Goan, Goan, gone? Indian state losing laid back image
Goa has long attracted Western holidaymakers for its relaxed vibe, but rapid construction, swelling crowds and fears over safety are threatening the Indian state's global reputation as a tranquil haven.
The former Portuguese colony is transforming from a quiet paradise popular with international hippies to a heavily-developed entertainment destination for higher-income foreign and domestic visitors who want five-star luxury, tourism officials say.
"The laid back tourist might go to other destinations because Goa is changing but now there are lots of other segments coming such as MICE tourism (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions)," Savio Messias, president of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa, told AFP.
"Goa is also getting to be a very big wedding destination and a lot people are now coming for entertainment," he added.
Billboards advertising luxury developments dot Goa's lush landscape, with Messias saying many new hotels, including big chains, are opening up every year.
Government statistics show Indian visitors soared by 34 percent to 4.7 million last year from 2014 while foreigners increased by just 5 percent as the number of charter flights plummeted.
The sluggish global economy and a slump in the value of the Russian ruble are regularly cited as factors but local businesses fear Westerners are being turned off by Goa's rapidly altering landscape.
"Day by day the number of foreigners coming is getting less because they hear it is too crowded here now. They want peace and quiet.
"Over the past two to three years business has been very low," Mohammed Sultan, a jewellery shop owner at Baga beach, told AFP.
- Sexual assaults -
An imminent ban on alcohol consumption in some public areas, plans to shift the popular Sunburn music festival out of peak season and ministers' comments that beach parties are illegal and bikinis should be banned are also contributing to fears the Goan party could be over.
"I think it affects Westerners' thinking. They want to be free to enjoy their holiday," said Sultan.
At nearby Anjuna beach, where British schoolgirl Scarlett Keeling died in 2008, sari-clad women who ply its sands selling trinkets to visitors worry that India's reputation as a destination that is dangerous for women is having an impact.
"I think the news stories about Scarlett have made people not come. Maybe they are worried," 39-year-old Monica Tipi told AFP before eyeing a sale from an Indian couple.
The acquittal last month of two local men accused of drugging, sexually assaulting and then leaving 15-year-old Keeling to drown in shallow water was the culmination of a case that had highlighted Goa's seedier side.
Several high-profile sexual assaults against women across India, including the fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi in 2012, has shone a global spotlight on frightening levels of violence against women in the country.
"The news stories haven't put us off. We feel safe but we wouldn't travel on our own. We always stick together," 26-year-old Australian Chloe Cato, who's travelling round India with a friend, told AFP at Anjuna.
- Joyrides -
Britain's government warns in its travel advice for India that British women have been sexually assaulted in Goa and says a number of its nationals die in the state every year due to drug or alcohol abuse.
Goa-based lawyer Vikram Varma, who acted for Keeling's mother and who also represents the Russian consulate, says police have failed to investigate the deaths of several foreigners over the last decade or so.
"Crime does happen everywhere, but when the criminal justice system itself prefers to blame the victim and protect the criminals, a large number of family tourists prefer to holiday in safer environments," he told AFP.
The number of Russian tourists visiting Goa plummeted from 120,000 in 2013 to just 40,000 in 2014 but is predicted to bounce back to around 100,000 this season due to Moscow declaring Egypt and Turkey unsafe for its citizens, according to Varma.
They may choose to visit the casinos that line the river running through the state capital Panaji or take a ride on a new amphibious tourist boat. Helicopter rides and trips on seaplanes are also being launched.
"The kind of tourists coming to Goa has been changing... We are targeting the more high-end tourist," said Messias, adding that the state's character will evolve as a result.
"Some sections of the industry are very happy about this change but some are not."