The formerly fabled 'sunshine state' has fallen in popularity among high-spending tourists, for very little that is genuinely Goan remains in the Tourism Goa experience. But responsible choices can still make for a vastly superior holiday. Here's how to have Goa and save it too
Dark clouds of foreboding begin to gather in the Goan imagination precisely when India’s smallest state emerges from its overcast monsoon blanket. For a few precious weeks, everyone has enjoyed near-total respite from the pounding basslines and neon-lit throngs of the tourist season. That is when locals get to savour some of the original virtues of this famously beautiful and relaxed sliver of the Konkan coastline. It is a season of languid drives on rain-slicked roads winding postcard perfect to the liquid horizon, of rivers glistening silver and drenched paddy fields, and extended family get-togethers replete with laughter and song.
But then the fun comes to an end. Unshakeable dread furrows collective brows at the thought that roads and beaches will soon become jammed with countless hordes.
Judging by the mayhem that ensues each year, it is clear the heartburn is justified. Each successive tourist season, it becomes more painfully obvious that the hospitality sector of this once-optimally blessed “sunshine state"—which consistently ranked amongst India’s most successful global brands—has lost much of its shine.
Until recently, Goa held considerable allure for a marvellously mixed clientele from around India and the world. But that is no longer the case. According to the latest study conducted by the market research division of the Union ministry of tourism, this formerly fabled destination ranks a lowly ninth in the country in terms of popularity with foreigners visiting India. More ominously, it failed to register in the top 10 favourites amongst domestic travellers as well.
But this drop in rankings has not reflected in a corresponding drop in the number of visitors. In fact, that number has only continued to explode. According to state authorities, there was 30% growth, from roughly three million tourists to four million, from 2013 to 2014. In 2015, the total ticked to five million, and last year it surged well past six. These are massively impactful “footfalls" for a state with less than two million in permanent population, especially because the increase comes exclusively from bargain-seeking budget travellers.
Much of this number comprises domestic tourists who spend considerably less than foreign visitors. According to the state’s own statistics, the average visitor from abroad spends four times as much as the average Indian, despite the fact that some foreign visitors travel on shoestring budgets. But those figures do not include huge numbers of tour-bus passengers who cook on the roadside, use the fields as toilets, and often sleep in their vehicles. Industry stakeholders say the realistic proportion of foreigner expenditure compared to domestic travellers is closer to 10 to one.
Since no attempt is made to sensitize the growing number of visitors to the state, Goa’s environment reels from a wholly unsustainable onslaught. All this is brought home to me like a daily punch in the gut, on the broad sands of Miramar beach, right outside my family’s apartment in Panaji, the pocket-sized state capital.
Hit this urban beach right after dawn, and you can be fooled into believing all is well in paradise. A remarkable natural bonanza is largely intact: There are kilometres of living dunes backed by healthy stands of casuarina trees. The early morning scene can be utterly charming, with older couples walking courteously together and eager footballers running through their paces, while flocks of migratory waterbirds wheel above the waves.
All this is admittedly idyllic, and powerful affirmation of my family’s decision to live at this spot. But Miramar dreams quickly turn sour if you retrace the same steps in the evening hours. Then every available space is packed with large crowds. A few scattered families are in a distinct minority; mostly, there are clumps of men, often passing around bottles of alcohol.
Much of this contingent proceeds to strip to Y-fronts, then wallows dangerously in the surf. Everywhere, garbage is strewn and piled up, attracting stray dogs and lots of cattle. Cow dung splashes on the dunes. Not to be outdone, the boozing men urinate in the open. A chaotic shambolic atmosphere reigns.
In 2017, very little that is genuinely Goan remains in the Tourism Goa experience. That abysmal situation is reinforced by short-sighted state policy. Most locals I know are outraged that instead of recognizing the rot at the heart of this vital sector of the economy, the current administration has busied itself forcing through the billion-dollar folly of a second airport on the pristine north Goa plateau of Mopa, which a vast majority of the native population recognizes as a potential death blow to everything they treasure about their homeland. Chief minister Manohar Parrikar recently set warning bells ringing when he declared, “Goa can accommodate anywhere up to 15 million tourists if we spread them across the villages."
A broad consensus holds that Parrikar bears ultimate responsibility for much of what has gone wrong with Goa’s tourism in the new millennium, perhaps most notably by supporting the casino industry. Also, rather typically, instead of worrying about what has happened to overburden the fragile state environment, he said last year: “Today almost six million tourists come to Goa. When I took over as chief minister in 2000, total 12 lakh (1.2 million) tourists were arriving in the state." He has consistently resisted civil society initiatives to defend some pockets of biodiversity, most recently with a cynical attempt to shift purview of Goa from the Pune bench of the National Green Tribunal to New Delhi, which will make it much harder for petitioners to reach court.
In his landmark decision rebuffing Parrikar (who has promised to appeal), Justice Gautam Patel of the Bombay high court deftly encapsulated Goa’s troubled scenario. “This is an extraordinary state.... It is a land of confluences, where diverse strands meet and co-exist; and, in a time of apparently incessant strife and discord, it is still a mostly liberal land. It is a kind and gentle land, of a kind and gentle people. And it is also a land that, given its small size and small population, has had a wholly disproportionate influence on our art, culture, language, music, literature, architecture, history, design and more (even food, for many of what we consider our staples first came from here). Its greatest asset is one: its environment and its ecology—its rivers and riverbanks, its beaches, its lakes and clear streams, its dense forests, its low hills and fertile fields, its boulders and even trees shrouded with moss and vines and lichen in the rains, its ridiculously brilliant sunsets.... If the NGT in Pune has so very many cases from Goa, it is not because—or not just because—the people of Goa are litigious.... It is because they perceive that there is something of value here to protect.... For this is something none can deny: this is a land truly worth fighting for."
Patel’s perceptive and poetic words gave an immediate fillip to the considerable section of Goa’s population that battles mightily to keep its ancestral legacy alive. As he noted, “One needs only to turn off an arterial road to either east or west to see all this (assets of Goa) first-hand, and all of it within but a few minutes." So, there is considerable irony that millions of tourists are herded by the nose through a pale approximation of what the state offers in profuse abundance just a few steps away from the beaten path. It takes only a tiny bit of initiative to leave the crassly commercialist zones of assault, and venture right into serene and timeless Goa, which abounds in reminders of why everyone fell in love with this riparian jewel in the first place. Make the responsible and ethical choices, and you will have a vastly superior experience, and help to save Goa at the same time.
Fodder for the thinker
A performance at the Serendipity Arts Festival, 2016. Courtesy: Serendipity Arts Trust
The first impression of Goa as a sleepy-backwater is extremely deceptive. It is a culturally dynamic state, with its own impressive traditions and contemporary arts, which also hosts some of the most ambitious literary and artistic endeavours in the country. From November through February each year, Panaji and its vicinity function very much like an alternate national cultural capital, with back-to-back blockbuster events.
In many ways, it was the International Film Festival of India, that started it off. When Goa became the permanent venue in 2004, the state government restored the heritage precinct that used to house the first medical college in Asia to be the festival home. That triggered similar renovations throughout the city, which now boasts of spectacular arts infrastructure that rivals the best in the country. The Serendipity Arts Festival, now in its second year) uses all of it on a grand scale, packing in a biennale-scaled schedule in just a week in December. Another landmark event is the eight-year-old Goa Arts and Literature Festival, which I co-founded and curate alongside the eminent Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo.
There are many other highlights on the cultural calendar, but the most exquisite is the Monte Music Festival, held on the first weekend of February, which combines sensitively selected Western and Indian classical music and dance performances with the most breathtaking venue imaginable. This is a 16th century church, and its laterite stone outdoor courtyard, set high on an Old Goa hillside, offers magnificent, eye-popping views of the Mandovi river valley, its island landscape fading into the distance. The sunset performances are beyond sublime as the dying light bathes the vista in an amber glow.
Of birds and dolphins
Just upriver from Panaji, and easily accessible by ferryboat (free for pedestrians), is a wonderful glimpse into Goa’s environmental riches, which almost no tourist ever gets to see. This is the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, just under 200 hectares of wildly overgrown mangrove forest that is home to over 100 species of birds, as well as a small number of crocodiles. Visitors can walk on a well-appointed path through a section of the sanctuary, or delve further into its biodiversity on a boat trip that can be arranged from the small forest department outpost at the entrance.Nearby is the headquarters of Wild Otters, one of the many hard-working environmental advocates who continue to fight to maintain the sanctity of Goa’s oceans, forests, and nearly 20% of the land mass that is protected (at least on paper) from commercial development. Other activists include the Goa Foundation (which managed to confront and defeat illegal mining) as well as vibrant informal networks such as the Goa Bird Conservation Network (GBCN), with its teeming collective of bird nerds relentlessly collecting data, photographs and sound files for its archive at Birdsofgoa.org. The earth-friendly ethic extends to tour operators, notably the outstanding Terra Conscious, whose founder, Puja Mitra, used to be the state representative of World Wide Fund for Nature. Its nature encounters are conducted with strict adherence to state-of-the-art best practices and global guidelines for sustainability. There is no other responsible way to see dolphins up close in the wild in India than via their boat excursions, which include healthy doses of educational context and the most animal-friendly viewing techniques .That kind of highly responsible attitude of custodianship embedded in tourism options isn’t hard to find in Goa, if you care to look. The GBCN’s founding president, Parag Rangnekar, runs Mrugaya Xpeditions , which offers expert-led birding tours to a range of locations across the state, which is home to nearly 500 species of birds in a bewildering variety of habitats. His organization also offers magical home-stays with the tribal Velip community that still resides in the evergreen forests of Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary, an essential jungle corridor that leads to Karnataka.
Netravali is just an hour’s drive from the popular beaches of the south. But when you choose Aangan Goa in the hamlet of Verlem, right inside the jungle sanctuary, the chaos of the coastline fades away in a place that has remained largely undisturbed for generations. This is a project established by the Verlem Ecotourism Co-operative Society, the first of its type in the state. As dusk falls, the birds and monkeys begin to fall silent, and fireflies filter through the gloom. Here is an abiding, deep country peace, which makes it possible to forget the egregious mess that clogs so much of the rest of what lies outside the sanctuary. But this too is Goa, at least for the time being.
An affair with the past
Goa’s appeal is grounded in its singular history, which has consistently set the tiny state on a different trajectory from the rest of the subcontinent. As critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote noted some years ago, “Geographical contiguity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same universe of meaning: Goa’s special historic evolution, with its Lusitanian route to the Enlightenment and print modernity, its Iberian emphasis on a vibrant public sphere, its pride in its ancient internationalism avant la lettre, sets it at a tangent to the self-image of an India that has been formed with the experience of British colonialism as its basis. The relationship... (with) mainland India has, not surprisingly, been ambiguous and erratic, even unstable."
There are numerous angles of entry to experience Goa’s many-layered cultural history, but the best quick immersion remains a traditional meal in an old house. Here, two options stand out above all others. The Palácio do Deão, in the agricultural heartland of Quepem is reached by a lovely drive through verdant paddy fields. This tastefully restored bishop’s private palace is situated in gardens that spill down to the Kushavati river, all carefully tended by Ruben and Celia da Gama, who have compiled exhibits that tell the story of Goa’s colonial period. But the highlight of any visit is the brilliant prix fixe lunch (must be reserved a day in advance) where hyper-local produce and traditional techniques are given an irresistible modern spin.
Even rarer, and much more spectacular, is the one-of-a-kind opportunity to dine at the Figueiredo Museum in Loutolim. This is the sole intact standout of the Goan aristocratic lifestyle from its heyday in the 19th century, with magnificent displays of porcelain and carved furniture. Best of all is the palazzo’s reigning grande dame, Dona Maria de Lourdes Figueiredo de Albuquerque, the former representative of Goa in the captive Portuguese parliament of the Salazar dictatorship, whose tumultuous personal history seems to include every important facet of the global diaspora experience across Africa, Europe and India. Her conversational parleys are delicious enough, but it’s her Luso-Indian culinary skills that are simply unbeatable.
Ruben and Celia da Gama restored Palácio do Deão in Quepem.
The Figueiredo de Albuquerque family also hosts a home-stay called The Figueiredo Heritage Inn in another part of the museum building. This is part of a growing trend amongst the newest generation that occupies ancestral homes across the state: Visitors are invited to experience the Goan lifestyle immersed in village societies far removed from beach resorts and nightlife.
Another excellent option is the award-winning Arco Irisin the hinterland village of Curtorim, where you can spend days wandering by-lanes and ancient monuments while feeling like you are the only visitor to the state .
Lanes full of wonders
In the vein of adaptive reuse, the Latinate neighbourhoods of Old Panaji are unaccountably overlooked gems. These extraordinarily picturesque narrow streets, lined with gorgeous little houses with hidden courtyards and overhanging balconies, are a national treasure house of unique architectural expression. According to the late historian Paulo Varela Gomes, they “constitute an extraordinarily coherent and distinct current in the panorama of housing around the world. These houses are now being named ‘Portuguese Houses’ ... (but) houses such as those in Goa exist nowhere in any town or village in Portugal, Brazil, or Portuguese-influenced Africa. They are solely Goan."
In recent years, this treasure trove of built heritage in the contiguous localities of São Tomé, Cortim, Fontainhas, Mala and Portais has spruced up notably as young Goans have begun to convert their inheritance into inns, cafés and restaurants that come together to form a beguiling, flâneur-friendly tourism infrastructure that is quite unlike anything else in the country.
Here you can wander like a troubadour from tavern to Instagram-friendly boîte, embedded in the convivial company of both locals and visitors, and adjust yourself to the rhythms of a still-ticking tableau vivant of a proud, centuries-old community. There’s a range of quirky, distinctive places to stay, from the pioneering Panjim Inn complex (spread over three old buildings) to the stand-alone Hospedaria Abrigo do Botelho, La Maison, Mateus Boutique Hotel, and the budget options offered by the Afonso Guest House and The Hostel Crowd.
A signboard in Fontainhas.
Just a few minutes walk from each other, in this Latin quarter, are two other cultural highlights. At the beautiful premises of Lisbon-based non-governmental organization Fundação Oriente, the Antônio Trindade archive of early 20th century paintings is a superb example of Goa’s spectacular contributions to the trajectory of modern and contemporary art in India, which later developed to include Vasudeo Gaitonde and Francis Newton Souza (tel. 08322230728). Just a little down the road, in a lovely old house, is the exclusive Horse Shoe Bar and Restaurant. Here, genius chef Vasco Silveira serves the best Indo-Portuguese cuisine you can possibly eat anywhere, unless you have a particularly gifted Goan grandmother (tel. 08322431788).
Quite close by is the atmospheric Hospedaria Venite, one of the best places to while away an evening with some feni while you people-watch from a tiny balcony seat overlooking the road (tel. 09183224255). The hole-in-the-wall Joseph Bar has been revamped into millennial-magnet just a few months ago, but has quickly become a classic neighbourhood hangout, as has the outstanding Café Morango just next door.