Goa’s villagers return to fishing to survive tourism downturn


It is a picture postcard scene of Goa’s big, best-selling beaches like Calangute, Anjuna and Vagator, overflowing, with Indian tourists herding together, eating and drinking, and frolicking in the sea. The flip-side of these colourful visuals is reflected in the state’s small villages and tourist beaches, especially with local and fishing communities struggling to make ends meet since the last two years of Covid pandemic and lockdowns.

Like other parts of India, especially Delhi, Gujarat and the Hindi heartland, Goa witnessed a huge surge and a lot of tragedies during the second wave in the summer of 2021. Almost everything was shut down for short and long spells. Casinos, gyms, bars, restaurants, river cruises, weekly markets, schools and colleges were all shut. The Covid situation has certainly improved, and the cases have become few, but the economy is yet to pick up. Several food joints, shops and bars are shut.

For a state which majorly survives on tourism, finally, it was the sea which yet again moved to and fro, as a savior. “The sea and the fish from the sea. They saved us in the lockdown and the pandemic, with our earnings literally dipping to zero,” said Hemant Rodrigues of Vittorino Villa in Arambol town.

Arambol is the hub of Russian tourists, who arrive here every year in big groups, mostly on chartered planes. This year though few have come. Only a handful of Russians and foreigners, who have been stuck here due to the pandemic, are living in low rented home-stays in this quaint and beautiful village, set in a secluded tourist zone with endless beaches, pristine sky and extremely gentle and polite people.

Hemant and his uncle, Johnny, who also drives a cab, pick up their canoe early morning before the sun cracks, and when the tide is up, to enter the sea. Like them, several others follow, including those who do other professional jobs. From 4 am till 8 am, they catch fish, mostly Mackerel, and if they are lucky, some crabs.  It’s hard work, and luck plays its hand.

A small make-shift market then grows spontaneously on the beach. After a couple of hours, the women pick up the fish in their baskets, put the baskets on their heads, and walk up to the all-women’s fish market across the street near the main Arambol market, flanked by huge ponds and a vast expanse of green landscape. There they wait for the customers. It is indeed fish and the sea which is still helping the fishing community financially, even while tourists are still few and reluctant to arrive.

“My mother takes the fish to the market to sell,” said Hemant. “We earn just about enough to carry on, because there is hardly anyone arriving at our small hotel. We are hoping for the best and perhaps the tide would change during and after Christmas and New Year.” With almost 100 per cent single dose vaccination, Goa is looking forward to a better life in the days to come.

On several days, including in the lovely, life-affirming evenings, when local women gather at the little temples with a Cross and sing songs and hymns, and poor, old women collect wood from the little forests near the the long and endless beach, Arambol is literally empty, barring a handful of Indian and foreign tourists. One old couple sells coconuts and corn on a cart on the beach, ready with a smile and familiar chit-chat. Most of the shacks, bars and hotels in the beach and the town are still shut. Rows of shacks operating as home-stays in the beach are empty. Those restaurants which are open are just about waiting to see happy times.

“It’s been tough, these last two years,” says Ajay Kumar from Uttarakhand, who works in a beach shack restaurant cum bar. “Tourists are just not arriving. And money is not coming by. This pandemic is a killer.”

During Dusherra and Navratri, there was a sudden rush of Indian tourists, especially during Dashami and the weekend. But, since then, it has been quiet. A few foreigners have a ‘drum circle’ near an open-air resort, ‘Love Temple”, where they play drums and music. Some of them dance in the darkness. They have been around here for a long time, and they all seem to know each other.

As evening sets in, the candles burn inside glass bottles, welcoming the people to the simple tables on the beach, as the tide rises during the full moon, but there are few takers. The wind blows fast and strong from the sea like a good omen but a strange emptiness stalks the magical landscape. For those escaping crowds of the cities, this ‘bubble’ and solitude is God-sent, and ‘safe’.

“I have five restaurants. All of them are shut. I have five big cooling refrigerators. They are rotting. Look at these shacks wrapped with tarpaulin. Everything is stocked up since the last two years. In our hotel, we would only take Russians earlier. Now there are just a handful of Indian tourists, who drop in for a day or two. We are just hoping against hope that business will pick up this winter,” said young and polite Brian, a musician and lawyer, who runs Samantha’s Inn at Arambol, named after his sister. Brother and sister, and their mother, are hands on and work all day. Brian also plays the piano in the local church.

A cab driver said that Russians are not arriving, and very few Indians, so there is no work.

COVID Response Watch Logo“We used to know the Russians by name. Some of them would return every year and stay for long periods. Arambol beaches are meant for rave parties of the Russians. They come with big families and friends, including children. And the parties go on all night. All that is not happening anymore,” he says.

Many of the hotel owners and other small, ancillary industries associated with tourism, are expecting a Russian chartered plane with tourists to land soon in Goa. When and how they will land is still not known, since Covid cases are very high in Russia these days. Will they be allowed in the current circumstances, that is the dominant question. If the Russians don’t come, Arambol will have to continue depending on its little shops, fish and the sea.

The beautiful thing is that despite the hardships and economic distress, there is still a smile on the people’s faces. The owners of small food joints greet you with a gracious welcome. Arambol is perhaps one of the safest, cheapest and nicest places to live, for both the local communities and the tourists. On Sunday morning you can see people in their finest dresses going to the church. And they continue to remain gentle and optimistic.

Indeed, slowly and steadily, this small beach town and village, is looking forward with great expectations. It is reflected in the lessening of Covid restrictions, and the return of those who want to do business here. Two young persons from Himachal have taken a big shack and are fixing it. Several similar shacks, restaurants and homes are being fixed, painted and renovated. A new restaurant has suddenly come up with lights and music on the beach, celebrating its reopening.

Francis is fixing his net near the beach. He has had a good day on the sea with a bountiful catch of fish. His boat is named after St Francis. Stoic, with a half-smile, he seems strong and resolute.

“Come in the morning. I will give you good fish,” he says.

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata

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