Before the arrival of automobiles on roads, much of the traffic and transport of cargo in the coastal plains of Kerala was carried on via inland navigation routes. Canals were constructed to connect the lakes and rivers. There was a long waterway from Trivandrum in south up to Vadakara in the north, the distance being about 400km.
By 1887 steamboats and by 1910 motorboats began operating in the backwaters and rivers and water transport increased. Soon, rules were introduced to regulate traffic in the highways. The Steam Boilers and Prime Movers Regulations came in 1907. The Public Canals and Public Ferries Regulation in 1909 and their modifications came till 1921, to control inland navigation.
After the First World War, development of motorcars and heavy vehicles led to decline in inland navigation in Kerala. Thereafter, focus of governments was on construction of roads on land. Waterways lost their importance.
Coastal shipping also was important in Kerala in the past. Important ports in Kerala were Kochi, Alappuzha, Kollam, Beypore, Kozhikode, Vizhinjam, etc. Minor ports included Thiruvananthapuram, Neendakara, Kodungallur, Ponnani, Badagara, Thalasserry, Kannur, Azhikal, Kasaragod, etc.
Kerala presently is planning to develop the inland navigation waterways to reduce congestion on roads and also to promote backwater tourism. This project envisages water connectivity between Kovalam in southern Kerala, and Kasaragod in the north, linking all the lagoons and river estuaries. This stretch is National Waterways No.3 (West Coast Canal). Alappuzha - Kollam (Alleppey - Quilon) stretch is being widened, to ensure smooth passage of large cargo vessels through the waterways. Canals in this section are narrow, compared to the Alappuzha – Ernakulam (Kochi) water highway through Punnamada and Vembanad lakes.
Once this long – distance inland water highway project is completed, it will be a boost to Kerala’s backwaters tourism.