It is the holiday season, and the travel bug seems to have bitten a sizeable majority. Despite the government issuing serious warnings of the mass spread of the Omicron mutation, people are wearing their travel shoes and marching in full vigour to destinations across the country. With the North of India caught in a worst cold wave of the season, all focus is now on Goa, India’s numero uno travel destination.
Global travellers Snigdha and Vihaan Kulkarni have set their eyes on spending the holiday season in Goa. Following the cancellation of international flights to the UK, they decide to travel to Goa. Despite finding it difficult to get reservations in the high-end hotels of their choice, the Kulkarnis have rented out a villa for their stay in Goa. “We have made a hundred plus calls seeking reservations to various hotels. Finally, we found a villa on rent through Airbnb. It is different from something we wanted, but then we have to be in Goa,” said Vihaan. They will live-stream their vacation for their friends and family.
Instagram is full of holiday pictures and the sun-kissed beaches of Goa have found their way into many of them through revellers rushing to the state. It is as if everyone wants to be on these beaches to recharge their energy and disconnect from a long and fearful year that has stressed people beyond words. Hotels, villas, flats in housing complexes, homestays, service apartments, guest houses and even dormitories are registering good footfalls this year, say numerous people living in Goa.
This year as a recovery measure from the economic slump brought about by the Covid-19 lockdown, the Goa government is wasting no efforts to woo travellers to the state. Not that people need to be cajoled to visit Goa. In addition to all the other things that is synonymous with Goa, this holiday season on offer is adventure sports. The Tourism Department of the Goa government has entered into joint ventures with some sporting companies to bring in “extreme adventure” to lure in more tourists. Bungee jumping into the Mayem Lake in north Goa, hot air balloons to get an aerial glimpse of the state, scuba diving to the depths of the blue ocean and e-bike tours of the city will be on the travel itinerary offered by the state government.
As the holidays approach merriment is at its peak. While the churches in Goa are decked up in Christmas finery, the houses are decorated with attractive lights, Christmas trees and beautiful mangers depicting the night of the birth of Jesus. Sources say that a majority of the tourists who visit the churches do not belong to the Christian faith, they come there to see the inside of the church. “Goa allows them that freedom. They can be of any faith and yet visit the church. For Goans the most important thing is showcasing the beauty of our state,” said Michelle Sequeira, a tour guide. “We give them a glimpse of the midnight mass on Christmas, they go back with different memories,” she said.
Many tourists “eat” their way through the state. Though chicken and meat delicacies are a hit, the most sought-after food is the huge variety of fish catering to every palate. Exclusive vegan cafes have sprung up to cater to this population. The Portuguese influence on Goan food is undeniable. Treats such as Bebinca – a multi-layer cake made from eggs, flour, clarified butter and coconut milk – and Dodal – a sweet that tastes like a toffee – are popularized by the word of mouth. “Goa does not need advertisements, it is a place everyone wants to visit,” said Sequeira. For designer Deepti Tondulkar and her architect husband Samar Nair, the heady aromas of plum and fruit cakes are synonymous with Christmas and New Year. “The kinds of sweets available in Goa is amazing. It is like a huge candy store,” said these Mumbai residents who ring in the New Year every year in Goa.
Imagine sitting at the beach at night, sipping on feni (the traditional home-grown Goan liquor) listening to the waves lapping at the shore. Many tourists sit around with lit-up candles akin to a midnight candlelight vigil. There are places where you can watch the sunset sipping on sundowners or hot chocolate. Nature trips during the day and night, night tours of a lit up Goa, private poolside dinners and trips to explore far-flung villages, heritage homes, famed cartoonist Mario Miranda’s village are the numerous items on the to-do list.
The close of 2021 seems to be a period for road trips. With flights being overbooked and beyond many household budgets, road trips have taken off like never before. “When we decided on Goa, we thought road trip,” said Snigdha. “It is a beautiful drive from Mumbai and the children will enjoy the flexibility of road travel. What if a flight gets cancelled, then one is stuck without a holiday,” she said.
Sources in the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa, say that the tourist numbers are higher this year than that in 2020 Even the high room tariffs have not deterred the tourists this year. The palm-thatched beach shacks with their free flow of alcohol and fish delicacies are the biggest draw of Goa’s tourism. Though the number of foreign tourists has seen a drastic fall since 2019, when Covid-19 first made headlines across the world. However, the rush of domestic tourists to Goa has taken the sting out of the falling tourist numbers from foreign shores.
Sources point out that there is a strong disagreement between Goa’s chief minister Dr Pramod Sawant and his Health minister Viswajeet Rane on the unbridled tourism in the state. While Sawant wants to have no extra restrictions other the standard operating Covid-19 protocols, Rane is all for curbs and restrictions on tourism. Since tourism is the backbone of the state’s economy, 2019 and 2020 have been terrible years for Goa’s tourism, say many. According to the estimates of the Tourism Department, this industry contributes 16.43 per cent of the state’s GDP and provides employment to about 35 per cent of the state’s population.
The slump in the tourism sector has led to job losses and loss of income. “So many of us have been reduced to penury and a hand to mouth existence,” said Tony Menezes, the owner of a beach shack. “We are all looking forward to this year. So far, the tourism numbers look good. But the domestic tourist is not as paying as a foreign tourist. All we want is tourists to come in large numbers,” said Menezes. A bulk of the foreign tourists generally arrive in Goa by the second week of December. However, this year with new restrictions for the Omicron mutation in place and the cancellation of flights from the UK, it is unlikely that foreign tourists will visit Goa this year too. Besides, there is no clarity on the status of flights from Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. A majority of the foreign tourists visiting Goa are from these countries, said Sequeira.
Though a majority of the Goans are fully vaccinated, there is fear that they could contract Omicron or any of the other mutations of the virus. But, the hunger in their bellies is powering their drive to ensure that tourists come back to the state. Many say that if they get infected, they will go to the hospital but cannot afford to let go of tourists who come their way.
While hotels are offering theme parties, the beach shack is playing on its rustic ambience to get the footfalls. Many feel that their properties should offer a memorable experience. With people trying to adjust to the new normal and learning to live with the virus, the travel experiences have become an important part of this year-ender.