In the hot sun of a late-March afternoon, the sandy expanse of Morjim beach in north Goa stretched out, beautiful and dormant. Even the waves crashing on the sands seemed lethargic, losing force even before they peaked, like a performer repeating a well-known trick the day after showing off his skills to a packed house.
But though the peak tourist season - October to April - is drawing to a close, this year Goa is not showing the fatigue that invariably comes after toiling for six months but rather the listlessness that results from an unfulfilled wait.
The worried murmers are audible the minute you land at the state's Dabolim airport. "Tourist madame?" ask porters and taxi drivers, their voices saturated with hope. Ask any of them how business has been this season and the answer is unvaryingly "bad". "The Russians didn't come this time. Most of the tourists to Goa these days are Russians. If they don't come, business is bad," a taxi driver explains.
The foreign tourist numbers are going down in Goa.
It's a business truth for anyone connected to the tourism industry in Goa. While the beach state does attract good domestic footfall, foreigners are the ones who bring in the big money for most. "Most Indian tourists come for three to four nights, whereas foreign tourists come for 14 to 15 days on an average," explains Nikhil Desai, managing director, Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC).
Somewhere in the years following the great recession of 2008 in Europe and the US, Goa made its shift as a popular tourist destination with a heavy British footfall (among foreigners), to a place with a majority of Russian tourists. "After the Gulf War, Cyprus, which was one of the prime tourist destinations for the Russians, was included in the security zone, and they slowly started shifting out and found Goa as a great alternative," explains Ralph De Sousa, spokesperson of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa.
The Goans too changed to adapt to the changing clientele. It's a mini-Russia out there. Most shacks and restaurants on the beaches have separate Russian-language menu cards or ones that have dishes listed in both English and Russian. Almost all the waiters understand Russian and some even speak it.
Russian signs in Goa hotels.
A few have travelled to Russia and wear t-shirts with the country's name or President Putin's face emblazoned on it. Russia is also one of 44 countries to which India offers e-visas at a cost of 60 dollars per person for a period of up to 30 days.
All was well till trouble with Ukraine over control in Crimea and resulting international sanctions, plunged Russia into political and economic uncertainty. The value of the rouble weakened. "Those who are travelling are going to places like Thailand this year. It's cheaper than coming to Goa," explained Igor, a Russian tourist. Goa received the bad news as it was gearing for the 2014-15 tourist season. "The international tourist segment coming to Goa is divided into two - the charters and the free independent tourists (or FITs). There has been a dip in the charter market this year. The weakening of the rouble has made travelling to Goa 30 per cent more expensive for Russian tourists. There has been an approximately 35 per cent dip in the number of Russians coming to Goa this year," says Ralph De Sousa. The FIT presence has been good, in fact, better than last year, he adds, but for most business owners, that couldn't completely balance the drop in the planned market. The English numbers reduced when the recession hit the American and European economies. They have not fully recovered yet, he says. "About 60 per cent of the total foreign tourist population coming to Goa consists of Russians. This year that business has been down by 65 per cent" says Ernest Dias, a tour operator. Government statistics, however, show an increase both in the number of international and domestic tourists coming to Goa in 2014. "There has been a five per cent rise in the number of foreign tourists in 2014. There was a 30 per cent dip in the numbers coming in through the charter flights, but we more than made it up through the rise in FIT numbers. The International Film Festival, events like Sunburn, the Goa Carnival and the exposition of the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier helped bring in people," explains Nikhil Desai of GTDC. While that might have helped boost numbers, it wasn't enough to help stabilise business for many. "Pilgrims and film festival attendees are not exactly tourists. Their spending habits differ," says John Lobo general secretary of the Shack Owner's Association of Goa. "There has been a 70 to 80 per cent drop in foreign tourist footfall this year. There have been reports of shacks having to close down because they couldn't handle the losses," he adds.
An empty shack at Morjim beach in north Goa, a popular haunt of Russians tourists. (Photo: HT/Arijit Sen)
When the Russians started coming to Goa they fanned out across the state and made some of Goa's most pristine beaches their own. "At Morjim, Asvem, Mandrem and Arambol in north Goa most businesses would be largely dependent on Russians," says the manager of a café on Baga beach, that draws a mix of both Indian tourists and foreigners of all nationalities. Candolim, another north Goa beach is still trying to hold on to its English identity. Here, you will find restaurants with names like English Rose. But the beach has not remained untouched by the Russian presence. At Jackson's Beach Café at Candolim, one of the employees, Aniket Poojari, says "We do have menu cards in Russian and the boys working here understand the language, but most places in Candolim don't put up Russian signage because we do not want to alienate other nationalities." Then, there is the more subtle north-south divide. With most star properties and luxury and boutique hotels in the area, the south is where those with more pocket power head. Many of these hotels too confess to having had a bad season. "For the peak tourist season from mid-October to mid-May, we sign contracts with foreign charters to allocate a certain number of rooms. This year, we have only managed a 70-80 per cent occupancy except for a few weeks in February when we had 100 per cent occupancy because of group bookings for conferences. We have had to slash our rates from ` 12-14,000 per night to ` 6-7000 per night," says Tanyn Seixas senior executive, reservations, Dona Sylvia Beach Resort at Cavelossim in south Goa.
Another hotel, Nanu Resorts, in south Goa's Betalbatim area is now targetting the domestic wedding and conference crowd. Smaller establishments are often without the means for such business retargetting. Even in the tiniest villages in the coastal areas most houses bear 'To Let' signs. "Foreign tourists who stay for a month or two prefer to rent rooms. But this year rent for sea-facing rooms has come down from Rs 50,000 per month to Rs 30-35,000 per month," says Dominic, a broker in north Goa's Morjim area. He also has a business renting out scooters to tourists. "Even that has seen a 30 per cent dip," he rues.
Everyone is disgruntled - from water sports company owners to waiters losing out on fat tips from foreigners and flea market shop owners from neighbouring Karnataka or places from as far afield as Jaipur and Pushkar. "My friend who is a distributor for Himalaya ayurvedic products was complaining of poor business," says Dias. Grocery and fish sellers, fruit vendors, and green grocers have all felt the pinch. "There will probably be a lot of bankruptcies in the lower segments. Already, there are stories of staff leaving because they have not been paid salaries. I know of some restaurant owners committing suicide," says Ricardo D'Souza, one of two directors at Tito's, in Baga.
The advent of the Russians had not been smooth. "Most of them have a communication problem. Some of them are also aggressive. Often they try to smuggle in their own liquor inside restaurants," says the owner of a shack in Anjuna. Another café in the area has a "No Drugs" sign written in bold on the walls. Many also blame them for keeping away the British. "We do feel a little isolated. Earlier there was a good mix of English and Scandinavian tourists, but now it's predominantly Russian," admits Ann Dave, a tourist from England. Yet, few Goan businessmen will not mourn the financial loss caused by their absence. In north Goa, signage in Russian inviting tourists to cafes, hotels and parties stands like desolate reminders of an abandoned pleasure haunt. "A lot of changes have come in like visa-on-arrival but even these need to be simplified. You still need to register online before hand whereas even Indians can walk into Thailand with no due notice and buy a visa at an efficient airport counter. We also need to stress more on cleanliness, efficiency and providing facilities to tourists at all venues," says D'Souza of Tito's.
Meanwhile, as the last Sunday of March wound down, the party at Baga showed a distinct desi edge. At a quarter-to-one at Tito's Bollywood and Retro Club, an Indian crowd moved to the beats of Hookah Bar. "Earlier they used to play Russian music. I don't like the music today," says a Russian tourist as she leaves Mambo early. She was one of only four foreign guests at the venue. There's power in numbers and that night, it was clear that the DJ wouldn't be playing her song.
"We are planning a theme park, a ropeway project, an oceanarium and much more," says Nitin Desai. A new airport is also coming up
"Now, as Goa has the privilege to welcome tourist carrying E-visas, the state is marketing itself in these countries as well. Goa participates in major trade fairs in London. Berlin, Madrid, Lisbon Singapore and Moscow. It also has road shows in many West European countries, the US Japan, Korea and Australia," says Ralph De Sousa