Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Vision for Kovalam?

The Tourism Department has very belatedly proposed a master-plan to develop Kerala's original and premier tourist destination, the famed beaches of Kovalam, with a view to foster planned and sustainable development over the next 30 years. Is there a sure and simple way to do this?

In early November, The Hindu carried a report that the Tourism Department has decided to carry out a master-planning exercise for Kerala's flag ship tourism destination - Kovalam - that helped launch the tourism industry in the State just as surely as Technopark is solely responsible for bringing IT to Kerala. Surely, they'd have thought about it in the 40 years that have elapsed since the first tourists lounged on the sands of Kovalam? Subscribing to the universal Indian adage that late is always better than never, we should perhaps be thankful that the Department remembered that Kovalam still exists despite their best efforts, and still draws more foreign tourists than any other place in the State. With the rapid emergence of Trivandrum as a metropolis with a strong presence in IT, education and medical value travel, it's a no-brainer that the tourist traffic to the city will only increase in the future, fostered by concepts such as Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism and by the new-found fame of the city's patron deity and its lovely zoo.

Considering the fact that the nearly every inch of beach between Vellar and Poovar has a resort on it and that there's not much spare land left in this densely populated coastal belt, one would wonder if there is any point left in a master-plan. After all, if there's no developable land to plan, what use is a master-plan? Well, maybe there is still something that we can do.

Before we see what can be done, let's quickly look at what has already been done because this is not the first time a "master plan" has been proposed for Kovalam. Back in 2005, a Special Tourism Zone (STZ) was put together for the Kovalam-Vizhinjam region, although the jury's out on whether it ever came into effect or not, with almost everyone concluding that it didn't. In sum total, it was not much of a master-plan and never a development plan by any standards because all it did was suggest land-uses for various regions in the Kovalam-Vizhinjam area as well as development guide-lines that essentially spell out what can be built and what cannot be. No details of how the zone is to be developed are mentioned and it omitted key areas such as Poovar and fails to even acknowledge the $2 Billion Vizhinjam deep water port project located right in the middle of the tourism zone (Pssst....don't let the resort lobby hear that!) In short, it doesn't help anyone much.

 Different Zones in the Special Tourism Zone, 2005

 Suggested Land Uses within the STZ, 2005

So what needs to be done better? First and foremost, the Tourism Department needs to understand that while the master-plan exercise is essentially under-pinned by an urban design process (yes, most of the area is within Corporation limits and wholly within the Trivandrum metropolitan region), to be truly effective it also has to combine policy and development strategy components to become a holistic and implementable Development Plan. Next, it needs to acknowledge that there is very little additional land available in the area and thus must focus on enhancing the existing tourism cluster as much as on developing new facilities. Third, the exercise has to be truly forward-looking, in terms of anticipating emerging trends in tourism rather than looking back at the past to chart out the future. Finally, the Plan has to be backed by action and adequate funds, the latter usually a necessary condition for the former, and both dependent on the will-power and interest to execute among the powers-that-be. In order to keep our recommendations short and simple, we will focus on three key aspects - urban planning, infrastructure and development policy.

Urban Planning

By definition, urban planning is a scientific and political process which seeks to create a holistic plan for urban development by integrating land use planning, urban design, transportation, infrastructure and so on. This is exactly what the tourism zone needs.

First things first, what area are we talking about. I'd go out on a limb and call for everything from Veli (at least) in the North to the Poovar Estuary on the TN border in the South to be included in the Development Plan because common aspects like the focus on tourism, the coastal location and so on are shared and because the overall idea is to create the best experience for tourists and the local community as a whole. That said, it seems that the Tourism department likes to confine the scope to between Kovalam and Poovar. An extension up to Thiruvallam should definitely be considered. 

As mentioned in the STZ report, the area under consideration should extend a few kilometers inland to give adequate scope for development. This means an area roughly 23 Kilometers long and about 3 Kilometers wide, totalling 75 Square Kilometers or 18750 acres, give or take. Not a piddling patch of land by any stretch of the imagination, especially not in our State where every square foot counts.

While there are a wide variety of approaches that can be followed to kick-start the urban planning exercise, the most intuitive is to identify key nodes and paths (following in the footsteps of Lynch himself), as well as the pre-dominant uses - both current and future - and then to see what changes need to be made, if any, in the existing structure to arrive at the optimal solution. In the case of the Thiruvallam-Kovalam-Poovar zone, this is relatively straightforward, at least in terms of nodes and paths. The zone is pretty linear (23 Km X 3 Km). Key nodes include Thiruvallam, Vellar, Kovalam itself, Vizhinjam and Poovar with sub-nodes within many of these such as the three key beaches at Kovalam - Samudar, Eve's and Light House. The key path is the National Highway 66 till Kovalam and thereafter the Kovalam-Vizhinjam-Balaramapuram road, recently renovated by KSTP for the Vizhinjam project. An additional node that will soon gain in importance will be the Vizhinjam port itself, while the widening and  completion of the NH-66 till Kottur will make it the dominant path for the entire stretch. Tourism and fishing are currently the pre-dominant uses while port-based logistics will weigh in soon enough. The area is also densely populated with houses making up the vast majority of existing structures.

A simplistic solution to propose is the creation of self-contained activity clusters at each key node, by the planned development of mixed-use projects that include retail, commercial space and infrastructural components such as bus stops and parking facilities. This can be accomplished through a combination of passive incentive zoning and active PPP-based development. The tourism zone currently has no modern format retail and beyond the few souvenir shops that dot the sides of the road, little organized retail of any sort. This is a major missed opportunity for a destination that attracts millions of tourists every year. The same holds true for entertainment, beyond the Sun, sand, surf and the spas. The nearest decent movie theater is a long way off, for example. The mixed use clusters should be planned to provide a wide variety of shopping and entertainment options including multiplexes and restaurants, cafes and pubs.

The key paths would continue to be the NH-66 and narrower but still adequate coastal road developed by KSTP.  Additional paths could potentially be developed, such as a revived National Waterway 3, a new MRTS line and the mainline railway itself, as and when commuter rail services become operational and the nearby stations at Nemom and Balaramapuram become developed.

The urban design would need to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the area which is a key attraction, by protecting green areas and adding landscaped areas in public spaces and mandating green areas for new and existing developments (already a part of most low density resorts). Most importantly, while upholding the development controls of the CRZ/CZM regime, the urban design guidelines should not be restrictive and should encourage significant new development. For example, restrictions on the aesthetic design of resorts (such as all roofs must be made of tiles and sloped between X and Y degrees from the horizontal!) are usually unnecessary as long as environmental quality is maintained. 


As with any urban development project, the Kovalam master plan will encompass transportation, power, water supply and waste disposal infrastructure. In addition, because it focuses on a specific sector for its economic impetus, it'll also need to develop sector-specific infrastructure.

The NH-66 will play the role of an axial connector from Thiruvallam till Kovalam. Since the stretch between Kazhakkoottam and Kovalam will be developed as one with urban character, it will have the requisite service roads and street lighting to more than adequately meet the needs of the tourism zone. The NH-66 will also serve as the primary access road for the zone from the North and the South. Thereafter, the Kovalam - Poovar road, developed under KSTP to act as a preliminary construction access route for the Vizhinjam project will do duty as the primary access route. While this road has been widened and strengthened, it needs more work - street lighting, signage and junction improvements including signals.

Looking further ahead, the Kovalam-Poovar tourism zone needs to plan for connections with upcoming mass transit systems. At long last, the MEMU services along the Neyyatinkara-Kollam mainline have gotten rolling, with a strong final push from Dr Tharoor. As these commuter trains increase in frequency over the coming months, it will be helpful to plan feeder bus connections touching the nearest stations such as Nemom and Balaramapuram and various key locations in the tourism zone. This will also apply to the first route of the Trivandrum MRTS which will run along the Karamana Kaliyikkavila road till Neyyatinkara. As the MRTS network does expand with new lines, a top candidate for a new line will be an alignment that connects the tourism zone and the port with the central urban core, the Airport and other transportation hubs. This should be included in the Master-Plan and forcefully be put forward to the agency implementing the MRTS project.

A couple of possible MRTS networks that include lines to Kovalam-Vizhinjam 

With thousands of hotel rooms in addition to tens of thousands of residences in a very densely populated semi-urban area, there's a strong and urgent need for urban infrastructure for water supply, sewerage and municipal solid waste (MSW) disposal, in the area. There are some initiatives to provide an effective water solution in the area in association with the Vizhinjam project and with funding from the Tourism department. But a comprehensive development plan needs to include a comprehensive solution to the water needs of the area rather than a patchwork of schemes and this component of the plan should be forward looking, anticipating needs from the development spurred not just by the plan itself but by the growth of India's deepest and most efficient port. A high-capacity line from the city's main water-supply following the NH-66 can be supplemented with water drawn from the Vellayani Lake and the Karamana River, but the critical link will be to lay the distribution lines, which has repeatedly proven the Achilles' Heel of various water supply and sewerage schemes in the past. The same applies to sewage treatment for the area, where most resorts depend on their on treatment plants or septic pits to dispose of their waste. Considering the fact that it's a densely populated region located right on the coast,, permeated by number of water bodies, it is essential that a sewage network be included in the development plan, to convey waste water to the new sewage treatment plant at Muttuttathara sewage, which would of course need to be expanded well above its current capacity of 104 Million Liters per Day (MLD). There is already a plan to install 1,400 biogas plants in resorts and homes in the area, to make up for the disastrous MSW situation in the city but in the end only efficient centralized processing can be a sustainable solution and this needs to kept in mind as well.
We talked about sector-specific infrastructure at the beginning of this section and the top items that jump out in the case of Kovalam-Poovar are a world-class convention facility, a theme park attraction and, of course, the cruise terminal at the Vizhinjam port.

The convention center is a very important addition to the attractions that Kovalam can provide because Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism is becoming a very important driver of traffic across the world and can also help to balance out the seasonal traffic pattern seen at Kovalam, where peak occupancies seen during October - May are followed by an off-season between June and September. Kovalam currently only has one large facility, the 1000-seater Rajiv Gandhi Convention Center at The Leela. However, it's understood that the resort's new owner, Gulf-based industrialist Ravi Pillai, is upgrading the convention facility to a state-of-the-art 3000-seater with an investment of Rs 300 Crores (unless of course, the RP Group is planning to develop the proposed convention center at Aakulam). Additionally, the Muthoot-owned Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam, is adding a smaller 500-seater facility. Being privately funded expansions of existing properties, these projects should be straightforward (unlike the six-year long struggle with the public-private Aakulam convention center complex) and should provide more than adequate convention capacity, making one element of the development plan easy. A theme park, potentially a water-based one, can also help balance out the annual ebb and flow of tourists, as well as draw in new demographies such as kids. An ideal location would be one of the disused quarries in Vellar, at any rate a much better option than filling them with garbage.

The final element of specialized infrastructure is the cruise terminal. The good news is that it's a firm part of the latest master plan of the port, the not-so-good news is of course the ambiguity that still prevails with the timing of its development. While the terminal would be funded by VISL and/or the port operator, including it in the development plan for Kovalam may make additional funding available. Vizhinjam's fishing harbor has been receiving small cruise ships without any kind of terminal for years now and considering that dozens of large ships call at the ports in Ernakulam and Mangalore each year, a deep water port with a purpose-built cruise terminal, that's much closer to the shipping lane and has many more tourist attractions around it, will likely receive a lion's share of this traffic when operational. This would bring tens of thousands of additional foreign tourists to the zone. And if Vizhinjam can home-port some of these ships, it'd serve as a source of room-nights for the resorts.

 The Port of Barcelona - Container and Cruise Terminals
Photo Courtesy: 
(click on the link to see an interesting time-lapse video)

The final aspect of the development plan for the Kovalam-Vizhinjam-Poovar tourism zone should be a clear and bold development policy framework. Policies need to encompass and govern key areas that will facilitate and execute the development plan such as planning guidelines, fiscal and non-fiscal incentives, funding and an effective oversight and promotion mechanism.

Planning guidelines and fiscal/non-fiscal incentives go hand in hand to facilitate and implement the development plan. While we can imagine whole reams of such guidelines and incentives, I will propose just one set, which may be a little controversial. At the risk of sounding like a proponent of corporate-style tourism, I'd push for a package of incentives that will incentivize the development of large resorts and the establishment of major international (and domestic) hospitality chains. Not that I am trying to play down the contributions and importance of small and medium resorts (which indeed make up more than 90% of all rooms in the area) but my point is that to attract more international and domestic tourists, we need major chains to operate high-end, large capacity resorts because their booking networks and promotional campaigns can reach far further than small resorts or even Kerala Tourism itself can. Having interacted with almost every major hotel chain in the world and having studied the industry in great detail, it's very clear that there are a great number of people out there who depend on the name of the chain to make a booking. They'd rather go where their favorite brand - Hilton, Marriott or Four Seasons - is rather than spend a lot of time researching a destination and then risking a stay in a hotel they are not familiar with. I believe this is one reason why Goa has stolen a march on Kovalam and Kerala in terms of international tourists. The same holds true for Phuket, Malidives or Bali, which have at least one out post of almost every hotel chain one can think of. We need more of these! And this works to everyone's advantage because a higher profile for the destination will lead to spill-over benefits for all classes of hotels, as it very evidently has in Goa or Phuket. 

Counter-intuitively, it is often the bigger resorts which need incentives at the beginning to make financial sense, because of their need for large parcels of land and massive up-front capital expenses. Each five-star hotel usually costs between Rs 80 - 150 Lakhs per room! That is, upwards of Rs 10-20,000 per Sq.ft, which is far more than the most luxurious residential apartment in Kerala. Giving these hotels incentives similar to the IT industry - tax breaks, density bonuses on non-CRZ land (because the CRZ rules severely restrict density) and starting a land-bank, would be a very good idea because the resorts will create direct (taxes, employment etc) and indirect economic benefits (spending in the local economy, employment in support services etc). World-class infrastructure and a guarantee that specialized facilities such as the cruise terminal and theme park would be built on time would also indirectly incentivize major developers and operators to consider taking a risk at Kovalam instead of Mali.

Funding is as crucial as anything else because even the most ambitious and well-drawn up master plan is nothing but a piece of paper without the requisite funds to put into action. This fate has been suffered more often than not by almost every master-plan we have heard about in Kerala. The Tourism sector generated revenues of about Rs 19,000 Crores in 2011. With at least a 20% share in this total, Trivandrum district would have accounted for Rs 3,500-4,000 Crores, and at a mean taxation level of 10%, generated Rs 350-400 Crores of direct revenues to the Government, not counting for indirect tax flows. So an annual budget commitment of Rs 100 Crores to the Kovalam development plan, growing at 10% every year is not a big ask, it's a rightful plough-back. Keeping in mind the fact that great bulk of tourism development is privately funded, this budget could realistically fund the public components of the infrastructure development needed to support the region well into the future.

Finally, we need a pragmatic and effective mechanism to oversee and promote the development plan. This is no easy ask, as we have seen how very large and well-established organizations such as TRIDA and the Trivandrum Corporation have miserably failed at similar tasks over the last six decades. No, Kovalam doesn't need just another inefficient, bureaucratic body to run it into the ground. It needs something autonomous and compact such as Technopark or VISL. A Governing body composed of the powers-that-be (the CM, assorted Ministers, the MP and MLA (s)) and industry experts, to guide an efficient management composed of tourism professionals. It could be called the Kovalam STZ Development Authority or whatever else the Government wishes to but it should have great clarity of purpose, the necessary executive authority and, just as importantly, the necessary budget. The latter can be funded by the Government contribution mentioned above as well as by voluntary and compulsory contributions from the resorts in the area. The compulsory component could be in the form of a tax or cess on room revenues at each resort, a common form of revenue generate for tourism related projects such as convention centers and stadiums, across the world. Indeed, the India Convention Promotion Bureau could be an interesting model to base the development authority on.

There should also be a strong and sustained umbrella destination branding campaign which promotes Kovalam, period! Not God's Own Country or Incredible India but Super-amazing, Awesome Kovalam! It should be handled by a professional branding and advertising agency and funded by the body mentioned above. While small and medium resorts would contribute through the cess/tax levied on them, large resorts and hotel chains would also commit to spending part of their ad budgets on destination branding and also to prominently include their properties at Kovalam in their national and international marketing campaigns. Given how short vacations are becoming and how much business travel is expanding, it'd be safe to say that a large segment of potential visitors are looking to choose between destinations, making the idea of promoting the specific destination amid the clutter of messages out there even more critical. Indeed, Kerala tourism has already rolled out this concept for new destinations like Bekal, making it all the more mystifying that they should not be doing it already at their flagship attraction, that's also the earliest to draw tourists to the State.

In conclusion, let's look at what could be if the Kovalam development plan is well thought and equally well executed.  Sentosa Island in Singapore is a tiny 5 Sq. Km  spit of land in the middle of the Port of Singapore attracts over five million visitors a year. Over the years, the Government of Singapore invested about $250 Million (Rs 1250 Crores) to create a multi-Billion dollar tourist destination which is now a must-see for any tourist in South-East Asia that combines Singapore's own culture, history and flora and fauna with world-class amenities and attractions such as the $5 Billion (Rs 25,000 Crore) Resorts World Sentosa. Kovalam has a much greater area at play (25 Km of beaches compared to Sentoas's 2 Km!), access to a much larger population and far more adjacent attractions, so this certainly is food for thought. At the risk of sounding like a day-dreamer, a great development plan with adequate funds could transform Kovalam into a truly world-class destination that competes with the likes of Dubai, Singapore and Maledives rather than dukes it out with the likes of Goa or Mammallapuram. As I usually end it with, fingers crossed and stay tuned!  

 Sentosa Island, Singapore
Photo Courtesy: 

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