Kerala tourism bosses were hopeful of overturning an alcohol ban that would seriously damage the industry in the southern Indian state after the country's top court issued a last-minute stay order, they said Thursday.
The Supreme Court ordered the Kerala government to postpone its plans to introduce almost complete prohibition from Friday following a legal challenge from hoteliers, who feared the move would drive away tourists seeking some booze with their beach holiday.
The court stopped the move until the end of the month to allow the High Court in Kerala time to hear petitions from bar owners who say the move is discriminatory and threatens their businesses.
Justice Anil R Dave questioned the policy, which would mean 700 bars losing their licences straight away, although shops selling liquor would be phased out over 10 years and five-star hotels exempt from the ban except on Sundays.
"If you want to stop it, stop the whole thing in one go like Gujarat. Gujarat is much safer," the judge said, referring to the western state which has long been dry.
G. Sudhiesh Kumar, president of the Kerala Hotels and Restaurants Association and one of the leading petitioners, welcomed the judge's ruling and expressed hope the lower court would overturn the ban.
"The ball is now in the Honourable High Court of Kerala. We presume that they will make an acceptable and judicious judgement in the interests of tourism," he said.
"Let's hope for the best, but prepare for the worst," added Kumar, chief executive of the Hotel Sea Face in Kovalam, which has already started getting cancellations from repeat European customers due to the looming ban.
With its sweeping coastline, riverboats and emerald tea plantations, Kerala has become a leading tourist draw in India, promoting itself as 'God's Own Country'.
But behind the paradisiacal slogan, the state has a damaging drinking problem among its 34 million population, leading the government to opt abruptly for almost complete prohibition -- alarming the tourism industry.
- 'Discriminatory' policy -
Harris Beeran, lawyer for the Kerala Bar Owners' Association, told NDTV news network that Thursday's ruling was "a big relief".
"It was actually a policy which is discriminatory in nature, that was the observation of the Supreme Court," he said.
The view was echoed by Anish Kumar, the Kerala-based president of the Association of Tourism Trade Organisations, India.
"They asked why only five stars. I think there should be a favourable decision," said Kumar, who also runs a tour operator.
Kerala is not a major party destination, with tourists drawn more to its natural beauty and laid-back charm. Nevertheless, foreign visitors said the prospect of not being able to relax with an evening drink during their trip was offputting.
"For me it's about the hot weather, I just love to have a beer when it's hot," said Sandy McConnell, a Tasmanian midwife in her fifties on a month's tour of Kerala with friends.
"When you've been trekking around it's really relaxing."
Kerala is rum and brandy-loving, with the highest consumption levels in India owing to its relatively high living standards, while the region also has a long tradition of home-brewing.
Under the state's plan, government-run liquor stores, where men queue up for their daily fix, will be phased out at a rate of ten percent a year for the next decade.
That would leave a big hole in the state coffers. Alcohol taxes and fees generated more than $1 billion in the 2012-13 financial year.