From ensuring price competitiveness, offering an equally superlative experience as by competing destinations, to keeping its beaches clean, Goa’s travel and tourism industry is beset with challenges, but Chief Minister Pramod Sawant remains confident that these are surmountable, and he will personally interact with industry to ensure the success of tourism in the state. (This interaction took place before the lockdown happened in Goa and throughout the country. It is pause button for now, for sure, but applicable once we begin our road to recovery)
GOA’S CHIEF MINISTER Pramod Sawant came across as a nimble-footed administrator with an open mind in a freewheeling discussion with the state’s travel and tourism stakeholders on subjects extending from developing convention facilities in Goa to playing music and the oddity of the state being one of those rare places in the country that did not have access to online cab services. This was an interaction facilitated by Vibrant Goa Foundation in Panaji, held recently with captains of industry in the state.
Setting the tone for the dialogue, Sunder G. Advani, Chairman and Managing Director, Advani Hotels, said that Goa could not realise its potential of becoming a world-class tourism hotspot without appropriate support from the central and state governments. With three of the world’s best beaches situated along Goa’s less-crowded southern coast, the chief minister and the state’s tourism department had their work cut out.
CAN GOA EVER BE A MALDIVES?
Advani emphasised that the travel and tourism sector in the state must set its revenue benchmark higher, comparable to destinations such as the Maldives, where guests spend more than $2,000 per night over and above room charges, whether they are leisure or business travellers. Goa, on the other hand, continues to struggle hard to attain the $150 per night benchmark, even in the peak season.
Having seen the state explode since the time it used to be a one-flight-a-day destination, Advani said the more popular North Goa had been spoilt partly because of overcrowding and the sporadic rate of development of the region over the past many years. He suggested therefore that the state government must develop as-yet-untapped areas to attract upmarket tourists alongside the mid-market segment.
The state, he said, had a number of products to offer – from tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries to churches and beaches – but this variety and vibrancy does not get marketed effectively. Advani also stressed the need for a convention centre strategically located between North and South Goa to promote the growth of the MICE sector in the state. The many expectations of the travel and tourism sector, Advani said, only highlighted the need for a more proactive and productive interventions by the state government.
BUMPY FLIGHT FOR CONNECTIVITY
Manav Thadani, Founder and Chairman, Hotelivate, made a strong case for collaborative efforts by the state government and the private sector to resolve long-pending issues. Connectivity topped Thadani’s list, especially because the end of Jet Airways and Kingfisher had led to a reduction in the number of flights into the state. He suggested that the government and private players must join hands to reach out to the leading airline companies to commence flights to Goa, so that the state is prepared to receive more flights by the next winter.
Thadani then pointed to an anomalous situation that exists in the state. Goa is one of the very few places in India that doesn’t have the presence of online cab services Uber and Ola, even though the taxi services operating within the state are grossly inadequate for its market. Thadani urged private taxi operators to function collaboratively with the state government to educate taxi drivers to be more inclusive and tourist-friendly in their dealings so that it is convenient for tourists to move around in the state.
The Hotelivate founder also suggested that a dedicated team be deployed to spread awareness among people living both within and outside the country with the help of catchy campaigns to boost tourist arrivals in the state. Thadani’s other takeaway recommendation was to open ‘safe zones’ to enable tourists to travel freely between destinations such as cafés, restaurants and clubs, especially at night.
Responding to these comments and suggestions, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant started by urging the industry to voice their concerns directly to him because he was keen on getting a fair idea of the prevailing sentiment in the private sector. With this preamble, he took up each of the irritants mentioned by the industry representatives one after another.
IN DEFENCE OF GTDC’S GOAMILES APP
On the contentious issue of online cab services, the Chief Minister said the GoaMiles app launched by the Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) had got about 2,300 taxi operators registering for it, and that it would expand its realm of activities to fulfil all the needs of its customers in the days and months ahead. He added that with an additional 2,000 taxis, the average market price for cab rides in the state would drop automatically and stabilise at a point that would be economical for both tourists and taxi operators.
The Chief Minister was responding to a speaker’s comment that GoaMiles did not have the wherewithal to address the needs of tourists because it did not have an adequate number of taxis registered, not did it have the administrative backup required for an enterprise of the magnitude required to service Goa’s travel and tourism market.
PUSH FOR SINGLE-WINDOW CLEARANCE
Touching upon the MICE business, the Chief Minister said the state government had recommended a single-window clearance system so that the trouble in securing numerous permissions, such as the one regarding the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), could be overcome seamlessly. The tussle with the music licensing companies over weddings had been resolved promptly by the Goa Police, the Chief Minister pointed out, but exemptions in the Copyright Act of 1957 for MICE events would go a long way in helping this segment contribute fruitfully to tourism revenues.
The Chief Minister said the state police was already working towards resolving the Copyright Act issue and orders had also been issued to the relevant departments to address complaints against CRZ regulations within the next three months. On the issue of single-window clearances, he said the state tourism department would be instructed to accelerate the implementation of the directive and the panchayats excluded from taking decisions on such matters, as they tend to be meddlesome.
MAKING BEACHES LITTER-FREE & SAFE
In the Chief Miniser’s address, the state came in for considerable praise for doing “exceedingly well” on the garbage front, even as he urged hoteliers to play an active role in maintaining cleanliness in and around their premises, and to ensure their disposal systems were compliant with established norms. The state police was also lauded for working diligently to prevent crime and malpractices on the beaches. Anyone in Goa can contact the dedicated helpline number – 112 – and report instantly any criminal or other unsavoury activity being committed on the state’s prized beaches.
Goa’s beaches, Sawant asserted, were relatively litter free. The panchayats and the municipalities had been relieved of the responsibility of maintaining the cleanliness of the beaches. It is now the responsibility entirely of the state government to ensure timeliness of action. An app is also being developed to report the accumulation of litter on beaches so that any such collection of garbage can be removed within 15 minutes of being reported.
The Chief Minister’s comments spurred Advani to acknowledge the importance of initiating all-inclusive mass mobilisation drives to reach out to common people and educate them about the adverse effects of littering. He cited the example of litter bins being installed in public places in New York with captions reading: “Every piece of litter hurts.” Such campaigns, Advani stated, target the conscience of the people, influence them to reflect deeply on the consequences of their actions, and help eradicate the problem from its roots.
DABOLIM: THE ROAD FORWARD
The discussion about the state of the Dabolim Airport was steered by its former director, Bhupesh Chand Hans Negi, who made three points:
* The average runway occupancy time at the clogged airport has come down significantly because more parking slots have been opened up now.
* Discussions are on with the Navy to fix the flying time for defence operations from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. These flights won’t be operational throughout the entire duration of the allotted time slot, so it will be possible for civilian flights to be operated during this period. Negi urged the Chief Minister to intervene in the matter; Sawant assured him his support.
* The airport was facing a shortage of taxi parking spaces because the land formerly allotted for this purpose had been de-notified. Negi therefore made a plea to the state government to authorise the construction of a bridge from the opposite side of the airport to ease the parking squeeze. He also expressed concern over the prospect of 100 more black-and-yellow taxis to be awarded licences soon. It would lead to major parking issues.
AN UNECONOMICAL DISADVANTAGE
During the discussion, an industry representative pointed out how expensive it had become for international airlines and charters to operate in the state. He cited the example of how it cost the now-out-of-operation travel conglomerate Thomas Cook as much as $78,000 to run an Airbus 330-200 for a UK-Goa-UK round trip. Similar irritants relating to the pricing of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF), landing, airport and parking charges, and ground-handling expenses were also pinpointed as reasons for making operations to Goa, from even neighbouring countries such as Sri Lanka and Maldives, uneconomical.
When asked by Chief Minister to field these queries, Negi said airport charges are decided by the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India, and were different for each category of airports. These rates therefore could be altered only by the authority, which functioned under the central government.
When an industry representative mentioned how Dabolim laboured under a disadvantage because its competitor airports charge cheaper rates, Negi said each of the international airports cited as examples is being run by a single operator responsible for the management of that particular airport. The situation is different here. Individual airport authorities are not at liberty to fix the airport, parking and ground handling charges. Such decisions are taken only by the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority of India.
TOO EXPENSIVE FOR ITS OWN GOOD?
Is Goa, by becoming more expensive, crowded and polluted, losing the strategic advantage it had enjoyed so far over Asian destinations such as Vietnam? Even as insiders feared this was exactly what was happening, Chief Minister Sawant called upon the industry to base its prices on its understanding of the likely impact on tourist sentiments. From a hippie haven, Goa has become an overpriced destination that is losing out to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Representatives of the state government also made the point that the share of taxes and infrastructure development funds allocated to panchayats and gramsabhas had not been utilised. Members of these bodies, they said, must stop behaving like the “mafia”. Instead, they needed to accept the social responsibilities that came with the positions they held. A state official even mentioned how difficult it had become for the government to deal with the taxi unions. The onus of bringing about change therefore lies not only with the government or the state tourism department, but also each individual stakeholder.
TIGER TOURISM, FESTIVAL CALENDAR
Another takeaway of the dialogue was that the state government is serious about marketing its tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries, adding a new dimension to the traditional sun, sand and surf narrative. It is equally emphatic about turning the state’s colourful public festivals, starting with the Carnival, and including food, wine and fish festivals, into major attractions for high-end tourists.
The Chief Minister made a strong case for the Carnival to be run by the state government, and not by local committees, so that its standards could be raised. He informed the gathering that he had asked the state’s director of tourism to develop a yearly calendar of events and festivals so that all interested parties could be invited to collaborate in managing such events. He added such partnerships would definitely lead to innovations and make the world see Goa in a new light.
The Chief Minister agreed with the view shared around the table that Goa’s festivals had the potential to become bigger than, say, Sunburn, Asia’s biggest music festival, which returned to the state last year after a three-year hiatus in Pune. To make the state more tourism friendly, he assured the gathering that he would look into irritants such as the Madhya Pradesh Control of Music and Noises Act, which extends to Goa, and makes it mandatory for all restaurants and bars to stop playing music after 10:30 p.m. The Chief Minister also heard the complaint that the recently imposed hike in the excise fee on alcohol had acted as an impediment in the industry’s efforts to attract tourists.
–By Sourish Bhattacharya and Harsh Siddhanta