At around 11 am on North Goa’s popular Baga beach a few years ago, a raucous bunch of domestic male tourists immersed in waist-deep water were frolicking in the sea, swigging beer from the bottle.

Beer done, they smashed the glass bottles and threw the pieces into the water. A foreign tourist standing nearby quietly retrieved the shards and raised them aloft for everyone to see. The message was clear: “Look what some of you are capable of.”

Behaviour like this isn’t unusual. Goa’s authorities have been struggling to manage the state’s beaches and handle rising numbers of instances of unruly tourists since 2005, when the state started drawing fewer international travellers and more short-stay domestic budget vacationers, several of them all male groups. This year itself, several clashes have been reported between local residents and tourists.

Over the decade, the state has taken many steps to keep its beaches clean and safe. In 2013, it prohibited the consumption of liquor on beaches and asked the India Reserve Battalion of the Goa Police to implement the ban. The battalion is routinely asked to deal with tourism-related matters, including cracking down on beach vendors, begging, sexual harassment, littering and busloads of tourists cooking in the open.

However, despite all the rules, implementation is poor. The state continues to see rampant littering and boisterous tourists drinking on the beaches. Related to this is the tragedy of tourists drowning in the sea.

‘Don’t drink and swim’

The matter of drowning deaths came up at a meeting held earlier this month between representatives of the government and hoteliers ahead of the upcoming tourist season. At the meeting, the government said it was considering moving a law to ban people from venturing into the sea after sunset.

Reports of tourists drowning appear intermittently in Goa newspapers, especially during the monsoon when the sea is rough and currents strong. According to a Times of India report, six people have drowned in the state since September 1. Among them were two students from Gujarat who drowned at North Goa’s Candolim beach after venturing into the sea at 3 am.

The state has hired professional lifeguard services firm, Drishti Lifesaving, to watch over 45 major beaches, one lake and a waterfall. However, the service runs only till 7 pm every day.

Few think the proposed post-sunset swimming ban will help when, in the past, warnings on the beach have never been a deterrent for those determined to enter the sea.

Chairman of the Goa Tourism Development Corporation, Nilesh Cabral, said a blanket ban would be futile. “It is my personal opinion, but bans cannot be a solution”.

Hotelier Neville Proenca pointed out that some tourists ignored warnings anyway. “There are already large warning signs on the beaches,” he said. “What do you do when they are ignored, and tourists ignore lifeguard warnings?”

Drishti lifeguards have often complained that domestic tourists argue with them when asked to adhere to timings to enter the sea and to stay within safer designated swim zones.

At the meeting held earlier this month, the lifeguard services even told the government that it wanted a detention bench on the beach to park inebriated tourists till they sobered down to prevent them from venturing into the water.

The provision of lifeguard services does not come cheap. The state government paid Rs 191 crore for lifeguard services from June 2008 to July 2017. This works out to Rs 21 crore per year on average.

Photo credit: Reuters.
Photo credit: Reuters.

Big plans, industry sceptical

At the meeting earlier this month, which was attended by Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and Tourism Minister Manohar Azgaonkar, suggestions to demarcate no-go zones and increase the timings of the lifeguard services were discussed.

The government set up a committee headed by a representative of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa to draft dos and don’ts for tourists.

However, more than a fortnight after the committee was announced, industry representatives said they are sceptical if anything would come of this. “There has been no notification constituting the panel, let alone rules and guidelines for its functioning,” said one hotelier. “The many good suggestions made at the meet were not even put down in the minutes.”

Litter on the beach

Referring to the menace of broken glass bottles on the beach – which even finds a mention in online tourist discussion groups – Cruz Cardozo, owner of a beach shack and president of the all Goa Shack Owners Association, said, “We are willing to stop serving in glass bottles and use only beverages in cans.”

But that may not be enough. Several tourists stock up on alcohol at beachfront liquor outlets before they head to the water. With liquor licences issued to those who are politically connected, there is little hope that campaigns to have these outlets shut could succeed, rued one hotelier in the popular Calangute area of North Goa.

It does not help that allegations of graft and nepotism have plagued contracts for beach cleaning granted by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in 2014. The matter is before the Goa Lokayukta, with allegations against relatives of senior party functionaries. Earlier this month, the Lokayukta recommended that the state government re-investigate the beach cleaning scam allegedly involving BJP’s Dilip Parulekar, who was tourism minister at that time.