The number of Russian tourists arriving in Goa this winter has dropped sharply, sparking mild panic in the state's travel sector. Russians form the biggest contingent of foreign tourists in the state, just ahead of Britons.

Arrivals from Russia have dropped by about a third from last year primarily because the country's economy is in bad shape, the tourism minister Dilip Parulekar told reporters on January 17. Many Ukrainians are also staying away.

"Charter flights to Goa from Russian and Ukraine are coming with loads of empty seats, and some are being cancelled altogether," said Ernest Dias, the Panaji-based vice president of Kuoni Travels India.

Economic mainstay 

Nearly a third of the roughly half a million foreign tourists who come to Goa every year are Russian. In 2013, 162,000 Russians arrived in Goa, more than the 145,000 tourists from the United Kingdom. Arrivals from other countries are more or less the same, tour operators said. The state gets about three million tourists in all each year and tourism contributes to about a third of its economy.

Russian tourism in Goa began in the early 2000s with just a handful chartered flights. Today, the entrenched Russian presence is reflected most vividly on numerous signs and menus that carry translations in the Cyrillic script.

But tourism from Russia is unlikely to rebound quickly because its economy is expected to shrink by 5% this year, the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development said earlier this week. Its economy has been hurt by falling prices of oil, which is a big export, and by sanctions imposed against by the West following the country's conflict with Ukraine. Both developments have led to the dramatic depreciation of the rouble against the dollar. Ukraine's economy has also not been faring well for a variety of reasons, including the conflict.

From taxi drivers to owners of beach shacks and small hotels, the tourism sector is feeling the pinch. "In Calangute, business is down by at least 70%," said Prakash Chavan, a taxi driver. "If the slump persists the next season, I will have to sell my taxi and take up another business." Calangute is a popular beach in north Goa.

Last-minute shocks

Last week, Abhijit Haldankar, general manager of Arambol Plaza, a hotel near Arambol beach, which is popular with Russians and Ukrainians, had a last-minute cancellation of charter tourists from Ukraine.

Over the past decade, however, local factors have also dimmed Goa's allure. Numerous posts on VKonkakte, a popular Russian social networking site, suggest that rude tax drivers, hotels that overcharge foreigners, a corrupt police and shoddy infrastructure have become deterrents.

“If you do not leave a big tip in shacks, they [waiters] say, 'Go away and never come again',” said Julie Gankevich from St. Petersburg in one post.