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Surviving the Tourism Tsunami

Union commerce and industry minister Suresh Prabhu is a standout performer in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, but one part of the vision he unveiled on Goa Startup and Innovation Day last week sent chills down collective spines in India’s smallest state. He promised his administration would make Goa a national logistics hub, saying “there are four coastal states on the Western coast.

After Mumbai, the biggest airport that is going to come up is in Goa in Mopa”. About this controversial “second airport” project, which he intends to become a major cargo transition point, Prabhu drew gasps of dismay when he proudly declared it would be able to handle “30 million tourists”.
These ruinously high projections aren’t new for the current dispensation, which continues to ram through massive, highly dubious infrastructure interventions on Goa’s limited land mass, despite near-universal opposition from the existing population of the state.

Earlier this year, when his cabinet colleague Vijai Sardesai colourfully denigrated the quality of many domestic tourists, adding “they are not bothered about Goa”, chief minister Manohar Parrikar insisted the intolerable pressure felt by state residents was actually due to existing facilities that could only handle “50-60 lakh tourists”. He said “in the next two years, Goa’s tourist footfalls will cross the ten million mark”. The solution? “We will have to spread them across the state.”

The ancient, indigenous brilliance of the Jataka Tales includes a classic story which Parrikar and Prabhu and the rest of India’s planners would do well to keep in mind. It is about the father of a gravely impoverished family who is reborn as a swan with golden wings. Every so often, he revisits his brood to offers them a single feather, which they can sell to live very comfortably, with the promise to keep up this bonanza in perpetuity. But his descendants are greedy and foolish. One day they entrap the beautiful bird and pluck it clean. But now the feathers turn worthless, and all is lost. “They seized the swan — but had its gold no more”.

Such is Goa’s fate, to be rapaciously denuded of its native bounty and character, and now arriving perilously close to the point of no return.
Take even a cursory trip into what is now Tourism Goa, and it’s evident the state is nowhere near being able to handle the annual human onslaught that exists, let alone cater to exponentially more millions. A sea of garbage chokes the coastal belt, with vast mounds of plastic heaped as high as the dunes. Unchecked, egregious construction spills up the hillsides and all the way down to the water in many places.

An unconscionable lack of treatment plants means thousands of wells have become polluted, and the entire coastline is awash in raw sewage. As far back as 2011, the National Institute of Oceanography had already warned that all of the state’s beaches and rivers are heavily contaminated with faecal coliform bacteria far in excess of any national or international safety standard. All this has done real damage to Goa’s once-stellar reputation as a premium tourist destination, and its successful global brand.

Survey stakeholders at the top end of the marketplace, and every one will tell you about visitors scared away by pollution, garbage, and crowds. Parse the millions that the state tourism authorities keep boasting about, and the majority are actually ultra-budget visitors from across the state borders, who very often sleep in vehicles, cook on the roadside, and use any patch of greenery as toilet facilities. The impact of this kind of tourism on the state has been nothing short of devastating.

There is a way forward for Goa, to keep the golden bird healthy for future generations. It hinges on sustainability. Just this week, Parra-based ecotourism proponent Puja Mitra shared an article on social media about what the fabled Italian destination of Venice is doing with its own tourism tsunami. The World Heritage city will strictly limit crowds in key attractions. Numbers will be monitored and restricted using turnstiles at points of entry, and — something that could work well elsewhere — vehicles will not be allowed access when congestion is at its peak. One day, perhaps an official in Goa will speak and act as responsibly as Venice’s mayor Luigi Brugnaro, who says tourists are vital to the economy, but his first responsibility is to state residents. [TOI]


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