Omicron variant threatens to jeopardize another season in India’s tourist-dependent Goa

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The waves lap gently onto one of Goa’s most popular tourist beaches. But this is no regular tourist season for the small coastal Indian state, which depends on tourism for more than 16 per cent of its gross domestic product. 

A group of waiters working at a string of beach-shack restaurants sit clustered together on a few lounge chairs; the rest of the seats are empty around them, with no customers in sight. Nearby, a man leans lazily on a small sailing catamaran and shades his eyes from the sun, waiting for a tourist to book a ride.

Anita Pawar weaves in and out of the smattering of occupied lounge chairs, clutching her stash of multicoloured knit bags and ankle bracelets, trying desperately to make a sale with the few tourists in sight. 

“I’m here trying to make my business but it’s still not working,” she said ruefully. 

Anita Pawar, 31, has been hawking on this beach since she was eight. She said she had never seen as quiet as it has been during the pandemic. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

The 31-year-old mother of three has been working this beach since she was eight, first hawking peanuts and then switching to woven bags made by her mother. She said she’s never seen it this quiet. 

“No tourists,” Pawar said, shaking her head. “Two years before, [there were] lots of tourists here, a lot of people, good business. Now, two years after, nothing. Empty beach.” 

This was supposed to be the year that international travel picked up after being shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing with it a once-again viable tourist season for Goa, which is heavily dependent on tourist dollars, particularly from abroad.

But the Omicron variant has changed everything, once again forcing the cancellation of international charter flights, booked to resume in December — a month into the traditional start of Goa’s high season, which runs from the end of October until March, but is particularly well known for its Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

“I can’t see any white peoples, I’m missing them,” Pawar said with a laugh. “They were good [for] business.” 

When India’s COVID lockdown came down in March 2020 and Goa’s beaches were off limits, Pawar was forced to return to her home state of Karnataka, working in the fields for the first time in her life and earning a meagre 150 rupees ($2.50 Cdn) a day. Now she’s back in Goa, but the majority of tourists have not returned with her. 

Guides who rent out sailing catamarans to tourists sit and wait for work. The winter months are peak tourist season for Goa, and state officials were banking on a return to some semblance of normal, until the new COVID-19 variant emerged and dashed those hopes. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“I’m praying for them to come,” she said, admitting that the uncertainty over whether there will be further restrictions because of the new variant weighs on her. “I don’t know what’s happening. It’s really difficult for my family.” 

It’s been a harsh two years for much of Goa’s population, 35 per cent of which depends directly on the tourism sector for employment. At the height of the pandemic, the income the state typically sees from tourism was down 70 per cent.

“We have been badly hit,” said Menino D’Souza, director of tourism for Goa’s state government. 

Figures gathered by his department show a more than 80 per cent decline in international tourists visiting Goa during the pandemic, with some 937,000 foreigners arriving in 2019 compared to just 17,431 from January to September of this year.

Goa relies heavily on tourism, with 35 per cent of the population in jobs directly linked to the industry, which was devastated during the height of the pandemic. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

D’Souza said he and his team had high hopes for this tourist season. In anticipation, Goa launched what has been a largely successful campaign to fully vaccinate its population to soothe potential health concerns of returning tourists. (Around 120,000 Goans — or about 13 per cent — still need to get a second dose before the state can declare itself 100 per cent vaccinated.)

State officials also spent time and effort lobbying the Indian government for the return of international charter flights, securing that for mid-December. But the Omicron variant had other plans.

“With all these efforts of ours, and suddenly, we find one day that this new strain has come.… All the efforts have gone in vain,” said D’Souza. 

The one silver lining is domestic tourists, he said, who are now venturing out to Goa, as India’s vaccination drive continues to gather steam. 

Newlyweds Mayank Shrivastava and Pragya Sinha decided last minute to book a few days in Goa, travelling some seven hours from Gwalior, in central India, to get there. 

Newly married couple Pragya Sinha, left, and Mayank Shrivastava decided to visit Goa at the last minute for their honeymoon. Domestic tourists are travelling to the state’s famous beaches as vaccination rates rise across India. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

“We’re trying to motivate our tourism,” Shrivastava said. “If we Indians don’t come forward to promote tourism, how [will] foreigners come and improve our economy?”

Improving the situation continues to look daunting for many in Goa’s tourism industry, like guesthouse owner Sampada Dhopatkar. Her beachside hotel, Arudra Hospitality, is currently bringing in half the amount of money it did pre-pandemic. 

“There’s nothing I can do,” said Dhopatkar. “I cannot force someone or coax them to travel and stay with us.” 

Dhopatkar and her husband had to take out thousands of dollars in loans during Goa’s first lockdown in early 2020 in order to keep paying her staff, she said, and now she’s stuck worrying about this tourist season. 

“I cannot afford to let [my staff] down. However, I don’t think I can afford another debt either,” she said. 

WATCH | Indian tourism spot struggles amid COVID-19 restrictions: 

Survival top of mind for Indian tourist hot spot hit by COVID-19 restrictions

Businesses in the Indian state of Goa say they’re struggling to survive the pandemic, as COVID-19 restrictions flatten a state heavily reliant on tourism dollars. 3:00

“I think if we can cross January before a third wave hits, I should be OK,” said Dhopatkar. “Anytime before that, and then no.” 

That same worry is infecting the local market, where Olinda Sequeira sits manning a tiny stall that’s been in her family for nearly a century. She sells terracotta pots, woven baskets and other tourist wares.

But oftentimes, these days, she leaves at dusk without making a single sale. 

Olinda Sequeira said the pandemic has brought on days where she doesn’t make a single sale at her stall of terracotta pots and other tourist wares. She’s now worried about how the Omicron variant will further cripple business. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

Business has improved slightly in the last two months, she said, but the pandemic dried up income from hotels and guesthouses, which used to buy her candleholders and ashtrays when tourists were coming to Goa in droves. 

“The new variant is very scary,” Sequeira said. “If business shuts down again, then what will we do? How will we survive?” 

Steps away, her husband’s cousin, Sales Sequeira, is setting up his own stand full of woven baskets. He, too, is trying to stay positive about Goa’s collapsed tourism industry that he and his family depend on. 

“It’s all in God’s hands now,” he said. “We will take it as it goes and use the money we have left in our savings to eat. What else can we do?”



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