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Goan, Goan, gone

Prem lights an incense stick and prays before his deity. It’s 7.30 in the morning, and his shack in North Goa’s Vagator beach is curiously empty. There are no takers for his American, Continental and Tibetan breakfasts.

Prem’s neighbouring shack, Boom Shankar, is equally deserted. The eatery, which came up in 1974 — a throwback from Goa’s early Dum Maro Dum era, when the Flower Children celebrated full moon parties on the beach in the nude — used to be pretty busy once. Now the shack stares at empty chairs.

Goa — known for long years as a tourist haven — seems to be losing its spark. Shack owners complain that tourists are being discouraged from frolicking in Goa. Prem insists that his business this season is down by 40 per cent.

A great many factors have together led to a drop in tourist footfalls.

The Indian government’s new visa restrictions — making it mandatory for tourists seeking a visa extension after six months to stay out of the country for two months before they can re-enter — worry foreign tourists, many of whom like to spend months together in Goa. Further, tourists are concerned about the government’s unpredictability in granting visa extensions to foreigners on long stay visas in Goa. Notes are constantly being exchanged among the visitors about who got lucky and who did not.

There has been a gradual decline in the numbers of applications for visa extensions — which shot up from 965 in 2007 to 1,187 in 2008.

Last year, it was down to 1,174, according to statistics from Goa’s Foreigners Registration Office.

The tourism industry is worried about the repercussions, but it’s an issue that Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat says he would not like to comment on. “It’s the Centre’s jurisdiction,” he tells The Telegraph.

This is the tourist season in Goa, which brings in a large chunk of the state’s revenues. But it looks like it’s off-season. On the road to the flea market in Anjuna, roadside cafes with names such as Orange Boom and Close2c are in siesta mode. The roads are deserted, except for the occasional bare-backed white male tourists and their female consorts zipping on motorbikes.

At 3pm, when the place should be buzzing, hardly a couple of tables are occupied at Artjuna, an open air boutique café in Anjuna. “The tourists come in at around 9pm,” says its wild-haired Israeli owner Moshe, who has been living in Goa since 1995.

The 19-bed Shalom Guest House off Vagator beach has seen a 20-30 per cent dip in occupancy rates in recent times. Julia and Andrew, who have been running the guest house since 2003, stress that the number of Israeli tourists is on the decline, while Russian tourists are on the rise.

“I really don’t know why,” says Sarah, an Israeli tourist who is on her twelfth trip to India and ninth to Goa. “There is no question of them fearing a terror attack, as we live in terror all the time,” she says.

Visa restrictions apart, one of the reasons for the tourists’ declining numbers could be the unprecedented global media coverage of recent sex crimes in Goa. The state government, many also complain, is not doing enough to woo tourists. Prem says the government issued licences to run shacks only in December, instead of October, which was the norm. “What have they done for the tourists,” he asks. “This beach has no lights, and the approach to it is dangerous.”

Costs are also rising, making Goa no longer the cheap long-stay alternative for foreign tourists that it once was. Until last year, Sarah says she looked forward to returning to Goa. This year, she is “not so sure,” the cost being the killer. Her daily room tariff at a beach side guest house in North Goa has gone up, and she feels like a “walking dollar,” she says. “When I first came to India, shopkeepers would sit down and chat. Now they’re only interested in our money.”

Igor, a 20-something Russian tourist in Goa, agrees. “Six years ago the local Goans saw us as white people. Today they see us as white money.” When he went to the local market to buy fabrics for his garment business back in Moscow he says he found Italy cheaper. Over the weeks Igor has smartened up, choosing the local supermarket over the bazaar, which he says could cost him four times as much.

There was a time, some of the tourists hold, when Goa was like heaven. The weather was glorious, food and liquor were cheap, and the people were friendly. No longer. “Goa is a paradise in hell,” says a disgruntled 20-something Italian tourist, Francisco, who grumbles about foreigners being treated like “cash machines”. “I feel like I am always cheated,” adds Shoshannah, an elderly Israeli tourist staying in North Goa.

It also appears that the tourists’ lifestyles — quite a few are into rave parties and drugs — have created a rift between the locals and the visitors. Ruth (name changed to protect her identity), a portly Israeli woman living in Goa for the past nine years, says she can count on “one hand” the number of times she has been invited to a local home. The local Goans hardly visit her, either. “I keep telling them to come over, but they don’t come,” complains Ruth.

Of course, for many tourists, Goa is still a beautiful spot — and its people are friendly. Anne Ketteringham, a retired aeronautical engineer and avid birder from the UK, who has been spending the last couple of winters in the north Goan village of Assagao, describes the local Goan as “friendly, though not always open.” She has close to 20 local Goan friends —painters, writers, poets and wild life enthusiasts — who accompany her to cultural events and bird watching trips. If it’s too late for her to go home, she may even stay back at one of their homes.

Shoshannah stresses that to be welcomed in Goa, the tourists too have to do their bit. “It is important for us to understand the lives and culture of the local people,” she adds. Her way of doing this is by chatting with Lamani women from bordering Karnataka on the beach while they give her a Rs 50 manicure and paint her nails crimson flecked with silver.

Many tourists are eyeing other spots as alternatives to Goa. Israeli tourist Pnina has been considering New Zealand and Australia, while Sarah points out that in Vietnam, where she went a couple of years ago, she could rent a “very good” room for $6-7 a day. “Tourists want safe and cheap destinations. They also look for places that are conducive for living,” she adds.

Recently, Moshe’s brother had gone to check out Brazil, which he believes resembles Goa in terms of colonial heritage, since both were Portuguese colonies. But the crime rate in Brazil made Goa sound like the Promised Land.

It’s this hope — that even Goa in troubled times is better than other spots in the world — that keeps members of the tourism industry going. Prem hopes his morning prayers will be answered one day — and soon.

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