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The Season is Here!

Dmitry Egorov and Victoria Shirokova from Moscow at Anjuna Beach 


Goans goin’ crazy to prepare (Newsflash: Expect a good one!)

The rains have all but stopped. The rupee is ridiculously low. The shacks have been allotted. Restaurants are opening. Charter planes are landing. Goans of all stripes are scrambling to prepare for the high season, order just getting under way now.

After all the issues and problems that Goa has faced in recent times, no rx from garbage to graft to overwhelmed infrastructure, a little good news is undoubtedly  just what we need. Happily, we have some. Perhaps because of the rupee, perhaps because of turmoil in Goa’s tourism competitors (see Egypt, Turkey), this year’s “season” is expected to be a healthy one.

To be sure, the challenges are many. Much still needs to be done to solve the core issues that in recent years have kept the number of foreign tourist arrivals to Goa relatively stagnant – from ubiquitous garbage to inadequate infrastructure to traffic congestion.  And the state is still struggling to reverse a growing trend of low-end, low-spending tourism at the expense of travelers who can spread the economic love.

But here we are again, with the season starting and everyone from shack owners to hoteliers to taxi drivers to nightclub operators eyeing a slice of the tourism pie. It’s a now-or-never situation for those hoping to cash in on the season.


Dmitry Egorov and Victoria Shirokova from Moscow

Perhaps nowhere is this feeling more acute than in the area of beach shacks, those wonderful thatched huts that, perhaps more than anything else, signify the attraction of this beautiful slice of land overlooking the Arabian Sea. Who doesn’t love a Goan beach shack?

Shack owners had been hoping to get going from October 1 after the Tourism Department promised to finish the allotment of shacks by then. But like every other year, delays ensued, this time because of rivalry between two shack owners associations. But that’s been sorted out by the Mumbai High Court and the 350 shacks were allotted earlier this week (about 250 in North Goa and 100 in the South).


Shore Bar, Anjuna

“It’s definitely a good start to the season,” says John Lobo, general secretary of the Shack Owners Welfare Society, the biggest union of shack operators. “This year they have allotted the shacks early and also for three years. Hopefully the season will be better than last year.”

But with 900 applicants and only 350 beach shacks, many have been left out of the Tourism Department’s draw of lots. Says John, “Definitely those who do not get the beach shack licenses will lose out on shacks for the next three years, and that will hurt. But then everyone cannot get shacks.”

Of course the shacks are just one part of the tourism eco-system which includes resorts and guest-houses, two-wheeler and car rentals, beach beds, DJ’s, tourist taxis, tour operators, and a whole army of workers like chefs, bartenders, waiters, all of whom are inter-linked, with the tourist at the centre of the matrix.

The number of tourist arrivals to Goa grew by only one percent in 2012, for a total of around 2.8 million arrivals, more than 80 percent of which were domestic tourists, according to the Government of Goa Department of Tourism. The three countries which send the most tourists to Goa are the UK, Russia and Germany, and many of these folks are sure to find a Goa holiday particularly affordable this year because of the weak rupee.

The boutique resort The Clematis in Candolim is beautifying its cobblestone pathways, lush tropical gardens and tasteful suites to make the resort particularly appealing to foreign guests. Explains Sanjiv Jain, managing director of the property overlooking the Arabian Sea, “First and foremost we’ve revamped the property and we now have a poolside bar where our guests can relax. We’ve also recruited more chefs and revamped the menu to offer more to our foreign guests. We have proper Indian dishes, besides Western and many Mediterranean food dishes.” Another lovely feature of Clematis: the 700-square-foot Aqua Suites all have plunge pools. “The idea is to make people stay in the resort and enjoy all their drinks and food there itself. The concentration is more on seafood,” Sanjiv says, outlining his strategy for the new season.

Sanjiv is not the only one expecting a good season. Joaquim ‘Jack’ Fernandes, a compere and master of ceremonies at many shows and who doubles as a guide to visitors from cruise ships docking at Mormugao, says, “The season looks very promising. I’ve got shows booked right up till May. In January itself I’ve got six shows booked already, and by the time January comes I’ll get more. Also there are around 30 cruise ships which are supposed to come, which means there will be a lot of guiding trips.”

There is also cautious optimism on the charter tourism scene because of turmoil in other countries, as tourists stay away from Egypt and Turkey in particular. The charter tourist flights, which had crossed the 1,000 mark last season, are expected to rise to around 1,400 flights. According to Francisco Braganza, president of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG), the apex tourism industry body, “The season will be extremely good due to the rupee falling against the dollar and the pound improving the purchasing capacity of European tourists. The visa-on-arrival facility will also encourage tourists from larger countries.”

More charters mean more business for hoteliers and everybody else. Joseph Sequeira is a member of the Calangute village panchayat, which sees thousands of tourists every day. He also owns the Casa Severina resort besides a travel agency, which takes dozens of charter tourists on sightseeing excursions every day. “The tourist season is always good in Calangute. Whoever wants to come to Goa will always come here. This season will be better than last season,” he says. “Everybody wants 100% room occupancy; how they can expect that? The important thing is we have to give them good facilities like good and clean roads, which the panchayat is doing by creating more infrastructure like broader roads. Work has started on the sewerage network and the garbage treatment plant, all of which will mean better facilities for tourists.”

However, Joseph has a word of caution for visitors, too. “People have to beware of bag-snatchers who come on motorbikes and snatch the shoulder and hand-bags of female tourists. A lot of people are unemployed, especially amongst the migrants who come to Goa and they turn robbers. People should watch out for two persons coming close to them on motorcycles while they’re walking on the streets, especially at night.”

Still, there’s lots of new stuff happening all over the coastal belt, including in old-time hangouts like Anjuna. Take Shore Bar, the popular beachside party spot in the middle of south Anjuna. It’s now going to be Shore Bar in association with Extreme Sports Bar. With multiple outlets in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bhopal, etc, owner Danny says it’s not going to be your typical Anjuna party place. “It’s all about food, it’s not about partying. The feedback we’ve received is that our food is the best in the area, both in terms of the taste and the quantity too. We will also have karaoke nights, live music, international DJ’s and the food will be international, Goan, Indian. It’s a different experience from the usual Anjuna scene. We hope to do a lot of cocktails,” he says.

Not everyone is completely excited about the new season, to be sure. With each passing year it’s getting tougher and tougher for the tourist taxi operators, who are often seen as the villains in the tourism story because of high fares. Says Vasudev Arlekar, president of the powerful North Goa Tourist Taxi Owner’s Association, which has 1,800 members, “Nowadays tourists who come to Goa pick up a rental car at the airport or railway station itself, drive all over Goa for seven days and go back. Where will we get business?” He spoke of what he called debilitating government regulations, including a prohibition against tourist taxis parking along roads to solicit customers.

Vasudev also complained of new hotels failing to make provisions for tourist taxis and of Russians running their own taxi operations. “This year if we find any foreigners operating taxis, we will not complain, we will take direct action,” Vasudev said. “When a man is hungry, he will do anything for some food. Our situation has become like that.”

At the top end of the tourism industry, the 20-odd five-star resorts are also sprucing themselves up for the new season. “We at Alila Diwa Goa are going full steam ahead to prepare for the winter season,” says Siddharth Savkur, the general manager at Alila Diwa Goa in Majorda. “Our new winter packages were launched earlier this month and are already getting a strong response.  A packed entertainment schedule has been planned for the outlets.  The popular Edgy Nights will continue at our Edge Bar, not just on one but five nights a week with live music.  All our restaurant menus have been revised with some exciting additions to cater to both the international and domestic tourists.  We also have a host of food festivals lined up at Spice Studio, our specialty Indian restaurant.”

But as Joaquim ‘Jack’ Fernandes, the compere cautions, “You can never say – sometimes the season gets affected by factors beyond our control, as happened with the Gulf war.”

For now, however, it seems clear that the factors beyond Goa’s control are, for the most part, working in the state’s favour.