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Travel: Shaking the trees
By Peter Wonacott

The Asian Wall Street Journal via Dow Jones

Thykattusserry Village, India -- As an orange sun dips behind the hills, visitors to this village can hear the flapping commute of egrets to rice paddy fields, singing from a nearby village church -- and, often, the ominous whoosh-thud! of a falling coconut.

  The sound of the plunging fruit is a reminder of the gyrations in the coconut market that are shaking up life in Kerala, a state in southern India known for its progressive politics and, increasingly, its luxury spa industry. Kerala produces about 13 billion coconuts a year, and the fruits yield everything from food and drink to rope, lamp shades and even guitars. But sinking coconut prices and an aging corps of tree climbers -- not to mention medical studies linking
coconut oil with heart disease -- have squeezed planters here.

  In response, a number of them are now tapping the life-sustaining fruit for yet another use: tourism. Dozens of former coconut plantations have opened their doors for overnight visits -- known as homestays. At a time when a growing number of tourists are traveling to India -- but seeing it through the prism of Western-style hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants -- the coconut plantations are offering something different: local cuisine, village life and the opportunity to retreat to colonial-era estates in time for high tea. It's a style of travel that has proven to be an attractive alternative to big resorts in other countries, too, from Italy to Argentina.

  The transformation of Kerala's coconut plantations mirrors a shift taking place throughout rural India. As the national economy opens, once-isolated pockets of the country are suddenly being exposed both to global competition and also to new economic opportunities. For some farmers, that openness might mean better prices for pepper or rubber, while for other Indians, tougher times might prompt a shift into a new industry or a move to a nearby city.

  In August, Johnny Tharakan opened three rooms of his home for guests. Mr. Tharakan charges around $150 a night including meals to stay at Ayanat House, a two-story home built 70 years ago. Mr. Tharakan and his wife, Rani, dine with the guests, pointing out the Kerala favorites of fresh red prawns and steamed cakes with coconut shavings.

  The coconut industry "is dying," says Mr. Tharakan. "It's only a matter of time, and that time is not very far off."

  In Kerala, the coconut is only the latest example of using aging crops to harvest tourists. A decade ago, many of the state's rubber plantations began offering homestays amid a slump in prices, while more recently, tea plantations have become B&Bs.

  In contrast to those plantations at higher elevations, most of Kerala's coconut plantations are located around the area's famed backwaters, a network of lagoons, lakes and river tributaries that help produce the sandy soil in which the trees grow. Because the plantations are secluded, it isn't unusual to go days without seeing other tourists. During winter months, fishermen in dugout canoes pull through purple-flowered water hyacinth, a weedy plant that covers the waterways. Only rings from their cellphones disrupt the rhythmic rowing.

  The fading fortunes of the coconut industry mean that more homestay options are becoming available, says Thomas Zacharias of Kerala-based tour company Kalypso Adventures. In the past four years, Kalpyso has added 12 coconut plantations to his list. "It's the next big thing," says Mr. Zacharias.

  Kerala has made a name for itself in recent years by growing its spa industry. That business continues to command the lion's share of attention from high-end travelers to the state. In recent years, several luxury resorts, such as the Leela's Divya Spa in the state capital of Trivandrum and Taj Malabar's Jiva Spa in Cochin have sprung up around the ancient Indian science known as Ayurveda, which involves meditation, dietary advice and very oily massages.

  But the rising popularity of homestays has also helped power Kerala's surge in tourism. In Thykattusserry, built up around Ayanat House, it is possible to see how some villages in Kerala are coming to grips with the global changes in the coconut market. The village still relies heavily on the coconut, but stagnant prices have rippled along the supply chain -- from grower, to plucker to husker -- and changed lives.

  The Tharakans are more fortunate than most. They also own a big rubber estate not far away, and prices have rebounded sharply during India's economic boom. But one of the oldest Syrian Christian families in Kerala has seen what was once a mixed rice and coconut farm shrink dramatically -- through donations to village churches, government land reforms and divvying up among heirs -- to roughly five hectares, from 400 in the late 1960s. Each coconut now sells for about four rupees, or about nine cents. Kerala's long-stagnant coconut prices have come under new pressure after the government last month removed a duty on edible oil imports.

  But the standard wage for climbing the trees hasn't changed much over the years. These days, fewer villagers believe the pay -- four rupees a tree -- is worth the 30-meter climb with a sharp knife slung over one's back, and Mr. Tharakan sometimes has trouble finding climbers.
  The remaining climbers, such as 55-year old Appa, are slowing down. Mr. Appa, who goes by a single name, shows forearms rubbed so raw from climbing the skin resembles tanned leather. He can no longer scale 100 trees a day to earn a decent wage. But thanks to India's expanding economic opportunities, his children, like others in the village, have stayed in school to seek better-paying jobs in the cities. This year, his son will earn a college degree and wants to be an engineer.

  In his tourism venture, Mr. Tharakan has kept much of Ayanat House unchanged. It is stuffed with Art Deco furniture, and tall pepper and vanilla vines dot the property.

  Yet Mr. Tharakan is not above nods to modernity: He has cut out coconut oil from his own diet because of high cholesterol. 

  WHERE TO STAY: About 30 kilometers south of Cochin, Ayanat House  offers a few airy rooms for about $150 a night. Futher south, Emerald Isle is priced at about $100. A less-expensive option is Village Paradise (www.homestayskerala.com) at about $70 a night. A private car, arranged in advance through a tour company, is the best way to ensure your driver will be able to find these tucked-away places.

  WHERE TO EAT: Homestays in Kerala typically provide all meals. But if you want to venture, the best options are in Cochin. Brunton Boatyard (bruntonboatyard@cghearth.com) is a refurbished boatyard with a notable lamb curry and extensive desserts. Rice Boat (www.tajhotels.com) serves seafood with views of the backwaters, while fine South Indian vegetarian fare can be found at Hotel Dwaraka.

  -- Peter Wonacott 

Copyright (c) 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


Copyright (c) 2007 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.
Received by NewsEDGE/LAN: 3/23/2007 4:02 AM

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