When the Government of India announced Kovalam as the destination for the development of India’s First Integrated beach resort in the late sixties; many eyebrows were raised, how come Kovalam? an unknown fishermen’s village chosen for such a prestigious project involving huge investment. But it was not an accident, in the year 1959 Government of India appointed Club Mediterranean as a consultant for exploring the entire coastline of India and identifying the safest beach for this development. The Club Mediterranean, without hesitation, spotted Kovalam as the ideal site for the same. The proposal lay dormant for almost another decade mainly due to the finance involved in the development, though UNDP supported it.
Kovalam was already explored by Hippies in the sixties as a hub for them further south of Goa. Before that, in 1932 Sri Rama Varma Koil Thampuran the consort of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi; Regent of Travancore from 1924 to 1931, constructed the Halcyon Castle and adjoining buildings as a retreat of the Royal Family. Regent Maharani had the credit of building such beautiful palaces in and around Thiruvananthapuram like Lalindloch Palace, Vellayani (presently College of Agriculture), Satelmond Palace, Poojapura (presently Biotechnology Division of Sri Chitra Institute) and Manimala Kunnu Palace, Pothencode (Privately owned Film Studio).
Due to the untiring efforts of Col. Goda Varma Raja, then Chairman of Kerala Tourism and Handicraft Development Corporation and support received from the then union Tourism Minister Dr. Karan Singh, the Kovalam Beach Resort project took momentum in the late sixties. In the fourth Five Year Plan Rs. 221 Lakhs was allocated for this project. Out of the 221 Lakhs of Rupees, ITDC was given 135 Lakhs to build 42 Grove Cottages in the First phase and 72 Beach View Rooms and 16 detached cottages at the Kovalam Hotel in the second phase. Department of Tourism, Government of India got a share of 86 Lakhs for the planned development of the destination and amenities like roads, water supply, telephone lines, telex facility, and activities at the beach.
In the year 1969, ITDC took over Halcyon Castle and adjoining land measuring about 48 acres for the project development. ITDC further acquired another 18 acres from Hawa Beach in the South to present UDS in the North. The renowned Architect Mr. Charles Correa was commissioned as the Architect of the project. After making his first visit to the project site Charles Correa said ‘I shall not build anything here above the level of a coconut tree’. That statement was 100% justified in the sloping design of the Beach View block and Cottages of Kovalam Ashok. Charles Correa installed the huge resort under the shade of the coconut trees without disturbing the landscape of the hillock and thereby providing a magnificent view of the sea and a vast expanse of shoreline and greenery from every room. Charles Correa won many accolades from India and abroad for this unique resort design. The blueprint of the resort building was manually drawn at that time perfectly fitting the uneven landscape of the hill slope makes amusement to present-day Architects who use Computer Aided Design for such projects.
It took only three years to complete the first phase of the resort with 42 Grove Cottages and Beach activity center due to the dynamic leadership of then Project Administrator Mr. A. Haridas, a Chief Engineer on deputation from CPWD and support he received from then Chairman and Managing Director of ITDC Mr. M.S. Sundara. The State Government under legendary Chief Minister Mr..C. Achutha Menon had also extended wholehearted support for the completion of this project. The Grove Cottages near the beach was opened to guests on 17th December 1972 by then Union Tourism Minister Dr. Karan Singh. Mr. P.B. Mathur was the first Manager of the Resort. He later became the General Manager of ITDC’s flagship hotel The Ashok Hotel New Delhi and also played major roles in the opening of the first properties of The Leela Group in Mumbai and The Lalit Group in New Delhi.
The second phase with 72 Beach View Rooms on the hillock and 16 Detached Cottages were opened in 1976 by Shri. Raj Bahadur, Union Minister for Tourism, and Mr..C. Achutha Menon, Chief Minister of Kerala presided over the function. Mr. Ram Gupta was appointed as the first General Manager of the resort.
The opening of ITDC Ashok Beach Resort, the first Five Star hotel of Kerala, with a total inventory of 134 rooms (42 Grove Cottages, 72 Beach View Rooms, 16 Detached Cottages, and 4 Royal Suites in Halcyon Castle) made Kovalam a must-visit destination in the itinerary of high-end international tourists, celebrities and business tycoons. Many heads of state, Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities, Art and literary figures, Nobel laureates, business tycoons, etc. had chosen Kovalam Ashok as their preferred destination for holidays. The list of such VVIP and Celebrity guests is really large, but many international celebrities stayed at the resort without revealing their original identity in those days. Jaqueline Kennedy, Winy Mandela, Sir. Paul Mc Cortney, John Kenneth Galbreath, Prof. Watson, Dr. Amarthya Sen, JRD Tata, Dalai Lama, and Swamy Vishnu Devananda (Flying Swamy) are some of them apart from the Presidents and Prime Ministers of India.
The Foreign Tour Operators (FTO) especially from Western Europe, the US, and Intourist of the USSR had highlighted the resort in their high-end brochure programs starting in the seventies and resulting in the inflow of regular international inbound tourists to Kovalam from the UK, US, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Benelux, and USSR. Kovalam Ashok remains the sought-after hotel in the classical South India itineraries of the eighties and nineties like Chennai-Mahabalipuram- Trichy-Tanjore-Madurai-Rameswaram-Kanyakumari-Trivandrum and Chennai-Mahabalipuram-Pondicherry-Trichi-Tanjore-Madurai-Thekkady-Trivandrum till the emergence of new products in Central Kerala like Backwaters and House Boats in mid-nineties.
The first charter flight to Kerala from the UK was brought in the year 1993 to Trivandrum by UVI Holidays through Inspiration East of London. The mass arrival of tourists every week by charter flight shoots up the demand for quality accommodation at Kovalam during that period. Responding to this demand ITDC initiated the third phase of expansion of the resort and commissioned 64 additional rooms in Sea View Block (Currently Club at Leela) and Rajiv Gandhi Convention Centre (RGCC) with a seating capacity of 1000 persons in 1995. With the generous support of the Union Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Mr. Gulab Nabi Azad, CMD of ITDC Mr. Anil Bhandari, and Area General Manager of Kovalam Ashok Mr. R.C. Gupta sphere headed this major expansion project. RGCC was the first and largest convention center in South India with simultaneous interpretation facilities for up to seven languages till the opening of the Galfar Convention Centre in Kochi. ITDC has the credit of bringing the first international hotel brand to Kerala. Kovalam Ashok was co-branded with Radisson Hotels for a few years in the early nineties.
In 2002, on July 11th the resort was privatised as part of the disinvestment policy of the NDA Government. The successful bidder was M Far Hotels promoted by Dr. P. Mohammed Ali of Galfar Group. A VRS scheme was floated as part of the disinvestment process and about 329 eligible employees opted for the scheme and left the resort on the same day. The eligibility for applying VRS was either the completion of 10 years of service or attaining 40 years of age. About 50 employees who were either not eligible or not opted for VRS had continued with the private management. M Far Group had rebranded the resort as Le Meridien Kovalam Beach after completing the renovation of Grove Cottages, Beach View rooms, and RGCC. Controversies about the Halcyon Castle which was already there in the background had popped up strongly during this period. In 2005 M Far Group sold the property to Capt. C.P. Krishnan Nair of The Leela Group. The Leela Group completed the full renovation of the resort including the Sea View Block (Club). During this period Kerala Government enacted Kovalam Palace (Takeover by Resumption) Act 2005 and took over the custody of Halcyon Castle.
The fame of the resort reached its further heights under the ownership of Capt. C.P. Krishnan Nair, but as part of the exercise for easing the debt burden of Hotel Leela Ventures Limited Capt. Nair was forced to sell this property in 2011. Dr. B. Ravi Pillai, a notable NRI Businessman and Founder Chairman of RP Group bought the resort from Leela Group but left the management of the resort with The Leela Group. The resort was rebranded as ‘The Leela Kovalam a Raviz Hotel’ and was popularly referred to as The Leela Raviz Kovalam. In 2017, further to the orders of the Hon’ble High Court of Kerala the custodial rights of the Kovalam Palace and adjoining 4.21 acres of land were handed over to R.P.Group. In 2018 RP Group renovated the 4 Royal Suites of the Palace by taking its opulence to the highest level and making the Palace the most luxurious accommodation in Kerala.
The planned development of the huge land bank of 65 acres with elevated sea views belonging to the resort can really change the face of Kovalam as a luxury destination. The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Act was the major hurdle for further development of the destination after 1995. The relaxation of the distance from high tide level to the hinterland from the initial 500 meters to 200 meters and now to 50 meters will really support the transformation of this resort into one of the world’s best resorts, even after 50 years of its opening.
by Dileep Kumar P.I.
(The author is the Co-Founder & CEO, Imperience Hotels & Resorts, and also the first Sales Manager of ITDC Ashok Kovalam, Head of Sales during the M Far Hotels period, and the General Manager during The Leela Raviz period
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