Is Kerala’s booze ban impacting its tourist numbers?

Tourists ride on a small boat in Alleppey backwaters in Kerala, India. Source: Shutterstock

SIPPING on a pina colada on a relaxing beach while watching the sun limpidly slide beneath the horizon might be a dream unattainable in Kerala.

Getting a cocktail – or any alcohol, for that matter – in Kerala can involve visiting a tawdry government alcohol shop or huddling in a darkened “beer parlor” with no hope of a sunset. Your best hope could be carting around bottles of furtive duty-free.

The Kerala state government’s decision to ban alcohol from establishments other than five-star hotels could have far-reaching consequences for a tourism industry facing big competition from nearby and relatively liberal Sri Lanka.

With similar bans in place in other Indian states which rely less on foreign visitors, could Kerala’s booze ban be a test case for the dangers of prohibition for tourism growth?

Numbers are dropping but it’s difficult at the moment to decipher whether the decrease in tourists to Kerala in 2016 is a result of the demonetization crisis, which hit travelers hard last year.

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However, people are starting to lament the difficulties in obtaining a tipple. A tourist from Australia who declined to be identified was less than impressed by the situation at Varkala Beach.

He told Travel Wire Asia: “We were told at the place we were staying we would have to get our own beers from the government shop in town. It was a dirty place with barred windows and the taxi journey there was a pain.

“We tried a couple of restaurants at the beach and, even though we got hold of a beer the whole thing was furtive. We sat at the back drinking out of pottery tankards so as not to look like we were drinking booze. Not much fun.”

While it’s still possible to get beer or (obscenely overpriced) wine in a “beer parlor”, we visited several in Alleppey and Kochin and found them to be dark, dingy, hidden from view, and full of local men in varying states of intoxication – a far cry from the fantasy of cocktails on a tropical beach.

However, the state government claims rather than fleeing elsewhere in a fit of aperitif pique, visitor numbers have only increased.

Kerala Tourism director Sheikh Pareeth told NDTV, “There should be no fear tourism will be impacted. Kerala has a lot to offer that is envied across the world. It’s not about liquor.

“If it is about conventions and meetings, there is a provision where the concerned hotel can apply for one-day (liquor) licence.”

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The state government has further plans to reduce consumption of alcohol year-on-year and while its arguments excessive drinking contributes to domestic violence and poor health outcomes are valid, a move to prohibition could prove thirsty work for its tourism industry.

With a tough target for tourists to contribute 20 percent of GDP in the next five years – up from 12 percent at present – it would be wise to listen to the needs of holidaymakers.