We rate houseboats and we do, indeed, think that they rock. And years ago, whoever thought of tapping into tourism by renting out one of these unique rice boats or kettuvalloms, was onto a great thing. Kerala's backwaters, its villages and varied waterscapes were suddenly accessible, and tourists who thought Kerala was all Kovalam and Kathakali began to see a whole new, exciting picture. The only problem is that word spread very quickly and houseboats started to increase from a handful to hundreds within a space of a few years. Tourism Watch, A German NGO, published a report in 2005 highlighting the extreme river pollution caused by houseboat tourism, from kerosene to condoms, and consequently, the Kerala government changed the law. Now, all owners are obliged to have less powerful , and thus less polluting engines, and there are new waste facilities at Alapuzha and Kumarakom. There is also a congestion issue for many local people who still transport their kids to school by canoe, and have safety concerns due to the numbers and speed of houseboats. Some boats are realising their responsibility, and have installed solar panels to power air con and water pumps, etc. However, given that it is such an important source of tourism income, it still remains relatively unregulated, so tourists need to research carefully. We also highly recommend combining a houseboat stay with a homestay, which ensures your tourism spend is going straight into the community.
Peter Bishop, Programmes Manager for the UK charity Tourism Concern:
"Houseboat tourism can be a delightful way to explore the beautiful backwaters of Kerala, and can bring benefit to lots of local people. However there are a number of key issues which are threatening to make this unsustainable and even damaging. The most serious problem is the number of boats. Although many are locally owned, increasing numbers are being bought up by commercial concerns from elsewhere keen to exploit this lucrative market. Waste disposal (including pumping raw sewage into the waters, diesel pollution, plastic and other waste) is a major concern. There are waste collection and pump out stations but these are often ignored or not functional. Many local communities depend on these waters for fishing and for drinking water. Privacy is another key issue, with poor regulation (and even poorer enforcement) of mooring. Many local communities complain of tourist boats mooring alongside houses, of noise, inappropriate behaviour and invasive use of cameras etc. In 2012, working with Kabani - our local partner in Kerala - Tourism Concern consulted with several thousand people in communities affected by houseboat tourism. As a result we jointly proposed that a Code of Conduct for houseboat owners be developed, provisions of which would include compliance with regulations for waste disposal, and undertakings to respect local people. The code of conduct could be promoted via the Kerala Houseboat Owners Association and would be displayed on boats. In turn, tourists would be able choose to travel only with those signing up to the Code, and could hold their boat accountable against its provisions."
Diana Syrett, Managing Director of one of our top suppliers, Kerala Connections:
“With houseboat trips, stay for more than one night. If you just do one night, you check in at lunchtime, and check out after breakfast the next day, and so you really only get an afternoon’s cruising. And during that time you won’t get very far away from the main waterways , because there are so many houseboats on the backwaters now. So, with two or three nights you can get away from the crowds and enjoy remote rural life, hopping on and off as you go. It is also down to the houseboat operator you choose. We rate ours very highly, especially on the environmental side of things, as well as having a good fleet of houseboats”.
What you can do
Chat with your tour operator about where your houseboat is going, if it is going off the beaten track and spending quality time in villages along the way. If you take a day tour, the chances are you won't be doing that as there will no time to escape the crowds, so you really need a couple of nights to get off the beaten backwaters. You can also ask about whether there is responsible disposal of waste along the way. Keep an eye on their environmental practices and always give feedback to your tour operator and the Kerala Houseboat Owners Association if you feel they are not responsible. Also, act responsibly on houseboats and remember that you are going through villages which have different cultures. So, even though you are on a boat, you are still visible from the shore, and it is advised to still dress correctly, don't show overt intimacy as it causes offence, keep the noise down and generally be respectful of the communities you pass through.