Omicron variant threatens to jeopardize another season in Goa, an Indian city dependent on tourists

The waves lapping gently on one of Goa’s most popular tourist beaches. But it’s not a regular tourist season for the tiny coastal Indian state, which depends on tourism for more than 16% of its gross domestic product.

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

Anita Pawar sidles through the handful of busy lounge chairs, clutching her stash of multicolored knit bags and ankle bracelets, desperately trying to make a sale with the few tourists in sight.

“I’m here trying to do my business but it still doesn’t work,” she said regretfully.

31-year-old Anita Pawar has been peddling on this beach since she was eight. She said she has never seen as calm as she has been during the pandemic. (Salimah Shivji / CBC)

The 31-year-old mother-of-three has worked on this beach since she was eight, first selling peanuts and then switching to woven bags her mother made. She said she had never seen him so calm.

“No tourists,” Pawar said, shaking his head. “Two years ago, [there were] lots of tourists here, lots of people, great deals. Now, two years later, nothing. Empty beach. ”

This was supposed to be the year international travel resumed after being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a new viable tourist season for Goa, which relies heavily on tourism dollars, especially from abroad.

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

“I don’t see any white people, I miss them,” Pawar said with a laugh. “They were good [for] Business.”

When India’s COVID lockdown ended in March 2020 and Goa beaches were closed, Pawar was forced to return to her home state of Karnataka, working the fields for the first time in her life and earning a measly 150 rupees (CA $ 2.50) a day. She is now back in Goa, but the majority of tourists have not returned with her.

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

“I pray they will come,” she said, admitting that she is under uncertainty over whether there are any new restrictions due to the new variant. “I don’t know what’s going on. It’s really hard for my family.”

These two years have been difficult for a large part of the population of Goa, 35% of whom depend directly on the tourism sector for employment. At the height of the pandemic, revenue the state typically receives from tourism was down 70%.

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

Figures collected by his department show a drop of more than 80% in the number of international tourists visiting Goa during the pandemic, with some 937,000 foreigners arriving in 2019 against just 17,431 from January to September this year.

Goa is heavily dependent on tourism, with 35% of the population in jobs directly related to the industry, which was devastated during the height of the pandemic. (Salimah Shivji / CBC)

D’Souza said he and his team have high hopes for this tourist season. In anticipation, Goa launched what has been a largely successful campaign to fully immunize its population in order to allay potential health concerns for returning tourists. (About 120,000 Goans – or about 13% – still need to receive a second dose before the state can declare itself 100% vaccinated.)

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

“With our best efforts, and suddenly we find out one day that this new strain has arrived.… All the efforts were in vain,” D’Souza said.

The only bright spot are domestic tourists, he said, who are now venturing to Goa as India’s vaccination campaign continues to gain momentum.

Newlyweds Mayank Shrivastava and Pragya Sinha decided at the last minute to book a few days in Goa, traveling about 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 head to the state’s famous beaches as vaccination rates rise across India. (Salimah Shivji / CBC)

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

Improving the situation continues to seem daunting to many in Goa’s tourism industry, such as guest house owner Sampada Dhopatkar. His beachfront hotel, Arudra Hospitality, is currently bringing in half the amount of money he was making before the pandemic.

“I can’t do anything,” Dhopatkar said. “I cannot force or persuade someone to travel and stay with us.”

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

“I can’t afford to leave [my staff] down. However, I don’t think I can afford any more debt either, ”she said.

WATCH | Indian tourism struggles amid COVID-19 restrictions:

Survival top priority for Indian tourists affected by COVID-19 restrictions

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

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

This same worry plagues the local market, where Olinda Sequeira sits and runs a small stall that has been in her family for almost a century. She sells terracotta pots, woven baskets and other tourist items.

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

Olinda Sequeira said the pandemic has resulted in days when she doesn’t make a single sale at her stall of terracotta pots and other tourist items. Now she’s worried about how the Omicron variant will cripple business further. (Salimah Shivji / CBC)

Business has improved slightly over the past two months, she said, but the pandemic has dried up incomes for hotels and guesthouses, which bought her candle holders and ashtrays when tourists came in droves. in Goa.

“The new variant is very scary,” Sequeira said. “If the businesses shut down again, what will we do? How will we survive? ”

A few steps away, her husband’s cousin, Sales Sequeira, sets up her own booth filled with woven baskets. He, too, tries to stay positive about Goa’s collapsed tourism industry on which he and his family depend.

“Everything is in the hands of God now,” he said. “We’re going to take it as we go and use the money we have left in our savings to eat. What else can we do? “

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