A year on, popular foreigner haunts in Goa remain abandoned
Willy D’Souza sits at a table inside his shack and stares listlessly at the few tourists walking along Arambol beach in north Goa.
Around this time of the year, his shack is full and the beach teeming with tourists, most of them foreigners. This year, he stacked up his plastic chairs and deck beds in one corner of the shack, did not lay out any tables and, despite the board outside advertising the freshest fish, kept his kitchen closed.
“These few tourists you see walking about, they do not come to stay. They are here to visit. They will spend a few hours at the beach and in the water and then head to another beach or back to their hotel,” D’Souza says.
The pandemic hit Goa’s environment sector hard, but while the uptick in tourism towards the end of last year and early this year brought respite to tourism stakeholders, some of Goa’s beach villages that depend on foreign tourists more than others are yet to experience the recovery.
Arambol and its neighbour Mandrem are popular haunts for foreign tourists, especially Russians and other Europeans, who make these once-sleepy fishing villages their home for six months or longer sometimes. Arambol village today is synonymous with those seeking an alternative lifestyle, low-impact holidaying, and peace and quiet away from the bustling beaches of Calangute and Candolim. The Arambol Community, as the collective of foreign tourists who stayed here long-term is called, even organises its own carnival and participates in community clean-up drives.
After the nationwide lockdown was imposed late last March to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, tourists slowly left in relief flights that were arranged by their respective countries, the shacks shuttered and the village emptied out. One year later, while other, more popular beaches in Goa have seen businesses (that rely mainly on Indian tourists) reopen, in Arambol, life is not the same.
The narrow lanes leading to the beach that were once teeming with foreigners now make for a smooth drive. The street shops and tattoo studios that have reopened see little footfall, and while there still are some foreign tourists around, locals say that they are the ones who are overstaying their visas or who don’t have any intention of going back, ever.
The Union government’s decision to suspend tourist visas and keep fresh visas on hold has crippled villages like Arambol. Repeated representations to the Central government by the state’s tourism lobby to permit foreign tourists to arrive as part of air bubble arrangements are yet to be acceded to.
“The government kept promising us that the charters will resume later in the season, and we set up our shacks hopeful of the arrivals, but till date nothing has been done,” D’Souza says.
Today while the shacks and street shops have reopened, business is thin, but it is homestay and guesthouse owners who are counting their mounting losses.
“I used to make around ₹15 lakh annually from my guest house,” Inacio Daniel D’Souza, also a resident of Arambol, says. A four-time member of the Arambol village panchayat, Inacio D’Souza has shuttered his 10-room guest house in March last year and is yet to reopen. He now survives solely from the income he earns from his liquor store.
“There are around 500 guest houses and hostels in Arambol and the others too have suffered a similar loss. Only those who are running liquor shops have managed to revive some business, but the others have had to fall back on traditional occupations like fishing to sustain themselves,” Inacio D’Souza says.
“To make matters worse for us, not only have we received no support from the government, but we also have inflation to contend with. The prices of everything have gone up,” Inacio D’Souza says.
Down in south Goa, in Agonda and Palolem, two other beach haunts that are popular with foreign tourists, the situation appears to be a little better.
“We were entirely dependent on foreign tourists who made up the bulk of our clientele. This year, thankfully, that gap has been partly bridged by tourists from within India. We are getting by with what’s available to us,” Stevie Rodrigues, a hotel and restaurant owner from Agonda, says.
According to a survey commissioned by the Goa government and conducted by consultancy firm KPMG, the state’s tourism industry is roughly estimated to have suffered losses to the tune of ₹2,000- ₹7,200 crore due to the pandemic, and job losses in the range of 35-58%.
Prior to the pandemic, the state witnessed close to 8 million domestic tourists and more than 900,000 foreign touristsaccording to state government statistics. Foreign tourists are considered higher value tourists as they typically stay longer and consequently spend more.
According to the survey, the industry’s direct contribution is estimated at 16.43% of the state GDP which is valued at around $10 billion and about 35% of the population is directly employed in the sector.
March offered a glimmer of hope with Air India announcing that flights between Goa and Moscow would resume, but with Covid-19 cases back on the rise, stakeholders are sceptical.
“Tourist numbers (from within India) that until about a week ago were quite decent, are beginning to fall once again. And if cases increase, they will fall further,” Rodrigues adds.
But all is not lost for those once dependent on foreign tourists: just a few months ago, singer-songwriter Lucky Ali made Arambol his home for a few days and cheered the locals and tourists alike with an impromptu rendition of his song ‘O Sanam’. The video quickly went viral on social media, elevating the village’s standing as the go-to destination for offbeat, alternative tourism.