreign tourists were plunged into a financial crunch.
Jaiprakash, who works at the Dhobi Khanna near Veli ground, says businesses were badly hit. The 300-year-old laundry den employs 32 families. With hotels and homestays shut, most were left to depend on the government’s rations during the pandemic months.
Even today, when some work has resumed, it is only “30 per cent of what we had pre-COVID,” says Jaiprakash. The 57-year-old has been working here for the last 42 years. “I’ve never seen Fort Kochi as deserted as it is now.”
Basheer, who runs a drinks establishment opposite the famous St Francis Assisi Church, now gets eight sales a day compared to the 100s he got pre-COVID. Yunis, who runs an eatery on the beachfront, hardly makes ₹300 a day. It’s a far cry from the ₹6,000 he made during the tourist seasons of pre-COVID years.
Cafés and restaurants too felt the heat of frequent lockdowns imposed in the wake of rocketing COVID cases. Shameer A.S., who oversees a trio of picturesque restaurants on Tower Road (near the famous Fort Kochi Jail)—namely Café Cuba, Pizza Italia and Salt N Pepper, too had to let go of his staff during the lockdown months.
When the restaurants finally reopened in November 2021, the slow tourist season meant that he could only employ three of the previous ten staff. “Business is hard nowadays,” says Shameer. “Street food is more enticing to foreign tourists than it is to the locals. For them, food is also an avenue to immerse themselves in Fort Kochi—its culture and traditions. With no flights or homestays, it will be a while before they are back,” he adds.
“But we are not without hope. Things will get better. It always does. We have used this downtime to reinvent ourselves,” says Shameer. He points to a new board hauled up above the other three. It reads in electric yellow: “Eat Kochi”. An aggressive rebranding campaign is apparently underway.
While many chic cafés here have already seen some levels of normalcy return with double-vaccinated youngsters flocking to it again, business remains slow. “It was difficult to find a free table at Kashi [a popular café] before; now they are aplenty,” says Jonathan de Rozario, a resident of Fort Kochi and one of the best DJs in Kerala.
Edgar Pinto, the owner of Kashi Art Gallery and a slew of establishments here, including the historically significant Old Harbour Hotel, says Fort Kochi now “resembles a ghost town during the weekdays”. He says hoteliers like himself are forced to employ new packages and slash their rates to appeal to domestic tourists.
“We are certain things will get better. Life will get back to normal, and travel will resume again. What we don’t know is when that will happen or how many businesses will survive and how until then,” Edgar adds.
Edgar also rues the slow ruin of several historic buildings in Fort Kochi. In addition to arts and culture, what attracts tourists to Fort Kochi is its history and heritage. “People in the administration should be educated more on preserving this. Fort Kochi is nothing without its heritage. It’s what brought tourists to this once-sleepy village all these years,” Edgar adds.
Nowhere is this decay more profound than on the coastlines of Fort Kochi dotted with Chinese nets. This had long been the “emblem of Kochi” (perhaps even Kerala) that adorned postcards, advertisements, brochures, and every marketing campaign that the Tourism Department has ever done.
Now a grey monster has appeared near the nets. One made of iron and steel. It is slowly digging up the earth where the 500-year-old and historically significant Laurel Club once stood to make room for a new Water Metro station.
“Such dastardly acts. Not the slightest concern for our culture or history. The authorities say it’s for the larger development of the region, to boost tourism. What will remain of tourism once magnificent structures like these [pointing to the Chinese nets] are gone,” laments Basheer P.V., a local resident.
He and his friends brighten their evenings by engaging in small discussions under a tree next to the nets. Now, their discussions are drowned by the sound of machines tearing the streets asunder.
Basheer’s friends too share the same opinion: The authorities’ hostile development measures and the rapid commercialisation of the region have eaten away at the very thing that made Fort Kochi a highly sought-after tourist destination in the world. “When the flights finally resume, and tourists start arriving, there will be nothing for them to see.”
Even amidst the hardships that have befallen Fort Kochi, some are optimistic that tourism will bloom again, that business will thrive, and life will return to normalcy. What will be a disaster is if one does not learn anything from this pandemic.
“One has to adapt. Only then can they survive,” says Sivadathan.
Many individuals like Edgar, art curator Tanya Abraham and history enthusiast and hotelier Issac Alexander have been nurturing a culture of arts here even during the non-Biennale months.
Youngsters like Jonathan de Rozario, his brother Jeremiah (a singer-songwriter) and Daniel have been using their Saturday mornings to clean up the beach, making it pleasant enough for the crowd that throngs the place on Sundays. Others like Basheer have been educating the newcomers and tourists, in what ways they can, on the rich history of this place.
Everyone is pitching in. Everyone wants to help. This power of community is what ultimately drives Fort Kochi. Ask a local and they will say, “Fort Kochi is no place. It is a feeling.”
Robin Thomas who works as a freelance writer based in Kochi, loves to take long walks to nowhere. It has seen him scaling the mountains of Himalayas and dipping his toes in the shoals of Adam's Bridge. When not travelling, he is busy playing DotA2 or inventing new card games.