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Wednesday, Mar 12, 2003

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A struggling estate turns serene hill resort

C.J. Punnathara

KOCHI, March 11

THE Miraflores Estate in the Western Ghats off Thrissur district in Kerala has had a makeover.

While the international commodity prices plunged and input costs soared, the beleaguered coffee/cardamom estate converted itself into a tourist resort, rechristened Tropical Hill Resort, providing relief to the 200-odd families dependent on the estate for livelihood. The estate has assumed a dual identity today, part estate and part hill resort.

Last year was disastrous for the estate. "With the price of coffee beans plunging to as low as Rs 16 per kg, estates like Miraflores have just been adding up the losses,'' Muthu, the jeep driver of the plantation, said.

The estate was also beset with a myriad of other problems. Of the 400 acres in the possession of Miraflores, almost 200 acres was claimed by the State Forest Department and the dispute is still pending before the courts.

The yield from the cardamom crop plunged sharply as there was an acute water shortage. And life became difficult for families dependent on the estate.

The management woke up to the changed realities and acted with celerity to offset the crisis. The signboards were changed, announcing the advent of a Tropical Hill Resort. The old godowns and the decrepit managers' bungalows were aesthetically decked up to house the stream of visitors and tourists.

``The capital cost behind this transition was minimal as it involved mere rejigging of infrastructure to meet a different demand. The operational costs could also be contained since it was just a matter of re-deploying some of the existing workforce to meet new duties like housekeeping and guest relations,'' Mr Jose Joseph, Manager, said.

The proximity to the forests, which lie interspersed with the estate, has given a new allure to the resort. "It is a haven for wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers,'' Muthu the driver said. His job profile has changed. He is now the driver and guide for the night safari which takes visitors into the estate to spot wildlife. Sighting of the Indian gaur, sambar deer, barking deer, wild boar and monkeys are all too common.

``There is an abundance of wildlife all around us and we respect it and nurture it because it is now the basis of our sustenance,'' Muthu said.

There is also horse-riding and boating on offer at the estate. The revenue from the new resort venture, which is just six months old, has just begun to pick up. "The bulk of the revenue still comes from the estate, but we are optimistic that the inflows from resort will surge slowly,'' Mr Jose Joseph said. The tourists have just begun to trickle in from the textile city of Tirupur, Coimbatore, Bangalore and the rest of Kerala.

On arrival, the guests are welcomed with a drink of hot and steaming strong coffee. And, the advent of the resort has ensured that the brew is no longer bitter for the workers of this estate. They now live in harmony with the forest and wildlife around them.

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