Tourism and the consumption of Goa

Claude Alvares has seen all the major tourism changes that Goa in India has gone through over the past 40 years and believes each has been worse than its predecessor, each taking Goa further away from itself.

I CAME to Goa in 1977, after having lived half of my then life in the industrialised city of Mumbai. At that time Goa - 600 km below Mumbai on the west coast of India - was not a place that could be located on any tourist map and neither did it provide any reason for generating the fantasies and excitement it has now come to engender in people who develop a yen to visit. 

The first thing that struck me about Goa at that time was that it appeared to be actually a work of art, a painting. When you look at a good painting, you can tell from it something of the quality of the painter. When you visit art exhibitions, you may in fact rarely encounter the painter herself. But you can deduce from the artwork itself whether the painter is technically good, whether she is obsessed with animals or nature, whether she is a depressive or a joyous personality, and so on. From the painting you try and figure out what was it in the mind or soul of that person that could produce this painting that communicated to you joy or pleasure or even anxiety.

One thing that has happened over the last 25 years is the arrival of these thousands of people who have descended on Goa (the bulk of them Indians), simply because they all wanted to see this painting called Goa - a unique and remarkable place that doesn't exist anywhere else on the earth. And this extraordinary area of enchantment did not encompass just the plants, the mountains, the streams, the endless beaches and so on. It included the people, those responsible for the painting: those who had carved out the paddy fields, raised the lovely homes, maintained the orchards and coconut palms. The people are a fundamental part of this place. You can't separate Goan ecology from Goans. They are the ones who are responsible for creating, nurturing and protecting it. If you want to try and figure out how indeed they created this work of art, it takes a great deal of effort and a great deal of study, a quality or dispensation that tourists distinctly lack. Therefore, most do not care.

Paintings are displayed for people to see or enjoy, but nobody knows of anyone who has enjoyed a painting by wrecking it through their collective actions. But after the tourism excesses of some three decades, some parts of Goa already look ravaged, torn, tattered and dismantled. If those areas are shown in the fancy tourism brochures, few tourists will come calling. An area that looked after a modest population of less than one million inhabitants is now being called upon to service seven million. No wonder the ugliness is showing, even if you do not wish to look. Some parts of Goa now compete with the slums of Mumbai or, worse, its concrete jungles. The garbage, the litter, appears to have been spread by a cyclone: it is everywhere. Untreated sewage has contaminated the groundwater. The Campal Creek in the capital city of Panaji reeks of untreated sewage. The Sal River is equally black with sewage.

Goan culture is a fish-curry-and-rice phenomenon. Fish, curry and rice are the principal elements of the staple diet. They also manifest the overt face of the ecosystem: the coconut tree for the curries; the paddy fields for the rice; and the fish harvested from the adjoining ocean. We see these elements now being progressively stressed and dismantled. The fish is now severely priced because of obvious scarcity in sharing the same commodity between seven million in place of one. So those who have the ability to pay get the best fish laid out on the table. The ecological assets hitherto used for living in perpetuity - the paddy fields, the coconut groves - have been replaced by concrete structures that will not be able to sustain themselves over a single generation but for the moment are happy breeding grounds for speculators. The real estate developers - who always follow closely on the heels of the tourism developers - offer those who are enchanted with Goa a permanent piece of the Goan cake even though they  know  that  every  piece  of  concrete  means  that  much  less  vegetation. Thus large areas in small Goan coastal villages, once picture-perfect settings, have been rapidly colonised by hordes of resorts or mega-housing projects.

Over the years, control of the tourism trade itself has passed over from local people and communities - responsible for creating the naturally splendid-looking environment - to those who come routinely to invade, conquer and occupy for business or profit. The Goa Marriott and the Grand Hyatt now jockey for tourists side by side with the hotels of the Taj Group, owned and managed by the Tata clan. Like Palestine, Goa has begun to look like 'occupied territory'. The starkest demonstration of this status is the recent attempt to enforce the installation of a golf course which proposes to claim the lands of an entire village, leaving the original Goan inhabitants place only for their homes and their graveyard. 

Occupiers take, they rarely give or contribute. I have seen over the past 40 years not a single initiative from the new conquistadores to ensure that nature is not phenomenally damaged or polluted from their activity. Though the natural and cultivated beauty of Goa was the source for the almost tropic dash to its shores, once here, those who come to occupy are unable to resist replacing what they find with their own fantasies - which have nothing of what the original dwellers created, keeping the ends of ecology in view. The ultimate thrust of destination tourism is to make the destination a replica of home, with mindless coca-colonisation by the same flamboyant chains selling the same merchandise you see whichever part of the world you go. Industrial culture recognises only itself. It brooks no competitors.

So Goa disappears, bit by big bit. Goan fish curry and rice are now found on menus from Penang to San Francisco, because everyone has been to Goa. However, restaurants in Goa now offer a menu that is bewilderingly unGoan. Menus cater to what people want, not what the local people can offer or eat.

And with those vital changes, there has been a deluge of offers to satiate other desires: sex, child sex and liberal quantities of alcohol. The fantasy that Goa represents is a complete freedom from inhibition. Almost overnight, a dozen gambling ships or casinos have crept into the capital's major river. They invite gamblers from across India, but ruin equally effectively the permanent assets and savings of small traders and merchants, wrecking their families as well. Everything is money even if everything leads to destitution.

Nobody who knows Goa from the past 40 years would not weep at seeing what it was once and what it is today. It was never like this.

The outward image of this smallest of states in the Indian Union is mostly taken from the coastal beaches which attracted the original Portuguese adventurers led by Afonso de Albuquerque as early as 1510. Remnants of old forts still dot the landscape after that first discovery.

But the second discovery of Goa was left to the hippy generation of the late 1960s. The flower children were part of a younger era that was disillusioned with lifestyles - including military duty in Vietnam - in the West. They would often be found living simple, almost naturalistic lives, with low carbon footprints, often outside the pale of the Goan village. From that time till the present in fact, foreigners are still sometimes referred to as 'hippies' even if the hordes of foreign tourists today have nothing in common with the benign flower children of yesteryear.

So Goa has had an easy relationship with foreigners. The flower children found the local population not just tolerant but hospitable. (Can we forget that the Taino and the Arawak were hospitable to Christopher Columbus who therefore easily enslaved them?) The important aspect of 'hippy tourism' is that the local Goan economy received some stimulus directly from their arrival, since there were no hotels and the flower children could not afford them in any case and preferred either small shacks or staying with local villagers. That model of tourism - like the rice paddies - could have continued forever without damage to either environment or culture. The last thing the flower children wanted was to change things or get them 'modernised', since they were themselves rejecting the Western style of economy and consumption or fleeing from it, so there was no question of imposing changes.

This changed forever in the mid-1980s once the big actors - the tour operators - came to know. Always on the lookout for newer and cheaper places to prey on for their entertainment and adventure menus - after the existing ones quickly became jaded or overcrowded - they saw Goa as the innocent, unspoiled new star on their firmament, ready for mass consumption and sale.

The German charters operated by Condor discovered Goa first and the pattern of tourists arriving in droves - mass, destination tourism - became entrenched rapidly thereafter. Following the first invasion of 1987, it has been a picture of continuous gang-rape thereafter. First the Germans, then the English, then the Israelis, then the Russians. Goa has seen what is called 'consuming the earth'-type tourism - people interested only in an exotic destination, with little concern for the fate or concerns of local populations; in fact, the more isolated from the latter, the better the comfort levels. The fate of any locale selected as an international tourism destination is that it will be wholly transformed and consumed, till only the rind is left, for discarding. Little of itself will survive the ordeal of the hurricane.

It has taken just three decades to move from the original low-footprint tourism represented by the hippies to Goa's present-day 'full-blown' destination tourism status, with local people and foreigners now enthusiastically collaborating to dismantle ecological assets, unmindful and uncaring of problems their loud activities inflict on people unconnected with tourism, and with a political leadership incapable of responding to the rapidly changing thrust and demands imposed by an increasingly mean and apathetic trade, anxious only to cut corners and remain competitive.

For those Goans dependent on it, mass tourism itself has now become a new subsistence economy: one year a bomb scare cancels reservations; another year, a Russian tour operator collapses. Peace of mind has been replaced by continuous anxiety. With a monsoon restriction of four months every year, the period for exploiting tourists is reserved for the balance eight. From being once a hospitable people, those dependent on tourism now compete in exploiting those they wish to serve.

Of course, all this development was not without resistance. The takeover of Goa for tourism of this invasive category was denounced from the start. In 1987, the first German charters were met at the airport by a hostile group of local social activists armed with cowdung and rotten eggs. The gradual imposition of the new industry on the local population led to a movement for responsible tourism - which failed. It was a campaign run by NGOs stricken by the disclosures of Pattaya in Thailand or child sex tourism in the Philippines. To circumscribe the environmental destruction of Goa for entertaining the tourists, groups and networks emerged in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, Equations in India and Tourism Concern in the UK) which did considerable, committed work in raising protests and alarms. They expanded public consciousness of the negative impacts of mass tourism and even led to the creation of the idea of alternative tourism. Their main concern was predator tourism, which is the most offensive face of this industry.

Even today, the installation of fresh tourism infrastructure continues to stoke rebellion. The golf course proposed at Tiracol village is facing resistance full blast. So are the new marinas proposed in the middle of Goa's splendid rivers. The casinos face continuous anger, on streets and in the local parliament. Mega-housing projects and new five-star resorts proposed in relatively intact and cohesive villages like Carmona and Cavelossim have been stalled by adroit legal and mass protests, leading to huge losses for their proponents.

But the resistance faces a huge wall of inevitability. Predator tourism has a constant and perennial source of fuel: it originates in the ruins of the soul left after human beings are consumed by the arrangements laid down in societies that call themselves 'industrialised'. In this theory, the origins of mass tourism lie in the system of mass production to which human beings in industrial societies must submit themselves. The soulless conditions of work create individuals who need entertainment and release from the violent manner in which they must work and organise their lives.

Tourism is a safety pressure valve for those trapped in demeaning industrial jobs which most people abhor. The secret of its relentless expansion is to be found here. Those who find themselves trapped in industrial jobs must find release far away from their miserable workplaces or go insane. They are willing to submit to industrial discipline provided they get their annual three weeks of full release. It is no wonder that the biggest tourist hordes across Asia and Africa come from industrial shores. Normal people living meaningful lives in these continents find no need for this kind of tourism or, for that matter, for tourism at all.

For these reasons, the tourism industry has never had a serious challenger, not even climate change. Like automobile manufacturers - who couldn't care less if the roads are crammed with expensive cars all moving at snail's pace and burning down the atmosphere provided they sell more cars - the tourism industry knows there are people who need relaxation and escape from the hellhole which industrial society has become. They are flies on human dungheaps, camouflaged as glamour and entertainment. They will disappear only when the dungheap ceases and people become wholesome and human again.

Today we admit we have lost the ability to create paradises - like Goa - on earth and have replaced it instead with the capacity to create hell out of available paradises. We cannot produce any more the genre of paintings that places like Goa represent. All that we are clever at is the preparation of obituaries. What we can do today with all our science and technology and all our study and academic research is to investigate and analyse how effectively we are destroying these complexities.

In fact, our speciality today is this growing ability to describe destruction. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report of the United Nations, for example, brought together over 1,300 scientists to report on how 60% of the earth's ecosystems - providing essential ecosystem services like clean water and air - were in irreversible decline. We have repeated those studies of destruction with an even grander study on climate change or similar stories on the impending collapse of world fisheries.

But tourism was always considered - when compared with industrial pollution - somewhat less destructive in that sense, softer in its consequences on the natural environment. Many people who have donned the mantle of a tourist at some point of time in their lives would in fact be troubled if they were told they were also part of the dismantling of nature and societies in locations that have no direct connection with the strong hand of industrial civilisation. But it is maybe time for the naivete to end.

The conclusion is inevitable: tourism of the kind that has taken charge in Goa destroys people and nature as effectively as does the industrial civilisation which gave rise to it, as symptom, in the first place. It is the landmark quality of industrial civilisation pushed by capital that it can effectively transform hospitable people into inhospitable caricatures of themselves, or discard totally the value of nature by drowning it in concrete. And yet claim that human beings are better off in the process. 

Claude Alvares is Director of the Goa Foundation, an environmental monitoring group based in Goa. The Foundation has been monitoring the environmental impacts of tourism over decades.

*Third World Resurgence No. 301/302, September/October 2015, pp 38-40