European Tourist Numbers to Goa are Falling, And That's a Worry

Domestic tourism numbers are up, but that comes with its own set of problems

Russian signage outside a beach shack in Goa

Russian signage outside a beach shack in Goa

Making a pitch for a new greenfield airport at Mopa, in North Goa bordering Maharashtra, Manohar Parrikar, the former chief minister of the state argued last year that the current facilities at Dabolim airport were inadequate to cope with Goa’s ever expanding tourist arrivals. The Goa government, he had then said, was targeting 6 million arrivals by 2016. That figure might well be achieved by 2017, if not the year after. But at what cost to the state’s environment, local population and infrastructure is the question many long-time tourism stakeholders, are asking.

In 2014, 4.05 million people holidayed at this destination, more than twice the state’s population of 1.54 million. Those numbers (if government data on domestic arrivals—often disputed by independent players—is to be believed) represent a remarkable 30 per cent spike from the 3.12 million tourists that descended on Goa in 2013.

But it is the details in the data that that worries the more serious tourism players in Goa who feel the destination is being oversold—and that too, cheaply—in the domestic market with little concern for the long-term consequences. What is more, while Goa’s golden sands, the culture and the lifestyle are attracting ever larger numbers, the numbers of high value foreign tourists are slowing down.

While Indian arrivals shot up by 34.82 per cent between 2013 and 2014, foreign tourists were up by a modest 4.3 per cent. Domestic travellers now constitute 87.34 per cent of Goa’s tourism market. The trend has become increasingly pronounced over the years. International arrivals that made for 23 per cent of the market in 2000, 17 per cent in 2010, have shrunk to 12.6 per cent (5.13 lakh arrivals last year) currently.

According to long-time hotelier Ralph De Souza, who is on a government constituted tourism marketing council, the prognosis is far from sunny for this year as well. “The British market was on the verge of collapsing,” De Souza, who is also the former president of the Goa Tourism and Travel Association (TTAG), says. It had already nosedived by 60 per cent (charter bookings for 2015-2016). Hit by charter operator Monarch’s pull-out, Goa would have lost yet another 20 per cent of the UK market had the local players not lobbied for three additional landing slots for Thomas Cook, he says.

Russian arrivals slowing down

Russian footfalls, the largest segment of foreign tourists to Goa–it constituted 33 per cent of international arrivals till two years ago — are expected to slide by 40 per cent this year as a result of the devaluing of the rouble, and the Russian government’s advisory against foreign travel to protect its forex reserves. Recently back from last week’s Moscow Travel Mart, sources say Goan stakeholders have “been trying our best with intensive promotions, assuring leading Russian tour operators there will be no rate escalations. We’ve also thrown in early bird offers”. The introduction of e-visas (Russians were the biggest applicants in this category) are helping to some extent too.

But the numbers for charter operations too point to faltering foreign footfalls. From the 162 charter flights that came in from the UK in 2013-2014 with 42,949 passengers, traffic on this sector was down to 129 flights with 32,979 tourists in 2014-2015.

The picture is a lot worse for the Russian charter segment which shrunk by almost 50 per cent in just one year. Long haul charters that had done 895 flights to Goa from Russia in 2013-2014 with over 200,000 passengers, were down to 560 flights and around half that number till March this year.

The German Condor operator which had a long association with the Goan tourism industry and flew in 19 charters in 2013-14 has also pulled out altogether as have some Scandinavian and Swiss operators.

“Depleting margins on long-haul operations,” is what compelled them to shift to the domestic European market, De Souza explains. He believes Goa is still well placed to recover and even substantially expand its international traffic, provided the government takes the right policy decisions to encourage upmarket tourism. He points to how connectivity (to 95 cities globally currently) to this destination has improved dramatically with the arrival of the Middle Eastern airlines (Air Arabia, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air, Etihad are all connected here).

Crowded and dirty beaches

While the burgeoning numbers of domestic arrivals might please the government’s spin doctors, almost all tourism stakeholders agree that budget tourists, often coming by the busloads, are stretching the limits of Goa’s carrying capacity. The most visible outcome of this has been the pressure on the beaches on the North Goa coast—most notably, Baga, Calangute, Candolim, Sinquerim and Anjuna—where basic infrastructure such as garbage clearance and roads, is struggling to keep pace with the sheer pressure of arrivals.

For a destination like Goa, promoting charter tourism and FITs (free of itinerary traveller) makes far more sense than overselling in the domestic market, says De Souza. Charter tourists stay for two weeks minimum, FITs for a week, and local travellers spend an average of 3 days on holiday.

One charter tourist contributes as much as five domestic ones and often stay longer in the state. They make far better business sense because there is both less congestion and pressure on the state’s infrastructure, he says. But with that segment decreasing, Goan tourism may be headed for some difficult times.