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Future of Goa depends on its hinterlands

We are just into the peak tourism season that extends through December to February, and a glaring problem has already made itself apparent. Flights are full, and the beaches are crowded, but the demographics of Goa’s marketplace seem irrevocably shifted. There are fewer families, and far more groups of single male travellers than ever before. There is a visible predominance of visitors from just across state borders with Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra, very many of them bus trippers. Quite recently, India’s smallest state was an astonishingly successful global brand, but that reputation has diminished to domestic standby. The proportion of foreign tourists in Goa is dramatically diminished, and fast dwindling further to no more than 15%.The state’s failure to maintain its allure for international travellers contrasts poorly with other parts of India, which have come onto the global map with terrific momentum. Last year, the country registered an impressive new record number of foreign visitors, almost nine million in total. Of these, less than 10% came to Goa, only around 6.8 lakh.The rest of India experiences close to 20% growth in international travel demand year in and year out, but Goa is conspicuously left out. Instead, entirely due to suicidal state and industry policies that have continually degraded the destination to the global bargain basement, there is a continual race to the bottom that is crowded with the lowest-value tourists available anywhere.
This is a story of comprehensive mismanagement, carelessness and neglect. At the start of the new millennium, Goa was a genuine international phenomenon. But check the latest statistics from the Market Research Division of the ministry of tourism, and the supposed “sunshine state” ranks ninth in popularity with foreign travellers. Even worse, among the premium Indian travellers who matter, Goa doesn’t even figure in their top 10 choices. It is a sad state of affairs – India’s travel marketplace is expanding rapidly at the top end, and many more sophisticated and cosmopolitan domestic tourists are making success stories of diverse destinations. But Goa goes backwards, destroying its social, cultural and environmental fabric for increasingly smaller gains.The comprehensive failure of tourism management in Goa is not the fault of government alone. It is true that state officialdom has never understood the value of the “golden goose” inherited from previous generations, with its inherent and immediate attraction to almost everyone who comes in contact with it. Instead of recognising those original virtues, and working hard to preserve and project them, the administrative and political cadre has actively sought to undermine and kill them. Today, Goans are a minority in their own homeland, and their complex and many-layered culture is under assault from all directions, but especially from within.All this has triggered a downward spiral. Eliminate the Goan character from the state, and that takes away the main attraction for the best kind of travellers from around the world, who come to experience Goa’s uniqueness. Absent the highest value visitors, and the tourism sector devours itself racing for ever-tinier cash flows from the kind of visitor who only cares for cheap thrills. This is exactly what is playing out in the once-pristine Goa and now, the rights of future generations are mortgaged away for heaping piles of garbage.
It is perhaps not too late to correct course.While a good part of the most gorgeous villages on the Goan coastline have become submerged by a tsunami of concrete, much of the countryside still retains its charm and grace. This is entirely due to stubborn local resistance in the village heartland, where the average citizen is well aware of what is at stake. The future of the state depends on this last stand. Here, it is useful to remember the poetic judgement earlier this year by Justice Gautam Patel: “This is an extraordinary state, in more ways than one, a place where, perhaps more than anywhere else, sky, sea and earth meet. From horizon to horizon, it is a land of abundant richness. 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. This is something none can deny: this is a land truly worth fighting for.”The writer is a photographer and widely-published columnist. Views expressed are personal. [TOI]

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