11 June 2022

Goa Is A Tourist Hotspot But At What Cost? Notes From A Hotelier's Diary

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Goa Is A Tourist Hotspot But At What Cost? Notes From A Hotelier's Diary

Largescale development and concretisation has led to the indispensable asset being over-exploited and has left the low-lying coastal areas at significant risk due to climate change.

Jack Ajit Sukhija writes the material betterment of lives in Goa has come at a cost
Jack Ajit Sukhija writes the material betterment of lives in Goa has come at a cost

In After Blenheim, an 18th century anti-war poem by Robert Southey, an embittered, old man attempts to describe a famous war victory to an impressionable young boy. The poem in itself is a dialogue between age and inexperience, glory and loss and a battle about two opposing perceptions of war itself.

It ends with the old man asking a question of young Peter and the latter’s response.

"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
"But 'twas a famous victory."

I had read these lines in school, but I know them now. Far away from the rugged land borders towards India’s north, I ask the same question sitting here in Goa, when I look back on the last two decades.

Yes, Goa is a much more popular holiday destination. Yes, there are fancier cars on our roads. Yes, we drink better whiskey. Yes, we have a far more diverse cuisine at our service.

But just like war, the material betterment of our lives, has come at a cost.

It is the land that made Goa rich. Dig it and there are iron ore deposits that have sustained Goa’s mining industry for decades. Later, the tourism industry also fed off the same land and the sea, which has charmed millions of tourists who travel to the state.

However, largescale development and concretisation has led to the indispensable asset being over-exploited and has left the low-lying coastal areas at significant risk due to climate change.

In 2002, I was a freshly minted MBA from the Goa Institute of Management and had plunged headlong into my family business as a partner in Tan Estates which owns and manages three heritage buildings as hotels and inns in Fontainhas, namely Panjim Inn, Pousada, and Peoples. We tied up with the WelcomHeritage hotels group in 2010.

The Panjim Inn, located in the state capital’s picturesque Fontainhas, was our family’s first hospitality venture. The origins of the house where Panjim Inn is now located go back to 1880s. It belonged to Dona Tsushima, my grandmother. 

My father Ajijt Sukhija, an engineer, was ahead of his times. Despite the social stigma attached to the profession of an inn-keeper in the 1980s, he converted the house into a heritage hotel.

Around the time I joined the family business, Goa was in the throes of political change. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to power with late Manohar Parrikar – also the Panaji MLA – at the helm. The early 2000s had also witnessed the rise of his sometime bete noir, sometime ally, sometimes cabinet colleague Atanasio Monserrate, who was elected as the MLA of the Taleigao assembly constituency adjoining Panaji.

Parrikar and Monserrate were chalk and cheese. The former was the country’s first Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay alumnus to be the chief minister, while Monserrate had a string of criminal cases against him.

While Parrikar added intellectual heft and a cutting edge to Goa’s politics as a legislator, Monserrate was the harbinger of a new political trend. The trend that made him as indispensable to Goa’s politics as Parrikar himself. While Parrikar’s politics was about the macro, Monserrate’s political ethos were rooted in the micro. 

While he continued to be charged with allegations of corruption, fraud, and controversial land conversion, Monserrate also came to be known as a ‘kamacho munis’, a man who would get his constituents’ works done, irrespective of legalities or illegalities involved, a la Robin of the Taleigao-hood.

A wedding in a constituent’s house and Monserrate would come by with much more than just blessings, school fees to be paid and the legislator would do that without batting an eye-lid.

Monserrate was the Town and Country Planning Minister when he was dropped from the cabinet after he proposed large-scale changes in Goa’s land-use resources, which could have really, really hastened Goa’s ‘development’ into a mess of steel and concrete. It was land which had funded Monserrate’s rise in politics and he had tried to return this favour with slabs of concrete.

Of course, Monserrate’s exit from the cabinet at the time had only ended up stalling Goa’s hasty concretisation for a brief period.

Cut back to the 1980s, Fontainhas, where our heritage hotel is located, was seen as a part of Panaji which had passed its sell-by date. The area is referred to as the Latin quarter, because it is styled after the narrow winding lanes of old European cities. But the houses there were crumbling, the roads were narrow and the Latin quarter was like an old coin, no longer in currency, found in the dusty corner of a rarely used drawer.

Panaji then was not a city but a town that had refused to grow. It was mostly an urban space where the administrative machinery of the state functioned from. The Secretariat still functioned from the summer palace of the Adil Shah of Bijapur, the Mandovi river was cleaner and the roads did not reek of urine.

Unlike now, when hotels have popped up at an unprecedented rate, financing a heritage hotel project was also a major challenge in the 80s, with nationalised banks making you run pillar-to-post for funding. Finally, it was a co-operative bank that granted a loan for the restoration with our family home as collateral. My father is still rankled by the five hours that his mother had spent in wait in a queue under the sun on a hot tropical day to get the property registered at the sub-registrar’s office.

But my father had just quit his corporate job. He had time on hand and kept unceasingly plugging on with the project. He spent his time sourcing the best period furniture, which was not in vogue or commercially valued, but was still difficult to source. He has kept at it for decades now, putting all the pieces of the heritage jigsaw together to assemble the hotel, which decades later is now, dare I say, part of Panaji heritage.

As my father tinkered with building, the heritage hotel of its dreams, tourism started blossoming in Panaji in the 1990s. Politically, Panaji elected an IIT alumnus in Manohar Parrikar as a legislator in 1994. This was the first time that the BJP had made its presence felt in state politics. By the late 1990s, the first of the casinos made their presence in Panaji, leading to a steady trickle of tourists spilling into the city. And the forgotten quarter of Fontainhas came under popular spotlight.

My father’s perseverance paid off in the mid-2000s when the Lonely Planet described the Panjim Inn as one of the very reasons why the Fontainhas is a highlight of Goa. Along with Panjim Inn, Fontainhas has also landed on the list of places to go in Goa. The tourist footprint has widened tremendously, so much so that residents of the area have put up signs urging people not to use their homes as exotic backdrops for their incessant Instagram stories. The narrow lanes of Fontainhas are also choc-a-bloc with restaurants, cafes, bars, film shoots on the streets and social media influencers haunting you at every turn.

It is against this backdrop that I go back to Southey’s poem. War and ‘development’, as we have come to know of in Goa, both ravage the landscape and its people. The former is obvious, while the latter isn’t until it is too late.

Running a heritage home like Panjim Inn is always a work in progress. Twenty per cent of our earnings are pumped back into repairs and maintenance, with the shadow of remodelling the core structure always looming in the background.

Sometimes, I feel that Panaji too needs an overhaul, not just a makeover. It needs to reclaim the fields, khazan lands, mangroves and salt pans, which once girdled its outskirts. The city needs an overhaul from the chaos which it has come to resemble. Or perhaps Panaji just needs to plonk herself in a planter’s chair for a spell, and watch time and the Mandovi flow by.

(Jack Ajit Sukhija is a hotelier and tourism entrepreneur based in Goa.)