Goa is still recovering from last year’s controversies, but that shouldn’t keep you away, says Vivek Menezes.
The rivers still surge red at monsoon end in Goa. A mantle of green lingers on its undulating landscape of hills and rice paddies. It’s exactly like the postcard images tourists send home. That’s why India’s smallest state has so many takers for its considerable charms and attracts so many part-time residents from all over the world.
Mass-market tourism in Goa started 25 years ago with a charter flight of German tourists. To the considerable amusement of many Goans, that Condor plane was met by activists hurling cowdung, warning that ecological calamity and cultural collapse that would follow. Fast forward to 2008. The arrival of the first charter plane of each year’s tourist season has become a keenly anticipated event. Just as generations of ramponkars, traditional fishermen, used to scan the heavens for early signs of rain that might affect the day’s catch, their hustling, taxi-driving descendants look skyward for signs of arrival that will affect their livelihood. That first charter signals Open Season: an unbroken supply of dollar-ruble-and-euro tourists that will last all through April and May of next year.
Goa in 2008 is in the midst of a huge transformation. It now displays all the problems associated with being a global tourism hotspot, as a wave of poorly planned development is rapidly converting the territory into a concretised city-state.
While turmoil in the Western financial markets will inevitably have a long term impact, charter traffic to Goa has increased steadily. It came almost a month earlier than usual, accompanied by very surprising news – there are more than 825 charter landing requests for this season, markedly higher than last year’s record-breaking 758 flights. This data runs contrary to the otherwise perceptible decline in global and regional tourism and contradicts the claims by Goan tourism officials that this will be a season of losses and cancellations, which necessitates tax relief.
Just like every year in the new millennium, tourism demand will far exceed the supply in Goa and thousands of visitors will bring the state to a standstill all through New Year. Yet again, the creaking infrastructure will be burdened and there will be pressure on the real-estate market, as visitors begin the pursuit of a palm-shaded patch of the Goan dream.
But while commercial demand seems unchanged, there is no mistaking a dramatic shift in sentiment on the main tourist beaches. There is widespread anxiety about crime and growing anger at the police and political cadres, who are perceived as corrupt and irresponsible. The rape and murder of British teenager Scarlett Keeling in Anjuna in February was a rude awakening for most Goans. They were forced to acknowledge evidence that a violent, drug-centred parallel economy has taken root in North Goa, where dealers function with impunity.
When Fiona MacKeown, the mother of Scarlett Keeling, first came into the public eye with unanswered questions relating to her daughter’s death (which was then being treated as an accidental drowning), she was immediately denounced in the British and national media for being negligent, among other things. In Goa, however, she was taken seriously from the beginning. Her accusations that a ham-fisted police and political cover-up was afoot seemed entirely plausible. As investigations vindicated each of MacKeown’s claims, the Goa government tried to control the damage. But the Keeling case is likely reverberate a great deal more when it comes to trial, as many Goans believe that only a huge crackdown can eliminate the drug business that pervades large pockets of the coastline.
It is in these once-picturesque villages, fanning from the original mother community of neo-hippie global travellers in Anjuna, that the increased tensions of Goa are most apparent. There are illegal constructions everywhere and migrant workers hugely outnumber the locals. In Calangute, Candolim and other famous tourist areas that have become overwhelmed by concrete, there are only faint reminders of the palm groves and sand dunes that made Goa’s reputation decades ago. Having watched all of this unfold at high speed, with no controls in place, the locals have had enough. Goa has become tense about development, shifting demographics and their impact on culture and identity. Intense battles are now being waged in the panchayats, the gram sabhas, the communidades, spilling over into stormy protests that seem to take place every other day, in virtually every corner of the state.
Many more battles are anticipated – against the open-cast mining operations that devastate the hinterland, against casinos that are being licensed despite huge opposition, against the planned airport in Mopa that will throw open the floodgates to even more tourism.
The potential for turbulence notwithstanding, there has never been a better time to visit Goa. This pocket-sized territory has an astonishing diversity of options for travellers – the beaches, the architecture, the nightlife, that magical vibe that brings thousands of people from all over the world together to simply chill out in peace. In front of the right sunset, in the right frame of mind, you could easily believe that it will last forever.