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Goa feels pinch of recession, terror and death

A double-whammy of the global economic turmoil and Mumbai terror attacks has hit the usually bustling Indian resort of Goa hard as a disappointing winter tourist season draws to a quiet close.

india Updated: Feb 18, 2009 21:51 IST
Phil Hazlewood
Phil Hazlewood

A double-whammy of the global economic turmoil and Mumbai terror attacks has hit the usually bustling Indian resort of Goa hard as a disappointing winter tourist season draws to a quiet close.

Others point to the death of a British teenager whose body was found on a beach in the former Portuguese colony a year ago on Wednesday for affecting visitor numbers, shedding light on a murky sub-culture of sex, drink and drugs.

About 2.7 million tourists from India and abroad came to tiny Goa state last year, enticed by sun, white sand and a dusk-to-dawn party atmosphere, bringing in more than 180 million dollars in revenue to the local economy.

In recent months though, many of the beachside bars and restaurants have been virtually deserted, while other businesses and returning visitors have noticed a difference.

"The effect of the global meltdown has been felt and there was panic in the mind of the general public as well as tourists after the Mumbai attacks," said Lyndon Monteiro, vice-chairman of the Goa Tourism Development Corporation.

"There was a tremendous fall-out," he added.

"Last year it was good business. This year, not good business, very quiet," said Anita, who hawks clothes and jewellery on Anjuna Beach, usually a tourist hotspot.

"No tourists," chipped in Tina, 13, who also sells trinkets to sunbathers and shoreline strollers.

Christmas and New Year beach parties were banned on security grounds last year after November's deadly attacks up the coast in Mumbai which led to a flood of cancellations from foreign tourists fearful of another strike.

Business fell by between 30 and 40 percent in the peak month of December, in line with the rest of India, said Monteiro.

"It's a lovely place but everyone says it's down on last year. The parties are stopping earlier, if they're starting at all," said British tourist Henry, a Goa veteran, relaxing on a sunlounger outside an Anjuna Beach bar.

"The police have curtailed the parties, so a lot of people don't come here. They've gone to Thailand or Cambodia. The freaks who give the place its feel, the craziness, they've moved on or they're not coming."

For friends and supporters of 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling's family, her death -- and the high-profile publicity afterwards -- badly affected Goa's reputation as an oasis of liberalism in strait-laced India.

Her partially clothed, battered body was found on Anjuna Beach. She had taken a cocktail of drink and drugs and been raped before she died.

"The case of Scarlett Keeling, to my mind, has certainly affected tourism in Goa," said Vikram Varma, lawyer for Scarlett's mother Fiona MacKeown, accusing police of being in denial about the extent of the drugs problem here.

"A large number of officers had gathered a lot of intelligence and cleaned up a lot of petty crime in the beach areas (since her death), but despite this the quantum of tourists coming to Goa has fallen drastically."

One British woman, who gave her name as Beth, said Scarlett's death was a crime "waiting to happen." Three other foreign women were raped in Goa last year but did not report the crimes to the police, she claimed.

"There were numerous ones throughout the season that Scarlett died. So this has been an issue but none of it has been brought to light. The reason is because of tourism," she said.

North Goa -- seen as the party capital of the state -- saw a rise in violent crime in 2008, including rape and murder, according to police figures.

But Bosco George, superintendent of police for North Goa, rejected claims that Scarlett's death may have impacted on tourism and denied her mother's claims that police tried to cover up the crime to protect drugs gangs.

Like tourism vice-chairman Monteiro, who is confident the state is bouncing back, George believes the Mumbai attacks and recession were more significant factors in the fall in visitor numbers here.

Police action -- from beach patrols to tighter controls on bar owners and their mainly migrant worker staff -- has had an effect, he said.

"(Bar owners) realise that this is in the interests of Goa, their business and avoiding such unfortunate incidents, which give Goa a bad name," said George.

"Goa is still a safe place. It's still a place where you can have a nice time. But people need to be a little bit cautious when they come to a different country," he said.

First Published: Feb 18, 2009 21:45 IST