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Goa banks on Covid-19 vaccinations to help it restart tourism

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Goa is cautiously reopening to domestic tourism in time for peak season. The state is heavily dependent on tourism and residents have been desperate for the arrival of overseas visitors.

ARAMBOL, GOA - The pink flag flutters atop a fisherman's boat in the late afternoon breeze blowing in from the Arabian Sea at Arambol.

"Pray for us," it reads, adorned with beatific images of the Virgin Mary.

It is also a plea that is on innkeeper Inacio Daniel D'Souza's T-shirt.

The flag on a fishing boat with the words "Pray for us" on a beach in Arambol, Goa. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

As Goa cautiously reopens to domestic tourism in time for the peak season beginning this month, the 65-year-old Roman Catholic, like many others heavily dependent on tourism, is desperate for the arrival of overseas visitors, for whom entry to India has been banned since March last year, when the Covid-19 pandemic set in.

This forced Mr D'Souza to shut his eight-room guest house in Arambol, which relied on foreign tourists.

With little income since then and mounting loans, prayers have kept him going.

"I will say 'thank you, God' if the government lets in foreign tourists," he said, seated under a constellation of statues of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary on his lavender living room wall.

"We will be at least able to survive somehow."

Fewer tourists

One of the world's top tourism destinations, Goa, a western Indian state, hosted more than 7.12 million domestic and 937,000 foreign tourists in 2019.

The pandemic put an end to that, pummelling the livelihoods of about 40 per cent of the state's population as losses estimated at more than $1.8 billion piled up.

The number of relatively fewer tourists in Goa's iconic Sinquerim beach on Monday (Sept 27) is a reminder of just how fraught the path to recovery is for the tourism industry.

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Memories of the calamitous second wave in April and May this year are still raw, and the fear of a crippling third lockdown always lurks in the background.

But there are tender signs of recovery too, with the arrival of more domestic tourists to Goa since September.

Tourists were drawn to the state for its gorgeous beaches as well as unique Indo-Portuguese heritage, such as this 16th century Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Panaji.

Besides beaches, Goa is known for its historic churches built by its Portuguese colonial rulers, such as this 16th century Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Panaji. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

The glittering casinos on Panaji's riverfront indicate this revival. Allowed to resume business on Sept 20, after being shut for nearly five months since April, Majestic Pride Casino has recovered more than 65 per cent of its pre-Covid-19 footfall of domestic tourists.

"Within a month, we are hopeful of achieving or we are very optimistic of achieving the pre-Covid levels," said Mr Shrinivas Nayak, the director of Majestic Pride Casino.

Expectations notwithstanding, Goa is not being reckless about reopening.

Incoming Indian travellers need to show a full vaccination certificate or a negative Covid-19 report on entry, and large-scale events such as Sunburn, a three-day popular music festival that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, are still not allowed.

On Sunday, when this reporter exited the airport at Dabolim in Goa, he had to present his vaccination certificate. A strict screening process was under way for visitors who had just arrived.

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Learning to survive

With lockdowns now described as a "thing of the past" by some in Goa's tourism industry, learning to survive in the shadow of Covid-19 is becoming the norm.

"We have to now start doing business with Covid around as we have learnt in the last 18 months that Covid is here to stay for some time," said Mr Nilesh Shah, president of Travel & Tourism Association of Goa.

Establishments such as casinos operate at half their capacity and signs urging tourists to follow Covid-19-appropriate behaviour are all around.

Some like the Deltin Jaqk in Panaji, advertise that all their staff members are vaccinated.

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Brands are trying to woo back customers with safety measures, while police patrol the streets to get errant tourists to mask up.

"Instead of suppressing the economy and letting people die because of starvation, it is better to accept Covid-19 as part of normal life and continue businesses with all necessary safety protocol," added Mr Nayak.

As it reopens, Goa has been emboldened by its high vaccination rate compared with the rest of the country. It expects to fully vaccinate the entire eligible population by the end of October and around 95 per cent of those working in the tourism sector are already fully vaccinated.

Dr Amandeep Singh, 30, a Bangalore-based pharma consultant, came to Goa last month for a "workation", encouraged by its high vaccination rates. Tourists such as him are also adapting to the era of Covid-safe tourism.

He rented a villa along with his friends, instead of checking into a hotel, to minimise contact and is hanging around the less popular beaches. "Since there are lots of beaches (in Goa) you can choose a couple of them which are less famous and move around with smaller crowds around you," Mr Singh added.

With the global pandemic situation yet to stabilise and international air connectivity still curtailed, progress is bound to be incremental.

"There is no silver bullet for this pandemic," Mr Nikhil Desai, the managing director of Goa Tourism Development Corporation, told The Straits Times.

"If we play our cards well and follow proper behaviour, then I think we will be able to manage or rather reduce the impact of the so-called third wave."

Mr Desai explained why Goa will have to rely solely on domestic tourists for survival in the short run.

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Recovery in baby steps

So far, locals have had little succour, with relatively fewer Indian tourists and the prolonged absence of cash-rich foreign travellers.

Business at Mohammad Kaoushar Ali's garment store in Arambol has fallen to less than a quarter of what it was in 2019.

"If tourism is not reopened this year, more than half of the shops here - not fewer - will shut down," the 42-year-old said.

He spends most of his time these days waiting for the rare customer who drops by at his shop.

Recovery has been inchoate and uneven in Goa. Only around 1,400 of the 3,500 registered hotels in the state have reopened, for instance; a majority of those shut are small ones that cannot survive on the low room rates that currently prevail in the market.

"Right now, whatever steps we are taking, it is all in survival mode," said Mr Shah, "Revival is a long way ahead."

Meanwhile, empty tables at Arambol beach continue to wait for visitors who once thronged the beach and queued up for a place at its restaurants.

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