Goa is one of the few states in India where there has been a never-ending stream of inbound visitors for over four decades, much before tourism had become popular in most parts of India. Kashmir, Rajasthan, Goa, and Agra were the undisputed leaders in the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, i.e. before other states stepped in. The movement of charters to Goa began in the 80s, first with arrivals from the UK, Scandinavia, and Germany. It was difficult to procure a room during season time, especially X’mas and New Year, when the ‘full-up’ notice was put two months prior. Charters meant a lot for Goa; the lean season were the monsoon and hot summer months.
Large tour charter services brought in citizens from across Western Europe. The surf, large stretches of isolated beaches, languid lifestyles, clean waters, and low all-inclusive air plus land prices managed to lure them. Over the past decade, focus shifted to Eastern Europe with many Russian-based tour operators dominating the charter market. While charters meant mega bucks for service providers, the beaches in Goa wore the East European look, with a majority of hotels, beach shacks, restaurants, souvenir and curio shops having their signboards and menu cards printed in Russian and other East European languages. Two trends were being followed, which ultimately proved detrimental - overdependence on charters and one region to bring in business. In fact, for the winter season beginning October 2014 to February 2015, 450 charters were being planned with a likelihood of more being added. This is not to deny that leisure groups, backpackers, incentive travellers, and domestic tourists made a sizable contribution to tourism in Goa.
For all its advantages, Charter Tourism is a different economic model with the accent on bulk bookings at low prices, be it for air tickets, hotel rooms or for transportation. FITs (Free Individual Travellers) form yet another business model with spending styles that are more local-centric. For example, local restaurants will be patronised to a larger scale for evening meals as compared to charters, which are all-inclusive. The second disadvantage was relying on one singular ‘group of nations’ to fulfill the arrival numbers and the aspirations of the tourism industry. This proved to be Goa’s greatest nemesis as the Russian Ruble (RUB) crashed, bringing it at par with the Indian Rupee (currently RUB 1 equals Rs 1.25; no thanks to the embargo imposed on Russia by western nations and its challenging economic condition). Along with the crash in the value of their currency, it brought the curtains down on arrivals from Russia (Goa’s biggest inbound partner) and its neighbouring countries in 2014-15. Close to 75 per cent of the charters were cancelled, hoteliers, and tour operators were shell-shocked, while restaurants still managed to run to decent capacities, largely due to unabated Domestic Tourism movement.
Many souvenir and gift shops in South Goa downed their shutters. Much like a tsunami, it left the hospitality industry dumb-struck. For someone who’s been visiting this region for the past 25 years, it didn’t come as a surprise.
While there is no denying that an unending surge of domestic tourists will keep cash registers ringing in the Goan hospitality industry, the state will seek to regain its lost glory of the 80s and 90s, where spending a week lazing on the golden sands of the beaches was a done thing for most international visitors. Backpackers too enjoyed the total feel of the place, be it the endless stretch of narrow roads bisecting paddy fields, verdant coconut groves, white-washed churches with the cross ‘reaching’ for the skies, hills looming in the distance, or the endless sound of the ocean. Easy availability of alcohol at dirt-cheap prices and delectable local cuisine added to the increasing numbers.
The question on top of everyone’s mind is ‘How does Goa go about fixing this humongous task?’ Also, what should its marketing strategy be? Should it once again concentrate its efforts on one nationality or should it learn from previous experiences? Should charters once again be its main focus or should it seek small group and individual clients? Easy as it may seem, destination management and awareness have changed dramatically over the past decade, as compared with the 20th century, when destinations were promoted by word of mouth and the print media. In this time and age it’s social media and experiential visits that do most of the ‘talking.’
In moments like these, the state needs to introspect. Granted, it will spend huge amounts of money marketing its destination in different parts of the world and at various international exhibitions and platforms to garner footfalls. And it will! It’s the introspection and acting upon (the challenges) that will reap long-term rewards. Like some other parts of India, meandering rivers bring in pollutants and discharge them into the oceans, rendering both the rivers and the beaches unsuitable for human habitation. River Mandovi and Miramar Beach are classic examples, which need to be set right at the earliest.
International tourists take their vacations seriously, and are willing to pay for the same. There is the issue of fast depleting water tables in some areas of Northern Goa, like Baga and Candolim for instance. Consumption of alcohol in the open needs to be put to an end soon. Quite often, tourists consume beer on open roads and in public places, creating a nuisance for one and all. The state also needs to understand the culture of paving footpaths for people to walk on busy roads, especially those entering beach areas. Not all visitors like to drive; many like to walk. Most importantly, it’s the ‘feel-safe’ factor that’s important for international visitors. Today’s visitors clamour for fresh air and food, clean water, good sanitation, uninterrupted power supply, garbage-free zones, and tourist-friendly locations (staring is considered intrusive by many nationalities).
And finally, Goa needs to promote its classical village tours, cashew picking programmes, day visits to Goan villages, Backwater Tourism, rock art, plantation tours, heritage walks and visits to museums, and a number of other initiatives, involving and benefitting locals. offering the new-found wanderer a rare sense of satisfaction, making him/her want to come back for more. The modern-day wanderer having discovered new experiences will return for more.