Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: A tale of two destinations
Twenty five years ago, the Maldives was a budget destination while Goa was rocking. Now the roles have been reversed.Updated: Jan 19, 2020 00:25 IST
There are two famous South Asian seaside destinations that I have seen develop before my eyes. The first is Goa. When I first went there (Christmas, 1976, I think), it had only just become a desirable place for Indians to go to. The Taj had opened the Fort Aguada Resort a year or two before and it remained the only resort hotel of any consequence in the state.
Goa had developed rapidly in the decade before I got there. The Portuguese (who India threw out in 1960) had professed to love Goa but their love had not extended to building drains or providing electricity. After they were booted out by the Indian navy, Goa got all the things that other Indians took for granted: power, gas, drains, etc. But Goa remained the sort of place few Indians holidayed at.
By the late 60s, Western hippies had arrived and only a few adventurous European tourists ventured there.
Things changed after the Taj opened its hotel and Indian Airlines introduced more flights (there were no trains to Goa in those days) and people like myself travelled from Mumbai to discover what Goa was really like.
Even then, facilities were poor. We took a coach from the airport and had to take two ferries to get to the Aguada, a journey that seemed like an adventure in itself.
But, bit by bit, the tourists started coming and after the Taj opened the Holiday Village in the 1980s, Goa became one of the region’s great destinations.
Heston Blumenthal liked the place so much that he married his girlfriend while at Soneva Fushi
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting retreat was held there in 1983 and Indira Gandhi put Natwar Singh in charge of making sure that new hotels were built, the airport terminal was spruced up and roads were improved.
For much of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, I went to Goa for New Year and as tourists and investment flowed in I imagined that it would become a hot spot for travellers everywhere.
I went to the Maldives much later – in the early 1990s – at which time it was a largely unknown destination with a few three- star hotels meant for package tours of Eastern European tourists. The hotels were cheaper than Goa and the food was disgusting. The Taj had two cheapo hotels there (full-board only) where the food was so bad that I ate the staff meals over the swill the restaurant served. But at least it is so much cheaper than Goa, I would tell myself.
Why did I keep going back to the Maldives? Well, because it was beautiful. It had thousands of coral islands, the largest of which must have been a kilometre in length, the water in the lagoons was so clear that you could watch the fish swimming past and the vegetation was lush and beautiful.
Last month, at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, I thought back to those early days and wondered how things could have changed so drastically. The Maldives now has the highest room rates of any sea resort destination in the world (higher than say, Bora Bora or the Caribbean) and each year, the global jet set books rooms in the top hotels.
Goa, on the other hand, is a much worse destination than it was in the 1980s. There is not a single world class hotel or resort. The airport alone is such a nightmare that the thought of going there fills me with dread. The roads are poor, the streets are dirty and there is not one restaurant in the whole state that would survive if it was on a luxury resort on the Maldives.
The bulk of the foreign visitors are budget-conscious tourists. Large parts of the state were in thrall to Russians and when they stopped coming, room rates fell. The top hotel in Goa probably gets around a rate of around Rs 50,000 a night on Christmas Eve. In Maldives, places like Cheval Blanc and Soneva Jani charge upwards of Rs 3 lakh a night for Christmas Eve.
Add to that the crime, the taxi mafia, the suspicion that the cops are not on the level, the general sense of chaos and you understand why no well-heeled international tourist treats Goa as his first choice.
So, how did we screw it up so badly? And why did the Maldives get it so right?
Most of the blame must fall on politicians (at the Centre and the State) who milked Goa dry and did so little to maintain its infrastructure or to make it a clean and safe destination. Tourism in India is often a battle between the enterprising nature of the private sector and the stubbornness and ineptitude of the government. But in the case of Goa, both the private sector and the government have failed.
Hoteliers never built the kind of top-rated properties that would attract Maldives-level tourists and most were content to sell in bulk to tour operators or to hope that low-yield domestic tourism would fill their properties. I doubt if any Goa hotel would feature on a fair list of India’s top 10 hotels, let alone a credible global list.
Contrast this with the Maldives, Soneva Fushi is credited with being the first luxury hotel in the Maldives; the one that turned the country’s reputation around and set the trend for high end tourism. To this day, it is jam-packed in the winter with European celebrities and global hot shots.
This was my third visit there (many years ago, I did a cover story in Brunch on Sonu Shivdasani, its Indian-origin creator) and what struck me the most was how the property managed to re-invent itself every few years.
Hotels like Soneva Fushi have it harder than hotels in Goa because while the average Indian guest stays no more than four nights or so in a deluxe resort hotel, Europeans who have flown for several hours to get to the Maldives often stay for at least two weeks; many stay longer.
How does a hotel keep them engaged for that long?
For the first three days or so, it is easy enough. They are taken with the beauty, with the water and (usually) with the bright sunshine. But after that, what do you do to keep guests engaged?
At Soneva Fushi, there is a range of activities to ensure that you are never bored. They will take you off to an uninhabited island and leave you there for the day to play Robinson Crusoe. Or, if you like a little luxury, chefs and waiters will materialise to prepare a picnic lunch. Or you can just board the Soneva yacht and sail the lagoons.
If you prefer something more cerebral, then each year, the hotel invites interesting people to talk to guests and to give presentations. This year, Peter Frankopan, Professor of History at Oxford, talked about the changing nature of global power. The actress Tilda Swinton has held seminars on looking after the planet. Adventurer and TV star Ben Fogle has talked about his travels.
There is a beautiful observatory with a powerful telescope and periodically, the hotel plans something special. The last time I was there, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to land on the moon, showed us (though the telescope) the exact spot where Neil Armstrong and he walked.
There’s a lot of serious sport too. This year, Swedish tennis star Jonas Bjorkman (a former world No. 4 in singles and a former No. 1 in doubles) was there to play with guests. Over dinner he chatted about training Andy Murray in the year before he won Wimbledon.
And then, there is the food. Soneva has a tradition of inviting great chefs for residencies. When I was there, a two Michelin star chef from Belgium, Bart De Pooter was cooking. Julien Royer (currently Asia No. 1) has been there before and Heston Blumenthal liked the place so much that he married his girlfriend while at Soneva Fushi. The hotel’s sushi counter is run by a three Michelin star restaurant from Tokyo, Sushi Gyoten.
Can you think of any Indian hotel that would take this kind of trouble to make your stay so special? Goa’s hotels have produced one great chef (Urbano Rego) but otherwise the food is boring and dismal. There is no question of flying in interesting people, and nobody would bother with hiring a mid-level Indian tennis player let alone a former world No. 4 to coach guests.
So when I think back to those early days in the Maldives, I applaud the initiative and enterprise of the hoteliers who created the destination. It is not easy to persuade Europeans to fly so far to live on a coral island at such high cost.
Our hoteliers, on the other hand, have many advantages. People want to come to India anyway. Goa can become just one part of a longer holiday that can take in history, mountains and tigers.
But we have really screwed it up. And just off our coast (an hour from Trivandrum), the Maldives has got it so right.
From HT Brunch, January 19, 2020
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