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Goa, Goa, Gone: Beach Paradise Overdosing on Its Own Tourists

Posted: Mar 13, 2012

An odd thing is happening in Goa. India’s sun-sand-and-smiles tourist paradise might be just about overdosing on tourists.

At least on the wrong kind of tourists. “We are attracting the dregs, the [flotsam] – voyeurs, exhibitionists, perverts, paedophiles… all waiting to have fun,” complains Candida Almeida, a local tour operator to Open Magazine.

Open’s story says Goans are getting fed up enough to run for election on the tourism issue. In the past running on the tourism issue was all about attracting tourism; now they want to address the “menace.”

This is not just about moral problems of an epidemic of sex, drugs and nude sunbathers. Goa is a small state with a rich history but when you talk about tourism it’s all about beach tourism. That means there is bound to be a resource problem. Water. Electricity. Corruption. Land grabbing. The political establishment has strong financial connections with the lucrative tourism business. The Chief Minister traditionally reserves the portfolio that deals with the allocation of land for luxury hotels. The politicos ensure the tourist-heavy areas are the ones that get uninterrupted power and water much to the increasing annoyance of the locals. Not surprisingly it’s mostly independents running on the anti-tourism platform.

That includes some unlikely candidates. Open profiles Father J Bismarque Dias, the very first Catholic priest to run for office. “We have to save Goa,” he says. “I do not represent a religion.” The Catholic Church has long been active on the issue complaining about how the traditional Carnival had turned into a wild party. But Father Dias is actually a pioneer in that he’s actually a candidate. Vote counting day on March 6 will determine if Father Dias with his I Love Goa t-shirts and the other independents will prevail over the usual suspects at the ballot box. But the problem of Goa’s over-dependence on tourism predates this election cycle.

A UNESCO report in the early 90s said that since the early 1980’s “there was a distinct shift in official policy favouring three to five star luxury tourism.” Tourism in Goa is promoted as “industrial activity” which means the State can intervene to ensure its development in the public interest. That means it can gift facilities, forcibly acquire land, or waive development controls. Back in 1987 the Jagrut Goenkaranchi Fauz (JGF) was formed as a sort of citizens’ protest movement. They accused the Goan government of pandering to big and luxury hotels, rigging the coastal zone classification to make it as development-friendly as possible. In 1997 the Economic and Political Weekly complained that the lovely fishing village of Calangute had been turned into a concrete jungle. The Gomantak Times reported that a water pipeline meant for villagers in Candolim and Calangute was now supplying a hotel. “Virtually the whole of the beachfront in Anjuna and some other beaches in Goa have been converted into foreign colonies,” reported the Herald in 1997. But the establishment position always seem to be that it was too late to turn back the clock. All anyone could do was minimise the damage.

Fifteen years later obviously it has not been minimized enough especially not when the government comes up with slogans like “Goa – 365 Days a Holiday”. But the question is is it just about the high-value tourist vs the riff raff? It’s not just foreigners who come to Goa for a week of beach bumming. It’s easy to point the finger at them. “It is the domestic tourist from other parts of the country who finds Goa and Goan society, equally attractive for tourism because it is culturally exotic,” says the UNESCO report. “The beaches, the churches, the Carnival, the music, the cuisine, and the townscape are subtly marketed in the Indian media as ‘foreign’ experiences on Indian soil.” Plenty of Indians show up in Goa for a weekend of booze and drugs and partying. In 2006 Goa had 380414 foreign visitors (many of them on chartered flights) and 2098654 domestic visitors according to the Department of Tourism numbers. It has also become the destination for the Indian intelligentsia elite, many of whom now bemoan its decline.

At a recent conference in Goa, a woman sipping wine on the lawns of a plush resort next to the sea, complained that she had put her house up for sale in Goa. “Goa is not what it used to be,” she sighed. “Too many tourists. Too many Indians.”

Too many Indians? I asked her where she was from.

“New Delhi,” she said without batting an eyelid.

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