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Retelling the story of tourism in Goa: could this be the opportunity Goans have been waiting for?

By Aishwarya Shah

Tourism in Goa has always been a double edged sword. On the one hand, it has offered the coastal state an easy route to job and wealth creation beyond mining and industry, by catering to the whims and fancies of their international clientele, be it resort dwelling sunbathers or dreadlocked drum circle enthusiasts. On the other hand, Goa has paid the price in hapless modernization, grave ecological damage and a lamentable derailment of age old livelihoods and lifestyles.

With COVID-19 placing tourists out of the equation for the foreseeable future, how will Goa survive the absence of its biggest revenue drivers? Will this be an opportunity to start afresh, or will Goa return straight to over-exploitation of its sandy shores?

Photowalks by @rohanyuri & Sunburn by @__nhm__

The divisive story of tourism in Goa

One of the lesser talked about perils of tourism in Goa has been how it has divided the already tiny state into multiple provinces.

The hippies and chic creatives of North Goa rarely cross the river to explore Panjim’s vibrant culture. Even the bimonthly trip to Mapusa for settlers in the North can be an ordeal as it destroys the mirage of Goa as a dreamy oasis of palm trees and breezy beaches. The Goa of bustling local markets, tolling church bells and singsong dialects is typically lost to them.

Conversely, the locals rarely venture into what they consider the forgotten hinterlands that have been infiltrated by the tourist circuits. Rarely do you find a family from Panjim strolling down Arambol beach, or kicking back in a shack in Morjim while their kids take a surf lesson. Both demographics guard their territories with care and do not encroach very often, regarding the other with suspicion.

The current situation offers Goans an unlikely opportunity to reclaim the lost sphere of their homeland!

The story of tourism in Goa has kept locals on the sidelines for decades, giving them the role of mere facilitators in the best case scenario and that of an exploited people in the worst case one. Understandably, there is a lot of bitterness when some Goans regard the way the tourism industry has hijacked the pulse of their state.

Could an attempt to reconcile the jaded populace with the parts of their homeland they have written off be a rewarding endeavour? Could this be the moment where locals can support the undercurrent of sustainable tourism by planting themselves more firmly in the tourism space?

Blive via Unsplash & Japanese Gardens, Vasco by @camprnv

Tourism hasn’t been all bad for the people of Goa. Tourism created jobs for fishermen and farming communities and opened up connections to the developed world.

Whether Goans were already friendly and welcoming people, or whether tourism did that to Goa, we can’t say for sure. What we can see is that Goa is a safe, welcoming and diverse pocket of India, that offers a rare platform for people as diverse as Israeli tattoo artists to local salt farmers. Tourism also put Goa on the map for digital nomads, who increasingly see Goa as a closer and viable alternative to Thailand and Indonesia. For three decades, since the first chartered flights in the late 80s, Goa has struggled with its bipolar identities of cozy safe haven and raving, drug infested nightlife.

The mixing of these diverse people and cultures, has been the most valuable addition to the state, and building atop this, in a sustainable way might be the path forward that Goa has long been searching for.

Galgibaga Beach by @photographykyle & beach shacks by @wanderboy__

Inviting Goans back into the lost heartland

What could this even look like? How do you spur local tourism in a state so small you can drive down its length in four hours?

Goans can often be heard delineating the many ways in which tourists have taken over the state, whether it is the hippies or the sometimes rowdy groups of domestic tourists. Now, with the beaches reasonably devoid of both these populations, Goans have a chance to revisit these regions and beyond without feeling like foreigners in their own home.

These expeditions could be led by fathers who remember the Anjuna of their youth, sprawling and empty. A day of fishing with the kids and recounting cheeky tales from decades ago is a great way of bonding both with your family and homeland. These adventures could take the form of listless students packing picnic lunches and retreating into Netravali for the day, hopping in and out of the waterfalls. The poets and artists of the state could gather together to revisit the scenes of relative emptiness and together create a moving story of return.

In the backcountry, there still exists a somewhat pristine way of life, quiet and pastoral. Day trips are often convened here to showcase an authentic and endangered Goa to tourists, but what if these experiences were taken on by families with young kids who want to show them what Goa has gained and lost in the last few decades?

The number of settlers in Goa from state capitals around the country is vast - how often do these denizens take the time to remind themselves of the Goa they fell in love with?

A trip to the islands to learn about local rice, a walking tour that unravels the history of old neighbourhoods, a bicycle trip that takes you on winding trails through old villages and visits to the plethora of museums that safeguard the art in the state! Goa has spent decades creating experiences to make tourists fall in love with what the state and its people have to offer, perhaps these experiences can be remodelled to be more inclusive of the local community and their current needs.

Farmers of Goa by @thedhruvbhende & Panjim streets by @dominicgeorgedacosta

Creating a new story with the locals and the land

Worldover, people are coming up with ingenious ways of surviving the pandemic, whether it is hoteliers teaching their staff how to farm to ensure food security, or travellers holding digital art auctions to raise funds for impacted communities.

The pandemic is forcing us to reckon with a new way of conceptualizing the normals we have held on so tightly to. Goa too can allow this tide to steer it to a more sustainable, locally powered and culturally rooted form of tourism. For Goans to be enticed into the relegated land, the industry is going to have to offer something more meaningful than merely the promise of a good time. In order to successfully integrate Goans into the story of tourism in the state, it is not they who must change but the story!

What could the new story look like?

It could involve a thoughtful requisitioning of Goan youth, building a workaway programme of sorts that creates a framework for the regeneration of the ecology in the bleeding tourist belt. Growing food forests on abandoned plots just before the monsoon soaks the land, cleaning up the beaches and forestland that has been left to decay and more!

Those in the tourism business could use this opportunity to build an alliance with the locals, offer them cheaper stays and garner the support of the stakeholders in the story. For too long, the ties between the tourism industry and the local community have been fraught with ever shifting power dynamics.

Street soccer by @rohanyuri & South Goa by @ekaterina_ronami

The notion that the two camps are on different sides needs to be traded in for a collectivized vision which nurtures a vision of tourism in Goa that yields long term benefits.

Ultimately the goal is to create an evergreen model of tourism that can bring in revenue for generations to come and the most pragmatic way of ensuring this outcome is to ensure harmony between the ecological elements, the local stakeholders and the businesses.

The overarching government agenda is not one that will change overnight but without a stronger and more united front presented by the tourism industry and the local citizenry, the exploitative expansion of the greed driven state will continue. Goa is at a crossroads here and decisive action is needed to cast a new narrative that can portend a more impact driven industry.

The situation as it stands today is both exciting and anxiety inducing:

With the scope of tourism being limited to a small number of domestic tourists who have the means and inclination to plunge into a Goan monsoon, the question really is about whether the tourism industry will be able to break the dichotomy of locals vs tourists and bolster the effort of Goans in reclaiming their heartland.

A small realignment of the imagination could open a bounty of gifts by rendering the invisible technicolour and birthing the kind of synergy we need to establish a truly sustainable model of tourism.

Ultimately, Goa’s future is intertwined with travellers and the opportunity we have right now, is to transform the travel experience from one of pure voyeurism to one of engagement with local communities, resulting in the creation of new opportunities for collaboration in art, music, business and ways of living. To get there, we would be unwise to rely on a single entity such as a government or a tourism department.

Goa’s tourism strategy should be written by its people and executed in their everyday interactions with its guests and residents alike.


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