Mumbai: December 2018 was expected to be a major season for Goa’s famed tourism industry. Christmas and New Year revelry have traditionally clocked high tourism dollars for India’s most sought-after beach destination. But that was not to be.
Major players in Goa’s tourism industry reported a nearly 50 per cent drop in foreign visitors over the Christmas-NY period as compared to 2017. Christmas decorations were on all over Goa but cast a pall of gloom on the nation’s party capital. The number of charter flights saw a 30 per cent drop in October-November 2018.
Goa depends on international tourists to sustain its tourism industry. As per industry estimates, international travellers spend Rs. 87,000 per person on average as compared to Rs. 31,500 by a domestic visitor.
Data with Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG) shows that between October and November in 2017, 423 chartered flights landed in the Union Territory bringing in 60,000 foreign tourists. During the same period in 2018, only 283 chartered flights landed bringing in 31,600 foreign tourists — a 33 per cent drop in the number of flights and a 47 per cent fall in tourist numbers.
According to TTAG, in 2016-17, there were 988 chartered flights and 2.32 lakh foreign visitors between April and October. In 2017-18, there was a slight dip, with the arrival of 808 chartered flights carrying 2.15 lakh foreign visitors.
In 2018, tourists from Russia fell by almost 55 per cent whereas tourists from the UK reduced by 30 per cent. These are the top two source markets of foreign travellers to Goa.
Aamantaran Travel, the company that handles chartered flights to Goa from Russia and the UK, reported that till 2017, 15 to 16 fully packed aircraft, with at least 200 tourists on board, would land from Russia every week. In 2018, the number was down to five flights per week and the seat occupancy less than 70 per cent.
Goa’s tourism industry is on edge. Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTA) have dwindled year on year and hotel occupancies are far from satisfactory. On the other hand, the quality of tourists has left a lot to be desired and perils of overtourism like garbage, racketeering, drunken brawls, drugs and other illegal activities have become rampant.
As always, the travel industry stakeholders are pointing fingers at each other instead of uniting to find a solution for the State. This egotistic one-upmanship can only usher in the demise of Goa’s world-famous tourism industry.
While challenges like high Goods and Services Tax (GST) rates and cost of Indian visitor e-visa are not the State’s making, many others like filthy beaches, taxi-related issues, traffic police high-handedness, large unregulated accommodations sector, nuisance caused by begging, indiscriminate handing out of retail liquor licences, an antiquated Tourism Trade Act and a short-sighted marketing strategy by the Department of Tourism, are not.
Due to the enhanced fee on e-visa on arrival and high taxation on the hotel industry, India in general and Goa in particular have become less competitive compared to other beach destinations like Egypt, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The State Government is even mulling an idea to offer partial subsidy (like the VAT refund in EU) on visa fee for foreign tourists, provided they stay in a registered hotel.
The hotel industry in Goa is up in arms over the application of the 28 per cent GST on luxury hotels with tariffs above Rs. 7,500. The current rate, hoteliers claim, makes India one of the most taxed countries in the world for hotels, rendering the destination less attractive for foreign tourists who tend to stay in upmarket hotels, unlike domestic tourists who choose budget-friendly accommodation. Such high taxes make foreign tourists choose other locations that are at par with Goa, minus the air pollution and gender- related crimes.
The State administration’s inability to keep its beaches and key tourist sites free of garbage has added to Goa’s woes. The destination has become a garbage dump yard and the beaches are filthy. Garbage management and beach cleaning have been delayed for years due to infighting between government departments.
Goa’s image as a friendly and viable tourist destination has been tarnished by exorbitant taxi fares and over-enthusiastic policemen penalising outstation vehicles. There is widespread indiscipline among taxi operators and drivers, which is one of the main causes for driving away tourists from Goa. Taxis are so unaffordable that tourists prefer to travel by their own cars, adding to stress on the road infrastructure. Taxis in Goa are largely unregulated with no fare metre system in place and private cab drivers have often been accused of being aggressive as well as over-priced when it comes to service.
The absence of app-based taxi services like Ola and Uber have compounded the problem, even as the State tourism ministry endorsed app-based taxi service GoaMiles never really took off due to poor pricing patterns and unavailability, complain visitors.
Police harassment is one of the most noticeable issues impacting tourism adversely in Goa. It is not clear if an unrealistic target set by the traffic police department is to blame but it is so common to see cops stopping and charging fines on tourists travelling in cars with a Maharashtra or Karnataka registration plate.
According to Savio Messias, President of TTAG, the coastal State’s inability to handle the burgeoning garbage crisis has led to Japanese, Finnish and Danish tour operators pulling out of Goa, due to “safety and health concerns”.
The mushrooming of illegal guest houses is impacting the quality and quantity of tourists coming to Goa. Small, Medium Hotels and Guest House Entrepreneurs in Goa (SME) President Serafino Cotta says the biggest problem encountered by them is unregulated accommodation, which he says accounts for nearly 85 per cent of all accommodation in the State.
The illegal conversion of second homes into boutique hotels and bed & breakfast (B&B) ventures is bleeding the genuine hotel industry. These outfits get liberal licences under an outdated Tourism Trade Act, do not pay adequate taxes, establish predatory tariffs and thus deny a level playing field for medium and small hotels, eventually causing a loss of revenue to the State. The Tourism Trade Act needs to be amended immediately.
Compounding the issue is the fact that most online room aggregators offer these unregistered accommodations on their portals for throwaway prices. Online room aggregators with their aggressive pricing have driven the room prices down making it difficult for registered small and medium hotels to survive. At the same time, the low prices have promoted ‘cheap tourism’.
Goa’s liquor policy is another joke ruining its tourism industry. Industry associations have been demanding a ban on wholesalers of alcohol being given retail liquor licences, which has triggered an unhealthy trend of tourists drinking in public places leading to nuisance. People buy drinks from wholesale liquor stores, which are cheap and start drinking on the streets and litter the surroundings and beaches. Goa has for long been projected as a destination where alcohol can be purchased even in a supermarket!
The tourism trade bodies are unanimous when it comes to highlighting the ineffectiveness of the destination marketing strategy adopted by the Department of Tourism. They question the wisdom of indiscriminate road shows being held abroad in countries with little or no interest in India and failure to tap relevant markets. According to them roadshows need to be held in Scandinavian countries and places like Germany and Switzerland where people like Goa and are eager to visit the State.
Mincing no words, they say Goa Tourism roadshows have become an excuse for bureaucrats to go on overseas jaunts at the expense of the tax payer. In March this year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had sharply criticised costly tourism promotion events being organised with little or no documented return.
Ever since mining was banned in Goa by the Supreme Court in March 2018, tourism has taken centre stage as the key driver of the economy. In 2018 (January to October), the State had a total of 6 lakh foreign visitors and 48.76 lakh domestic tourists. All through 2017, the corresponding numbers were 8.9 lakh and 68.95 lakh respectively.
Six years ago, foreign tourists comprised 20 per cent of Goa’s total tourism inflow but now the figure has halved to 10 per cent. The foreign tourist is the more lucrative footfall as, according to figures by the tourism department, they stay for nine days on an average, but the domestic tourist stays for just five days. There has been a clamour due to the fall in numbers compared to previous years. But is that the real issue? Does Goa really need more tourists or quality tourists? Does it need more rooms or registered hotel rooms? So what if the number of charters fell? Everybody knows what unchecked charter tourism does to a destination.
The brouhaha over falling numbers and the excitement of focusing the conversation on footfalls is myopic and only serves the unscrupulous greed of hoteliers mushrooming all around. We have to start looking at enhancing the ‘Goa’ experience.
Goa is a small State with a fragile environment and limited carrying capacity. The world-class beaches, religious heritage and safe night life of Goa needs to command a premium so that the visit of every tourist to Goa can be a first-rate experience.
Sanjiv Gadkar, Director, Goa Tourism, while inaugurating the India Travel Mart (ITM) Goa in March said, “We have to take policy decisions in a month’s time to help get tourism back on its feet. This season is almost done; in the next season, expect changes that will make it a very good experience for all.” Whether these are hollow words or a call to some real action, time will tell.
Woken up from slumber by the cacophony of voices trumpeting Goa’s lost race for tourist footfalls, the government has announced some knee-jerk reactions which will put any fool to shame. For example, hit by a decline in the number of tourists, Goa’s Minister for Tourism Manohar Azgaonkar is considering a regulation on food prices in restaurants and beach shacks and also keeping a check on online booking sites that artificially escalate hotel and lodging room rates!
The Tourism Minister’s statement that he will explore bringing in legislation to regulate hotel room tariff and the price of food served in restaurants has angered the trade. TTAG has in a strongly-worded statement called the Minister ill-informed and lacking any understanding of the tourism industry. “This will kill the tourism industry in Goa and the means of livelihood of thousands who depend on it,” the statement read.
Tourism is not an essential service to be price regulated. According to trade body members, selling price is decided by the cost of inputs which vary from establishment to establishment. The fall in tourism numbers to Goa is not because of high hotel room tariff or restaurant menu prices but a host of other issues including government apathy.
The Minister acknowledged this much when he met industry stakeholders recently. He has promised to get them on board while addressing the issues and making key decisions. Travel and hospitality stakeholders are now expected to submit a comprehensive report on the issues in a month’s time.
Goa’s tourism policy has been in the making for ages. The draft Tourism Policy and Tourism Master Plan unveiled in late 2018 has come in for severe criticism.
Experts and activists have pointed out several flaws in the draft policy and called it a “top-down master plan” prepared by a foreign consultant (KPMG) without any discussion with the people or the trade. The draft has also been lambasted for hiding critical information from the public especially income generated by the sector. An RTI plea revealed that Goa generates Rs. 29,400 crore by way of tourism, about 40 per cent of the State’s GDP.
In addition to setting up marinas and golf courses, the draft Goa Tourism Policy has also suggested redeveloping the assets of State-run Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) through the private sector and disengaging it from commercial activities.
The draft document also speaks of forming an “autonomous” Goa Tourism Board (GTB), to be headed by the Minister for Tourism, which will take up the responsibilities that have been handled by bodies like GTDC and the State Level Marketing and Promotion Committee (SLMPC). Many experts called the draft a “Trojan Horse” for the GTB questioning its autonomy and professionalism if headed by the Minister for Tourism, a politician.
GTB needs professionals with qualification in destination marketing to make any meaningful contribution. If headed by the same breed of politicians and bureaucrats, it becomes old wine in new bottle but with a fancy wrapper.
That neither India Tourism or States doing exceptionally well like Kerala or Rajasthan have a Tourism Board, is besides the point.
To attract a more diverse population of tourists, the tourism department has been of late focussing on Goa’s religious history, night life, celebrations and adventure sports. Goa is also being promoted as a MICE, wedding & honeymoon and spa destination.
The inability to draw a diverse set of visitors can be explained by a KPMG report which notes that the “historical promotion of ‘sun, beach and sand’ alone has led to non-discovery of other tourism assets”; the other reason being the easy access to cheap alcohol on the beach and elsewhere.
“Can the domestic tourist be blamed when the Tourism Minister of Goa has been quoted as saying that alcohol is part of the Goan culture? Is it, therefore, any wonder that tourists bypass these other facets of Goa and lock on to the celebrations and cheap alcohol part of Goenkarponn (Goanness)?” asks Samir Nazareth, columnist and author of the travelogue 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People.
Less than two decades after Goa shot to the limelight as a global beach destination, everything is in shambles, aggravated by poor destination management and marketing, greed for a quick buck by operators and total disregard for rule of law.
In January 2019, Deputy Speaker Michael Lobo came down strongly on the quality of tourists Goa attracts. On New Year’s morning, the beaches from Baga to Candolim were strewn with beer and liquor bottles, many broken. “What kind of tourism is this?” he thundered. “Because of this we are not getting quality tourists. If we do not address this now, Goa will die soon.”
For years, tourism in Goa has been deteriorating dangerously in the absence of governance, limits or enforcement. Much of the industry operates with impunity emboldening operators to push the limits of decency. So fields become parking lots, roadsides become kitchens and toilets, garbage gets thrown everywhere and illegal activities of all kinds flourish openly in an atmosphere of lawlessness.
Recently the Goa Assembly passed a law banning open drinking and cooking on the beaches. Better late than never, as they say.
The stubborn denial about the crisis is not helping anyone involved though it is not too late. With political will and stakeholder solidarity, recovery is possible. If the administration simply implemented the existing rules and regulations, the situation would dramatically improve. A new Tourism Policy envisioning 20 years hence is long overdue.
Goa’s tourism industry on the edge
- Tourism industry reports a nearly 50 per cent drop in foreign visitors over the Christmas-NY period as compared to 2017
- The number of charter flights saw a 30 per cent drop in October – November 2018
- In 2018, tourists from Russia fell by almost 55 per cent whereas tourists from the UK reduced by 30 per cent, the top two source markets of foreign travellers to Goa.
- Six years ago, foreign tourists comprised 20 per cent of Goa’s total tourism inflow but now the figure has halved to 10 per cent.
(Goa Tourism declined to participate in this story through their agency Adfactors PR)