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Goa economy bears the brunt of India’s coronavirus lockdown

, January 4, 2021, 0 Comments

Goa, a western coastal state and major tourist destination, is welcoming visitors after months under a COVID-19 lockdown. But the comeback has been slow, and often painful.

coronavirus-india-goa-tourism-marketexpress-in The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the tourism-dependent economy of Goa, a western coastal state that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors during the cooler months of the year, especially during the holiday season.

According to a report published by the state’s Tourism Ministry in December, Goa’s tourism industry may have suffered losses between $273 million (€222 million) and $985 million (€801 million) on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state also recorded job losses in the range of 35%-58%.

A typical “peak” season in Goa — December and January — sees throngs of visitors flocking to their favorite beaches for some time in the sun, as northern parts of the country battle dipping temperatures. Seaside shacks and popular restaurants run at full capacity with reservations being made days in advance.

International visitors, mostly from Russia, Israel, the UK and Italy, come for the holidays and often decide to stay on for months.

This year, however, the difference was striking.

December rolled in without the usual flow of crowds. From the beaches in the north, like Morjim or Ashwem, till Palolem and Patnem in the south, the seaside bore a deserted look. Shacks looked desolate, and local businesses struggled to make ends meet.

While uninhabited stretches of white sand may seem like a tourist’s ideal vacation, it came at a very high cost for locals.

Loss of livelihood

For nearly 18 years, Shanti (name changed upon request) has moved to Goa from the neighboring state of Karnataka every October. She rents a small room till March, when crowds of visitors start thinning. During this period, she makes accessories to sell at the beach, earning more than what she does as a farmer back in her village.

“We were under lockdown for nearly eight months, which meant no income,” the 25-year-old told DW. Married for seven years, she has three children to feed.

Once restrictions were lifted, the family came to Goa with the hope that they would be able to earn enough to feed themselves as tourists return. But this year has been the worst in terms of footfall.

Her husband tries to find odd jobs at nearby shacks but there is no assurance that he will bring back any money. “Standing in the sun all day isn’t easy, but what’s the alternative? This is the only way we can stay alive.”

“As the season ends, so do our means of livelihood,” she added.

Hardest hit

Under regular circumstances, it is nearly impossible to find accommodation in the more popular areas of Goa, especially toward the end of December. This year was different.

Though a large number of domestic visitors traveled to the state at the turn of the year, the high-paying international tourists were missing — an absence that hit the hospitality industry very hard.

Many domestic travelers do not have the same spending capacity as a tourist from a country with a better rate of currency exchange against the rupee, a hotel owner said, requesting anonymity. This makes international tourists the ideal guests, he added.

With the Indian government suspending scheduled commercial international air travel, many businesses were left in the lurch.

Hotels had to reduce rates between December 25 and January 1, as rooms were going empty. Typically, these are considered the most profitable nights of the year.

The real victims of the slowdown were temporary staff members, who were let go as businesses struggled to make ends meet.

A glimmer of hope

Rishab Malhotra moved to Goa in 2012. For eight years, his name has been synonymous with Thalassa, a Greek restaurant that doubles up as the most popular sunset venue in the state.

“The hospitality industry in Goa is seasonal,” the 30-year-old told DW. “We usually shut down during the rains and reopen in October. So, after the initial shock of the lockdown, all of us assumed that things will pick up in the cooler months.”

“Initially, the severity of the virus wasn’t particularly harsh, but the fear was overwhelming,” he said. Amid all the uncertainty, the business took a huge hit.

The restaurant reopened on September 24, but the early days saw just about 10-20% of the usual footfall. Things got better towards the end of October, after the popular Indian festivals of Diwali and Dusshera.

Now, the restaurant is doing the best it can under the circumstances. While tables have been spaced out to reduce capacity by nearly 40%, one can’t just walk in and expect to be seated. Making a reservation is highly recommended.

Thalassa is one of those rare establishments that have emerged with its head above water. Things aren’t the same at a lot of other places. Many have canceled their new year events, which are otherwise the highlight of the season.

New image for the state

“Before the virus hit, most of our staff members were from outside Goa. They used to go back to their home states at the end of each season,” Malhotra said. But the pandemic has forced many businesses to hire more locals.

“There’s this misconception that Goans don’t work as hard,” he said. It is attributed to the state’s “susegado” lifestyle, which roughly translates to more easygoing. “But our staff have proved everyone wrong. They form the backbone of our operations.”

On a more optimistic note, the lockdown helped locals reacquaint themselves with the reason they fell in love with Goa in the first place. Instead of restricting the state to the title of “India’s favorite party destination”, the lockdown was associated with a period of healing.

“Last year, I wanted to move out of the state. But the virus showed me the side of Goa that I fell in love with in the first place,” Malhotra noted. “I got to travel a lot more, exercise on the beach, go on hikes and get in touch with the true essence of Goa.”