As travel restrictions were eased by the middle of last year, people from all over the country started heading out in droves to the nation’s smallest state, drawn by its beaches, seafood and nightlife. The flow of visitors was more or less continuous – year-end indulgences and weekend sojourns became outings that lasted six months or more as people decided that there was no better place to be working remotely.
They booked whatever accommodation they could find – holiday homes, long-term rentals, hotels, even the vacant houses of friends. A New Delhi-based business professional gave his Goa home out on an 11-month lease, as did a Mumbai family that rented out their property for six months.
Many visitors simply drove down from Mumbai, Gujarat and even New Delhi just to avoid the risk of Covid-19 infections on flights. Life in Goa was bustling again – the restaurants were full and the shacks on the beaches were overcrowded.
- A rapid rise in cases in Goa has led to the state clamping down on tourist activities
- District magistrate of North Goa, the party hub, has banned anyone from partying; section 144 or curfew has been imposed for 15 days till 24 May
- Goa’s cases per million (70,898) are now more than four times the national average (15,864)
- The state did not insist on a Covid-19 negative certificate for tourists starting September 1, 2020 to 10 May 2021
- From a mere 5% positivity in March this year, the state had seen an over 50% positivity rate, now around 35%
- Goa has a population of 14.57 lakh but got over 80 lakh tourists in 2019
- It had 2,865 new cases and over 32,000 active cases on 12 May according to the state government data
- New cases were as high as 3,869 on May 8, just a week ago
Tourism in Goa bounced back big time towards the second half of last year, more than it did at any other top travel destination, coinciding with the peak season of October to December. Hotel numbers alone don’t tell the complete story – many people took up bed-and-breakfast accommodation or long-term rentals, which aren’t included in the hotel room inventory.
However, latecomers to the work-from-home party who landed up in Goa with the second wave have found that most of the fun is over. Take the Lacewalla sisters, who are in their early 30s and had lived in Mumbai for the past 11 years – Zahabia working as a hair artist and Insia as a hospitality consultant.
Zahabia says before Covid-19 struck last year, there was no way they could have imagined moving to Goa. They first considered the move last year, but it was only last week that the sisters traded in the lease of an expensive three-bedroom flat in Mumbai for a relatively less pricey apartment in the Porvorim area of north Goa.
“Our only regret was not moving in the first lockdown. But by the time the second lockdown hit, we were sure we wanted to move immediately. Many people in my industry have done the same and much before us,” says Zahabia.
The long-term dream of the sisters is to set up a hair studio alongside a cafe in Goa while also being able to travel for their respective assignments all over the country.
Now that Goa has gone from being a work-from-home destination to a Covid-19 hotspot, both are careful while stepping out and observe social distancing strictly.
So, what happened to the WFH paradise that was Goa? People say everyone let their guard down after the first wave of infections waned. Most notably, the masks disappeared.
Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant admitted that administrative lapses and the opening up of tourism had led to an over 51% positivity rate in testing for Covid-19 now from only 5% in March this year. The rate now stands at around 35%.
A tourist who visited around the end of March this year with his wife and stayed in South Goa says part of the problem is in the administration itself.
“Outside the hotel, nobody was really checking for masks or any such requirements,” he said.
“Goa was not that badly affected, according to me, even during the first wave and so we thought it would be safe,” said a 34-year-old visitor who travelled with friends in early April. “When we went, everything was open there and no curfews were in place. People were roaming around without masks.”
Right up to April this year, domestic passengers flying into Goa were not required to undergo institutional or home quarantine. Only symptomatic passengers would be handed over to the state’s health authorities. Even the standard RT-PCR negative test report was not mandatory.
Strangely though, a 14-day home quarantine was required for foreign tourists if they did not carry an RT-PCR negative report. They would have to undergo a rapid antigen test and were then sent to home quarantine regardless of the result.
On April 9 this year, the state reported 428 fresh Covid-19 cases, a figure that shot up to almost 4,200 on May 7. The state has swung into action. It no longer allows interstate movement of tourists except for those who are fully vaccinated. It has also clamped down on parties and social activities.
Locals and visitors say it is only now that restrictions are being put into place. Masks, which were practically absent in Goa until early May, have made a reappearance.
The Covid-19 outbreak and the associated lapses may come as a blow for Goa’s growing tourism. In 2019, over 7.1 million Indian tourists visited the state, a 50% increase from 4.75 million domestic travellers in 2015. Domestic travellers account for 89% of total tourist arrivals in the state.
For hotels, the occupancy roller-coaster is likely to continue, say analysts. After a sub-20% occupancy during the first half of the previous financial year, a rebound to a strong 60%-plus occupancy was seen during the second half, says Achin Khanna, managing partner of hospitality consulting firm Hotelivate.
“Goa looked like the only market that had defeated the Covid-19 curse by the close of FY21. However, the might and magnitude of the second wave in recent weeks has brought Goa back to a complete standstill. We do expect room night demand in Goa to pick back up by the winter months. However, it’s very difficult to predict how much time it may take for this wave to completely subside and holiday travel to meaningfully resume,” adds Khanna.
But many who moved to Goa during the first wave continue to stay there. Maia Laifungbam, cofounder and chef at Roboto, an izakaya and ramen house in Calangute, says tourists still abound locally. They live in shacks and houses, but aren’t necessarily venturing out.
Goa did suffer from a rapid rise in tourism, but for many, this has been one of the best years in the past five for tourism and business, she said.