Home / Economy / Beach, business or caution? Goa's anxieties are rising

PANJIM : There was considerable trepidation when registrations opened up for the 52nd edition of the International Film Festival of India, or IFFI, (held between 20-28 November). The previous edition, which was supposed to take place around the same time last year, was cancelled due to the covid-19 pandemic. Then, almost immediately after a much smaller replacement was held earlier in January, the second wave devastated the country, hitting Goa particularly hard. Nobody knew what would happen this time around. Would the festival flop? Was anyone going to show up?

By the evening of 20 November, the answer was loud and clear. The film festival’s inaugural ceremony was packed to the rafters. Afterwards, for the first time ever, all the four cinema halls screening the opening movie (it was the world premiere of The King of All The World from Mexico) were filled to capacity. A large number of delegates were left seatless. After two more days of unstoppable crowds—some 600 cinephiles travelled in from Kerala alone—the state government permitted festival organizers to lift the stringent social distancing norms. Thousands proceeded to pack into IFFI from early morning to late night. Everyone partied like it was 2019.

Thankfully, the potential super-spreader event concluded without any perceptible ill-effects on Goa’s covid caseload. Tourism industry stakeholders were jubilant, anticipating an excellent high season in December and January and expecting the inbound rush to make up for all the losses over the past 22 months. Ever since India’s first nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Goa’s tourism industry has experienced a catastrophic decline in revenue, with arrivals plummeting by nearly 75% from the record highs of over 8 million visitors in both 2018 and 2019.

This year-end’s ‘season’ was supposed to restore vitality and life to a key sector that contributes the second largest share to the state’s economy after pharmaceuticals, and all that seemed inevitable right until 1 December. There were tons of bookings already in hand. Room rates were surging to the best they have ever been. And there was an extensive slew of charter flights scheduled to jet in from various countries by late December, filled with the kind of international tourists Goa likes best of all.

But all that buoyancy has suddenly disappeared overnight. Every bit of giddy optimism that buoyed IFFI into an incredible party has quickly evaporated in view of the spectre of the new Omicron variant and fresh restrictions on international travel. Now, everyone is on tenterhooks all over again, dreading this fresh tryst with the unknown.

Catch-22 situation

Could the new variant shut down the inbound rush into the state, as it has in other parts of the world? More fundamentally, can Goans regain any kind of trust in their government to effectively implement and practise pandemic protocols, especially after living through extraordinarily painful months earlier this year when hundreds of citizens died due to the abject mismanagement of oxygen supplies at the Goa Medical College?

Nobody in the state has forgotten how the state’s High Court was moved to apologize in frustration: “We are very sorry. We failed collectively. We owe an apology to all the people."

At this juncture, the public mood is poised on a knife-edge. On the one hand, everyone wants the tourism industry—by far the largest employer in the state— to swiftly recover in order to make up for time lost due to the pandemic. But there’s also unanimity about the fact that Goa cannot afford the kind of free-for-all that sparked the second wave. The bottom line is: doubt and limited confidence in the ability of the state to handle the unfolding situation effectively. It feels like Catch-22; an air of high anxiety has taken hold of India’s smallest state.

“Our industry has been on the ventilator since the second wave," says Maria Suzette, the proprietor of Panjim’s 24-year-old award-winning landmark Mum’s Kitchen restaurant. One year before the pandemic began, she had opened another outlet in the North Goa village of Assagao, but “with the lockdowns, we were burning capital at a rapid pace and had to wind up in that location. There is no ‘work from home’ for us in the food and beverage business".

Suzette describes what happened in Goa when the initial set of lockdowns was lifted as “revenge tourism". She explained, “no one is saying ‘close the borders’, but we need strict vigilance. Allow only fully vaccinated visitors. Enforce the standard operating procedures. Everyone seems to be good at making rules, but making people follow them is much more difficult. What is happening is that we are getting tourists from around the country who act as though they have been set free from all controls, which is a nightmare."

A perfect illustration of what Suzette is describing plays out every evening very close to her restaurant in the pleasant waterfront neighbourhood of Miramar in the capital city of Panjim, where hordes of budget travellers stream onto the beach at sunset without any heed to pandemic protocols. The beleaguered lifeguards are under constant stress.

“The situation seems to be getting more and more grave by the day," says Prajal Sakhardande, head of the history department at the nearby Dhempe College and a renowned heritage activist.

“I am very much concerned and worried for my students due to this renewed threat from (the) Omicron (variant). Many of them are too young to get vaccinated. Due to the upcoming elections (Goa goes to the polls in February 2022), our government is busy. It is least concerned. I am very worried. We are in a vulnerable situation."

Surge in tourists

Some kilometres up the Mandovi riverbank from Miramar, very close to where the casino boats are clustered together in a blaze of neon lights, Chryselle D’Silva Dias’s family has been facing the brunt of the anything-goes tourism model that has taken hold of Goa in recent years.

“We have to deal with belligerent people at all hours," she says, “I have spent many nights calling the police at 3 am. In the mornings, we are often treated to piles of broken bottles, foil food packets and plastic bags with leftovers."

“No one expects tourism to be put on hold," says Dias. “But the government really has to do more in terms of crowd control and reducing the number of people congregating at various places or even entering the state. We need to be more proactive about protecting locals and also visitors. At the moment, there is no monitoring of any kind. Given how rapidly the second wave accelerated, I feel adequate lessons haven’t yet been learned. At the moment, it’s just business as usual."

It is a fact that there is mounting disillusionment within Goa about the way tourism has been comprehensively bungled long before the pandemic caused so much distress and desperation. This is because at the start of the new millennium, there were about a million annual inbound visitors, whose impact was more or less contained to one coastal strip in North Goa. But those relatively sustainable numbers began to skyrocket after 2010, when the total spiked above two million.

In 2013, that figure went above three million. In 2014, above four million. After that, it has been a non-stop runaway train in one direction only. More and more domestic tourists, far fewer foreigners, huge environmental destruction, rampant illegalities in real estate and construction, and piles of garbage everywhere.

In 2018, after the total number of visitors peaked above eight million for the first time, the late chief minister Manohar Parrikar sparked much angst among locals by promising that there would be 15 million before too long.

In that same year, Parrikar’s cabinet minister Vijai Sardesai ignited a national controversy when he complained, “Today, we have almost six times the population of Goa coming (in) as tourists. They are not top-end tourists. Are they responsible? They are not. If you compare Goans to (the) rest of India, we are high in per capita income, social and political consciousness. We are much superior than the people who are coming in. Those people, how will you control (them)? Can you control them?"

Unpalatable and politically incorrect as Sardesai’s comments may have been, they struck a chord with his fellow Goans because many domestic tourists do tend to behave in ways that they would never get away with at home or any destination abroad. Always an irritant, those kinds of behaviour are highly alarming in the middle of a pandemic because they can quickly turn fatal, as happened earlier this year itself.

No checks

“Where are the checks?" asks Alu Gomes Pereira, an industry veteran who has seen it all in the hospitality business in Goa since 1979. At this point, he’s not at all optimistic: “I am in tourism and I want tourism, but not like this. There are no controls at all. It has become a joke. Forget about business, what about the lives of the people in Goa?"

Gomes Pereira lives in a gorgeous heritage home on a street named after his grandfather in the centre of the wonderfully picturesque Latin Quarter of Panjim. But the location is much less idyllic than it sounds because, he says, “We are mobbed here! Noisy, no masks, (people) throwing waste the whole time. It’s a free for all. I don’t believe this government has any capacity to manage the situation. I am sorry to say we are heading straight for destruction once again."

The irony, of course, is that even while the situation is indeed quite bad in Goa, masses of Indian urbanites are dead certain that it’s probably still much better than where they live. Vaccination rates in the state are among the best in the country. A recent YouGov poll found that Goa is the top destination for domestic tourists this year. This is why the tiny state’s real estate marketplace is saturated to capacity in an astounding pandemic-time boom, and flights are sold out all through the next two months.

Zoom into the details of what is happening in individual establishments and you can see why there’s actually a very good reason for the inbound rush. Maria Suzette’s Mum’s Kitchen, for example, maintains strict ISO 22000-mandated protocols and has fully vaccinated its entire staff. More recently, she has implemented web reservations to allow sequencing and avoid crowding. Her clients are very happy to feel safer than they can anywhere comparable in their own home cities.

It is much the same at the wildly popular Black Sheep Bistro, which has cemented its place in the top 10 restaurants in India. Here too, the staff is trained to carefully maintain pandemic precautions, and, as a result, they have become even more popular than before covid-19, especially with many of the new settlers in Goa. “Business has returned to normal," says Sabreen Sukhthankar, who owns and operates the venture with her husband Prahlad. “It has been so important to get back (to the pre-pandemic business), especially in an economy like Goa that has such a large part of its population which depends on the tourism industry for its daily bread."

Nilesh Shah, head of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa, the apex body for stakeholders in the state, said: “It’s very clear that covid is here to stay. The new normal will be (about) living with the virus. Waves will come and go. But we’re in a much better situation than last year because of the prevalence of vaccination."

Shah regrets there’s so much unnecessary panic about the new variant, saying: “Here in Goa, we have learned to a certain extent how to do business with covid around us. We will stick to those lessons. It is a dynamic situation, but I feel confident (that) we will resolve it." Thousands of lives and livelihoods and the fate of an entire industry rests in the balance.

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer based in Goa.)

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