Bring on the Tourists – Varkala, India

Bring on the Tourists
Varkala, India

The Eden Garden Ayurvedic Health Retreat is gearing up for a busy winter. Smart new signs are nailed to trees and glossy menus offer guests “authentic South Indian rejuvenation therapy.” There’s no room for complacency, though. Therapeutic centres are sprouting up like coconut palms in the coastal town of Varkala. Many are little more than shacks. Few inspire confidence or suggest competence.

It’s early November in Kerala. The monsoon has receded, leaving wells and water tanks replenished. Temperatures are pleasantly cool and the folks who make their living from tourism are optimistically preparing for a new season. Youths attack guesthouses with paint brushes. Souvenir shop owners arrange and rearrange their wares – even rickshaw drivers apply a touch of spit and polish.

Amina Aliyar is hoping business picks up after months of inactivity.

“Indians don’t usually take tuk-tuks,” she laments. Varkala’s sole female auto-rickshaw driver knows her market.

“Foreign women feel safer with me,” she says, thumbing disdainfully at a row of three wheelers. “They don’t trust the boys.”

Varkala appears to have what it takes to succeed as a retreat from the rigours of Indian travel. Hotels and restaurants line the clifftop overlooking the glistening Arabian Sea. The town itself is a 10-minute rickshaw ride inland and offers that assault on the senses that travel brochures call “local colour.”

Kerala’s main attractions are all within striking distance. The historic enclave of Fort Cochin is three hours north. The Backwaters are an enchanting network of rivers, lakes and canals easily explored as a day trip. The hills of the Western Ghats offer a break from the humidity with wildlife reserves, tea plantations and former British hill stations. The nearest international airport is at Trivandrum, 55 kilometres south.

Post-monsoonal clouds are on the horizon. The waves thumping onto Papanasam Beach fight a losing battle to drown out the clatter of construction.

“Varkala will go the same way as Kovalum,” warns Rex at the Kerala coffee shop, clearly unimpressed with the pace of change in the resort town an hour to the south. “They only have a two-month season,” he adds, referring to the dangers of chasing and embracing only the lucrative charter flight trade.

Many agree that Kovalum has grown too fast for its own good although it still serves as a role model for some impatient developers. Palm groves are being ripped up to make way for concrete huts. Beach vendors are multiplying and rubbish is starting to pile up.

Whether Varkala becomes the next Kovalum depends on the attitude of the locals. A spot of high season price gouging could alienate regular visitors, although local merchants generally seem reluctant to bite the hand that is feeding them for the time being.

For now Varkala retains its charm. Fishermen work in teams hauling in the catch. Sunbathers, feeling guilty after a day of idleness, leap up and lend a hand. Up on the clifftop, restaurants and cafes do a brisk trade as everyone gathers for sunset. There are more cameras than cocktails as the last traces of scarlet dissolve and lights from fishing vessels fleck the horizon. Hungry travellers sit down to freshly-caught snapper baked in tandoor ovens for a few rupees. High taxes and restrictive alcohol licenses keep waiters busy reminding everyone to hide their beer bottles under the table.

Keen to explore the surrounding countryside, I hop into Amina’s rickshaw for a ride to the shimmering lake at Kappil, eight kilometres away. Two hours of exploring by boat reveals vast wetlands inaccessible by road. A canal delivers us to the coast where a deserted ribbon of white sand stretches far into the distance. Amina can tell I am impressed with the tranquility and unsullied beauty. She smiles, “Just like Varkala five years ago.”

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