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India’s ‘Beach King’

MANGALORE, India — As the sun sinks into the Arabian Sea off Mangalore, 200 miles west of Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, India’s “Beach King” levers the cap off a beer and surveys his domain.

Down near the water, a group of college students dashes into the waves. Nearby, a large Muslim family — the adult women covered head-to-toe in black chadors — eats roasted corn from one of the beachside snack vendors. Further down the sand, young Koreans pose for pictures with a camel, while another family negotiates for a jet ski ride.

It wasn’t always this serene. Five years ago, Panambur beach was deserted. India’s poor swimmers feared its rough waters and years of neglect had left the sands littered with plastic bottles, chewing tobacco packets and the other indestructible detritus of the country’s beleaguered beaches.

But that was before Yathish Baikampady (aka “The Beach King”) completely revamped the mile-long stretch of coastline. Today, the revolution he started could well transform the tourism business not only in Karnataka but across the country, everywhere from Kerala to Orissa.

Goa’s package of sun, sand and trance music attracts nearly 3 million tourists every year. But in general India is not known for its beaches, despite 200-odd days of hot, sunny weather a year and 4,200 miles of coastline. Across the country, locals treat the sands as a garbage dump or an open-air toilet — except on short stretches owned by hotels and resorts.

And nearly 30,000 people drown every year due to a lack of warnings about dangerous currents and a shortage of trained lifeguards. At Chennai’s Marina Beach alone, for instance, as many as five people drown every month.

Not on Baikampady’s patch of sand.

A longtime State Bank of India employee, Baikampady approached the local government in 2008, with a plan to privatize Panambur beach.

After winning a government tender to take control, Baikampady, who hails from coastal Karnataka’s fisherman community, turned to local fishermen for personnel. He boosted the lifeguard staff to six lifeguards per one mile stretch, compared with about two lifeguards per mile on Mumbai’s beaches.

He built beach cottages for tourists, started a daily cleanup program and banned cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

The result: Drownings dropped from 25 to five in his first year in charge, then zero over the next three years, as Baikampady’s lifeguards saved more than 72 people.

In addition, he started a jet ski business that has boosted lifeguard earnings, and his Panambur beach is now the training center for lifeguard instructors for all India, training 60 instructors last year.

The public has taken notice.

“Now, on a weekend, we have more than 20,000-25,000 people,” says Baikampady. “Earlier, it was in the hundreds.”

The key to his success was a new business concept for India.

All of the other entrepreneurs competing for the beach essentially offered quotations for taking over its management in exchange for a fee. But Baikampady’s winning bid promised to take over cleaning the beach, policing visitors and training and supplying lifeguards — all without taking a dime from the state. He proposed a unique “beach management company” that would run the beach for profit.

“We asked for exclusive rights for water sports, events held on the beach, parking, licensing vendors, and everything offered at the beach, and we said we’ll pay the salaries for the lifeguards,” Baikampady explains.

The Beach King now employs 12 lifeguards — certified by Surf Life Saving Australia and the Pune-based Rashtriya Life Saving Society — as well around 20 additional park staff at Panambur.

The fishermen can continue to trawl the seas in the mornings before work and during the off-season, and the life-saving gig provides a steady monthly supplement that amounts to about half of what they formerly earned during a successful month netting fish.

Meanwhile, Baikampady has recently taken the contract for another local beach, as well as beginning to expand nationally. And the business model is starting to pay off.

“We are inching towards profits, but there are always things that pull you back,” said Baikampady, citing the salt water’s relentless toll on the jeeps his team uses to patrol the beach.

“We are breaking even, and we have increased the salary of the staff. The most important thing is that they have stood by the concept.”

It’s a modest success. But as India’s domestic tourists grow richer and more adventurous, Baikampady has already won over some believers. And with state governments in Kerala and Orissa already expressing interest in Baikampady’s model, soon the effects may be seen across the country.

“When my former [bank] colleagues ask me how I feel now, I say I have regrets. They say, ‘What?’  Then I say I regret I didn’t leave the bank earlier.”

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