A tropical paradise of tree-lined golden beaches, seaside restaurants, lush greenery and serenity. This is the happy, smiling face of Goa, the image that attracts people to visit from across the world, and the one the authorities like to display. But there are two other faces as well. There is the highly commercialised Goa, struggling along with its creaking infrastructure and then there is the Goa of sexual assault, murder and corruption, the face that has recently been on display to the international community (a British girl was murdered there in early '08).
I tend to stay in Anjuna whenever I visit Goa. What attracts me are the serene back lanes and beach, where the bending coconut trees tower as giants along the shoreline, rustling in the sea breeze. During the evening, the low-hanging cotton wool clouds drift eerily above the specks of light from the fishing boats glistening on the horizon – all seems well with the world.
This is the typical Goan scene portrayed in travel documentaries, holiday brochures and guidebooks. While most tourism to Goa comprises Indian citizens (2.4 million annually), a substantial number of visitors are from abroad (380,000). Foreign travelers consist of older package tourists who come on one or two week deals, and backpackers, who tend to be younger and may stay for months on end in places like Anjuna and Palolem.
Over the past few years, the Russians have come to mingle with Brits, Europeans, Australians and North Americans. Of course, there is also the substantial Israeli backpacker community, which these days tends to congregate in Arambol in north Goa. There is an ex-pat element as well; they live in either Goa or spend a good deal of time there.
Calangute is the centre of Goa’s international package tourist trade. Given its position, it should be the jewel in the crown of Goan tourism – spotless, tree-lined boulevards with spacious pavements. Not at all. It is ever sprawling and messy. Calangute now merges with Baga and is becoming over developed, appears to lack any coherent planning strategy. If there is any plan, then it doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact, at least as far as aesthetics is concerned.
The place is commercialism overlaid with more commercialism – each trinket and jewellery shop, each restaurant and each shopping or hotel complex always leaving me craving to escape. All of this development has a huge ecological impact of course, not least on water scarcity, of which the local people bear the brunt.
The hippies arrived on Calangute beach in the early 70s, much to the dismay and even moral outrage of some of the local people. At that time, little existed beyond fisher families and villages. It really was the idyllic beach paradise. Then, in the 80s, came cheap flights from the UK to entice the British package tourist who sought sun, beaches and low costs. The prices in the various concrete high rise tourist "costa del hell holes" in Spain increased. Over the last decade, Goa has become the new Spain for many Brits.
So many Brits now travel half the world to arrive in Calangute, where they expect (and get) fish and chips, English bars and a fully blown Irish pub, with varnished floor and brass hand-pumps, which could have been transported from any number of UK high streets. It’s not an imitation — it’s the real deal.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Calangute itself; nothing much Goan about it. Calangute is the congested tourist ghetto par excellence.
There is certainly a lot more to Goa than Calangute. The more upmarket Candolim is an easier place to negotiate. Goa has some quiet beaches, great historical sites in old Goa and beautiful scenery, ranging from lush paddy fields and coconut tree plantations to the rain forests leading up to Castle Rock in the Western Ghats.
The backpackers are more gemmed up on where to go in Goa to get away from it all. Benaulim, Anjuna, Arambol and Palolem have been attracting independent travellers for years. However, due to the increasing exposure afforded these places by the guidebooks, they too have become quite commercialised. Many are now abandoning Goa to stay in more tranquil locations beyond, such as Gokarna in Karnataka.
Some foreign visitors who come to Goa may be disappointed with the commercialism, bad planning, power cuts, poor roads and the general lack of an international standard tourist infrastructure. Also, recent concerns over personal safety will do very little for Goa’s image.
Fiona McKeown, Scarlett Keeling’s (murdered in Goa in early 2008) mother, and her lawyer, Vikram Varma, have been drawing attention to the many murders and sexual assaults, which have supposedly been covered up and swept under the carpet as "accidental death" or drowning. Along with pedophilia, a long standing problem in the state for some time, this is the seedy aspect of Goa, the side foreigners won’t read about in the glossy brochures or guidebooks.
Goa’s underbelly is dirty, corrupt and well thought out: from land deals in Himachal Pradesh for growing charas, to the chain of supply via Mumbai and beyond; from international mafia connections, to the control of rave parties; and from who pays off whom, to who sells which illegal substances and where.
The average tourist to Goa is largely oblivious to most of this. Members of the backpacking community are aware that drugs can be bought with ease (much of the drug selling is aimed at them and the parties they attend). They know to be weary of the police for instance, but by and large, foreigners come to Goa to have a good time and leave with fond memories.
Who can say what effect the Keeling case will have on Goa’s image in the longer term. In the short term, kiss goodbye to the picture postcard image of Goa as, in the international media at least, the place is currently synonymous with sleaze and murder. Will this affect foreign tourism? Only time will tell. Does Goa have the will to clean up its act? Who knows. Only officialdom can provide the answer to that.
Read more on the author's blog.