MASKLESS: Domestic tourists are back on the beaches of Goa with no regard for even wearing a mask, leave alone practice social distance.
By Vivek Menezes
Goa may very happily welcome tourists from Delhi, Mumbai and Karnataka. But these states which are reporting the highest Covid-19 positives have banned Goans and tourists from returning to their home states. Maharashtra has made PCR Covid-19 certificate mandatory for visitors from Goa. The rule also applies for visitors from Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat……
Goa has become hot property — with tourists arriving in droves to WFH, buy realty, or just chill. And most of them have little regard for health or covid safety protocols
On April 12, the jubilant chief minister of India’s smallest state, declared that “Goa is Covid-19 free”. Pramod Sawant promised to ease the internal lockdown while maintaining strict limits on border crossings “to ensure we continue to remain a Green Zone”.
The same day, Audrey Menezes — the first and only woman elected to the governing body of the Goa Association of Realtors — found her phone buzzing incessantly with calls from across the country. Overnight, the state property market (which had dwindled to moribund in 2019) glowed red hot. “A great spike came out of nowhere,” she says.
Menezes tells Mirror there was — and remains — an unmistakably desperate edge to this churn of demand. People want to come to Goa right away. The moment the nationwide lockdown ended, and even before flights were resumed, people were simply getting into their cars to drive cross-country to get here. After the monsoon rains ended, large numbers flocked to rent and buy properties, often sight unseen. And as the hotels and restaurants opened up, even larger groups descended on Goa to holiday.
There’s a decidedly grim pallor to the party spirit in the midst of a raging pandemic, because the number of Covid cases in Goa are steadily edging up to 50,000, including almost 650 deaths (the highest percentage per million in the country). The state medical infrastructure is fraying at the limit of its capacities, and the resident population ¬— which skews towards the oldest in India after Kerala — is stressed with anxiety about the intrusions. What is more, most of the newcomers refuse to follow the recommended safety procedures.
This has resulted in a decidedly schizophrenic scenario, where two parallel universes cohabit and overlap in the same landscape. Most locals are scrupulously masked and try to maintain ‘social distancing’, with the older generation still effectively quarantined. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of visitors — often self-described as ‘coronavirus refugees’ — ostentatiously behave as though the virus doesn’t exist in the first place. All the while, Covid-19 cases keep rising, and some of its victims perish — at least a handful or two every day.
Earlier this week, especially jarring examples of the competing paradigms played out in the media, when Milind Soman and Poonam Pandey shared naked photographs of themselves (in the latter case she was merely topless) juxtaposed with Goa’s landscape. It’s highly unlikely that anyone would have cared about this at any juncture in the past decades, especially in a state where a bit of public nudity on the beach has never been especially frowned upon. But the fact that they did it during the pandemic severely rankled Goans. Now both of them have been booked under the IPC obscenity codes.
To be sure, an unmistakably surreal, and often almost unbelievable dimension has pervaded throughout much of what has happened in Goa over the course of the past few months. Audrey Menezes recounted how one of her clients — a household-name comedian — “rented an exclusive villa, with the main concern being the comfort of his dogs. After we did the deal, they installed their own generator to ensure uninterrupted AC for the pets, and he and his wife then hired a private jet to Dabolim so the dogs could travel hassle-free”.
According to Menezes, wealthy newcomers have made the Goa real estate marketplace go completely awry. “It is now really difficult to find luxury properties,” she says. “With this huge influx of high networth individuals from the rest of India, we are starting to see many more enquiries at the top end of the market, [of properties worth] Rs 5 crore and more.” Many of her clients said they would “first like to check out Goa” but “now most are looking to relocate”.
Founder-president of the Goa Association of Realtors, 24-year industry veteran Denzil Xavier confirms the phenomenon. He says: “We have been receiving constant enquiries from people looking to settle in Goa, with lots of demand for independent villas and gated complexes with low density.” On the other hand, he says, “gated communities with lots of people and apartments are no longer attracting much interest, because they are less safe in the pandemic”.
Naguesh Naik, senior sales manager of Gera Developments — with a portfolio spanning commercial and residential projects — agrees things have shifted dramatically. “We used to see prospective clients shop around for prices, and buy lots of time to purchase or not,” he says. “Now they are immediate decision makers, who are very serious about what they are looking for.” No one dithers, and an unlimited supply of buyers from across India has lined up.
Even as the real estate marketplace is saturated, another separate wave of visitors is pouring in and out of Goa, with potentially devastating impact on the healthcare infrastructure. All controls have disappeared at the points of entry and departure, and also at many hotels and restaurants. Many public establishments no longer bother checking temperatures, or enforcing distancing. At the landmark tourism-strip restaurant Baba au Rhum, even the waiters and kitchen staff weren’t wearing masks. The owner tells Mirror he does advise everyone to follow procedure, but “what’s the point? We’re all going to get it”, he says.
An undeniably cavalier attitude pervades the state administration as well, which openly ignored its own mandated procedures even after several ministers — including Sawant — contracted Covid-19. This is part of a consistent pattern: They stubbornly insisted on holding elections in March until stopped by a lawsuit; declared they will surely host the International Film Festival of India as usual later this month, until the directorate of Film Festivals demurred; and just this week allowed casinos to open, contrary to global warnings about such facilities being vectors for the coronavirus.
Another example of back-and-forth occurred this week, when Sawant’s administration gave permission for the Sunburn music festival to go ahead at its north Goa venue, despite every other event of this category being cancelled or postponed everywhere else in the world. Tickets went on sale, and jubilant partygoers from around India snapped up hundreds, even as an extended battle broke out on social media — backed by the hashtag #CancelSunburnGoa 2020 — between aghast Goans and delighted ravers. After the Opposition parties rallied to the cause, the event was cancelled on Friday.
A vast majority of Goa’s citizens agree that the state economy — like everywhere else — needed to get back on track. But they are appalled by how irresponsibly the gates were thrown open, with zero enforcement of the government’s own stated precautions. A firestorm of criticism on social media as well as local newspapers has made no obvious difference. From becoming the country’s first Green Zone, the state appears doomed to remain in the red.
“It’s true that any form of business cannot be shut permanently,” says Neville Proença, the pioneering entrepreneur who created Pousada Tauma, one of the country’s first boutique hotels in Calangute, the epicentre of budget tourism in Goa. “The pandemic brought our lives and businesses to a grinding halt. We needed to open up to survive, but are fully aware of the attendant challenges. I am desperate for business, but cannot afford to risk exposing my sons and myself and our staff. As of now, it has to be safety first. Rushing into the unknown is not the need of the hour.”
In fact, apprehension dominates Goa’s complex hospitality landscape, which is facing the implications of large crowds of cooped up urbanites blowing off steam on their first holiday since lockdown. Most often, the new arrivals are adamant about letting go of strictures which dominated their city lives over the past few months. The security guard at one five-star-hotel’s entrance
complained bitterly: “None of these people wear masks, and even ask me why I am wearing one because this is Goa. I used to request them to keep some distance, but even that has stopped because they got angry.”
The high end of Goa’s tourism industry believes there isn’t any problem. Saurabh Khanna, general manager of The Park Hotel, says: “Our regulars are all very confident — we have put into place our own gold-standard hygiene, safety, sanitisation and social distancing protocols — and there are sufficient bookings to make this season worthwhile in the end.”
Nilesh Shah, president of the Travel & Tourism Association of Goa, pointed to state tourism department surveys which indicate “people are eager to come here on holiday, and it is their most preferred destination in India. The clients we have talked to have all felt very safe with the protocols followed, and with their overall experience. We are optimistic, and it’s hopefully only a matter of time before tourism is back to normal”.
But what will happen if the already overstretched health care infrastructure becomes overwhelmed, and the hospitality industry is forced back into lockdown – which has already happened in other destinations, from Spain to the UK? That realistic possibility upsets industry stakeholders, who believe the administration is taking unnecessary risks. Asked about the decision to try and hold Sunburn, one hotel owner silently pulled up and showed us one of the Opposition leader Vijai Sardesai’s scornful tweets. It compares Sawant to the notoriously-negligent Emperor Nero, and adds that “[he] doesn’t only fiddle while Rome burns, he also manages to benefit from it”.
The implied reference was to August 16, when the state police busted a private rave in the coastal village of Anjuna, where they seized Rs nine lakh worth of cocaine, MDMA and other drugs. Later that day, photographs of the host — a part-time actor named Kapil Jhaveri — posing with Sawant began circulating on WhatsApp and other social media.
Much more embarrassing — and ominous — was the fact that among the 23 arrested, was Shailesh Shetty, one of the lead organisers of Sunburn. It then came out that his organisation was specifically recruited to “partner” the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. All those connections immediately came to the forefront once again with the Sawant administration’s decision to press ahead with the EDM festival, but it took an exceptional public outcry to quash it nonetheless.
Few people realise that tourism isn’t actually Goa’s biggest industry — that has been pharmaceuticals for some years. But it is the biggest employer, and hundreds of thousands of citizens rely on it for their livelihoods. Still. even among these stakeholders there’s broad consensus that the recent years have been devastatingly destructive, instead of beneficial. The numbers of visitors soared from less than two million in 2010 to over seven million in 2019, but profits plummeted nonetheless, and the once-pristine environment became steadily overwhelmed with garbage, pollution and illegal construction.
After the pandemic pressed pause on everything everywhere, it was an unexpected opportunity to take stock, and recalibrate operating procedures. When Sawant reopened the economy, and cracked open the borders for the first time, it was with the collective understanding that things would be different. That was just one more promise that hasn’t been kept. It’s business as usual in Goa.