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This weekend, the first charter flight of the tourism season arrives
at Dabolim from Russia’s capital city of Moscow. But instead of cheer
or celebration for this official starting point of the high-demand
months that will last until next summer, there is plenty of reason for
trepidation and anxiety. Each of the past five years has seen a
dramatic rise in the number of visitors packing into India’s smallest
state, but there has been no accompanying rise in income or positive
benefits of any kind. Instead, a drastic shift downwards in the
tourist demographic now skews heavily domestic, male, and
lowest-budget. The only growth trends appear to be in crime, garbage,
destruction of the environment, and widespread social and cultural
degradation.

Like most crises that beset once-pristine Goa, successive
administrations have done nothing to ameliorate, and a lot to compound
the problems. When it comes to tourism, the political cadre
demonstrates especially dismal incompetence and mismanagement. Instead
of recognizing the obvious crisis, these so-called “leaders”
stubbornly persist on making matters worse, and pursuing the most
castastrophic policies. There are only empty promises, or – much worse
– abysmally wrong-headed policy decisions that are forced through to
cause huge damage. Thus it strikes real fear to hear chief minister
Manohar Parrikar say he’s intent on doubling “tourism footfalls in the
state from the present 60 lakh to 1.2 crore in the next five years.”
Should that disastrous goal come close to fruition, it will mean the
end of Goa once and for all.

There are innumerable errors and absurdities in Goa’s makeshift,
contradictory tourism policy, but the most fatal is blinkered emphasis
on mindlessly ramping up “tourism footfalls”, instead of responsibly
nurturing the original attributes that created the industry’s success.
Geoff Bolan of Sustainable Travel International (a USA-based NGO) puts
it succinctly, “A destination’s capacity for tourism functions much
like a concert venue’s capacity for concertgoers.” Surpass that
“carrying capacity” and you are on a slippery slope to suicide. “You
know when you see and feel overcrowding? When locals have a lot of
tension in relation to tourism?” Says Bolan, by then it is already
game over. “Let’s just be honest with it. You’re just too late.”

Much of Goa has probably already crossed that depressing tipping
point, with most of the coastline now in terminal decline. Everyone
knows it except the politicians, who will surely remain in denial even
after the final nails in the coffin. The eternal tragedy of India’s
best educated and wealthiest state continues to be the extraordinarily
poor decision-making of its political and economic elites. Meanwhile,
other parts of the country are making remarkable strides to achieve
better results. Several states require special entry permits to enter,
which controls numbers well. Sikkim has done a spectacular job of
controlling most of the adverse impact of increasing numbers of
travellers. Meanwhile, Kerala is a global star in this area, having
already won the United Nations award for sustainable tourism.

One valuable international example for Goa is Iceland, the tiny island
transformed into a global tourism magnet, partly because it provides
iconic locations to the ‘Game of Thrones’ blockbuster television
series. Very much like Goa, it has seen 25-30% growth in arrivals each
of the past five years (albeit from a far wealthier demographic). But
unlike India’s “sunshine state”, both the people and their leaders are
mostly united in believing the huge influx is not worth the attendant
environmental, social and cultural costs. Even though tourism is by
far the largest segment of the economy (again like Goa) the government
will most likely soon place non-negotiable annual caps on the amount
of travellers allowed in several environmentally sensitive areas, and
will also levy a special tourist tax that will be spent on sustainable
infrastructure and preservation efforts.

In Barcelona, the wildly popular capital of Catalonia in Spain, locals
are (once more just like Goans) regularly outnumbered by tourists, but
(unlike Goa) are doing something about it. Even the deputy mayor,
Janet Sanz says, “We understand that other people love our city. But
we're becoming a tourist theme park. People live and work here. It's
not just a fun weekend place.” So, her administration regulates the
numbers of visitors entering locations like the city market. Many
neighborhoods have formed “anti-tourism” groups to prevent disruption
of their daily lives. And earlier this year, several thousand
residents marched down the famous La Rambla to protest against the
volume of tourists, and the anti-local gentrification of their
neighborhoods. Viva Espana, for another important example that is
relevant to Goa.

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