"The essence of Goa lies in its marvelous expanses of palm fringed beaches and azure-blue seas, all warmed by the sun and local hospitality."
Vikram Devdutt, Secretary of Tourism, Government of Goa.
For vacationers and tourism marketers around the world, "paradise" is a promise often made but less frequently delivered. To many, sun, clean beaches and a laid back pace of life are part of the broad definition of paradise, but something more is required to make it truly special.
And then the place is usually invaded.
Thats whats happened to the Indian region of Goa, throughout its history.
Goa is situated on the Arabian Sea in south-west India. It has a total area of approximately 3,700 square kilometres. There are no big cities, just a few commercial centres, none which reflect the craziness of Indian cities.
With its 106 km of coastline, it is a place of natural abundance and tranquillity, envied throughout the country.
There is no doubt, Goa is profoundly different from the rest of India. The landscape is made up of paddy fields, coconut and mango groves and long beaches. Sea breezes fill the air, but there are also several problems.
In 1510 the Portuguese occupied Goa and made it one of their colonies. The Portuguese aimed to use Goa as base for the spice trade; their other motive was to spread Christianity.
The famous Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, arrived in 1542. Today, the Basilica of Bom Jesus (a World Heritage Monument, famous throughout the Roman Catholic world) hosts Xaviers tomb. It is an enormous mausoleum for the great saint. Roman Catholicism remains the areas major religion.
The Portuguese ruled from 1510 to 1961 451 years in total. They built baroque cathedrals, government palaces, austere monasteries and estancias, elegant homes.
Indias independence in 1947 ultimately led to Goas liberation. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indias first Prime Minister, threw the Portuguese out of the country. On Dec. 19, 1961 Goa became a Union Territory of India. But, it wasnt until May 30, 1987 that Goa was upgraded to a state in the Indian Union.
Goans are proud and profess to have a different mentality than their Indian countrymen. They have a different language, culture, and way of life. Goans state that the bond was strong between colonizers and the colonized. Today they blame Indian politicians for not living up to their election promises.
"Indians cut down our forests and created havoc," said one unhappy local.
Goans eat bread rather than chapattis; many are Roman Catholic, not Hindu. Although public signs can still be found written in Portuguese, the language is no longer taught in public schools.
Goas second invasion came in the 1960s: the hippies. The 60s flower children flocked to Goa. It was a cheap place to live, the drugs were cheap, and the beaches were pristine. World peace was discussed by tie-dyed teenagers as they consumed hash brownies and smoked their brains out.
Today Goa is a major destination for tourists, and the region is struggling with the latest wave of invaders.
Goa is split into two districts: North Goa and South Goa. Communities formed around their beaches, Anjuna, Chapora, Calangute, and Colva.
Every Wednesday afternoon, a local flea market is held at Anjuna Beach. The market is packed with items from all across the country: Tibetan folk jewelry, Kashmiri papier mache, Rajasthani glazed pottery, leather chappals (sandals), tie-dyed dresses, shirts and shorts, gods carved out of sandalwood, almost anything can be discovered. Bargaining with vendors is hard business. Dont fall into the trap of buying the first thing you see. Guaranteed youll find it later at a cheaper price.
For the adventurous, Indias first bungee jumping facility is located close to Anjuna Beach. Other ambitious municipal plans include a yoga centre and a golf course.
Like other communities, there is an ugly side: crime, drugs, prostitution, pollution, and major environmental issues to battle. Goa shares the same problems as resorts around the world, such as seasonal staffing, staff housing, low hotel occupancy rates at times and the impact of tourism on local resources. Prices get driven up and the municipality isnt equipped to manage the growth. In the past there werent any trained professionals to cope with the massive change.
Tourism has had a major impact on local resources. For example, in a country where people lineup at their local wells for drinking water it is trucked in to fill swimming pools and water lawns at five-star resorts.
Goa generates 30 per cent of Indias annual tourism dollars. The region embraces approximately 300,000 visitors per year, second only to the Taj Mahal, which hosts approximately 20,000,000 visitors per annum.
Most recently the Goan Toursim Board has implemented a Go Goa 365 Days a Year marketing plan. They are targeting Israelis, people from the Gulf, and the Russians. Their master plan for the next 20 years is to discourage backpackers and encourage a better class of tourists. Lately however, there seems to be an annual national crisis that is keeping tourists away from India altogether.
Claude Albaras is a local lawyer for the Goa Foundation, a non-governmental organization comprised of individuals from Goa who are committed to protecting the Goan environment.
Albaras explained: "In 1986 the foundation was set up because the trustees felt Goa needed an independent, research-based centre that would concentrate on studies relating to the Goan ecosystem. More particularly, the trustees felt their organization should evaluate the environmental impact of government and private activities within the state and also act as a watchdog for the Goan public."
Today the Goa Foundation has become well known for its work to protect the beaches from pollution and from illegal encroachments by five star resorts. Plastic water bottles, which are littered everywhere, are also part of the shoreline scenery.
Albaras and his colleagues have a challenging road ahead of them. They are tackling several issues, such as plastic bottles, garbage, noise pollution and even the exploitation of women who are used in government advertising.
Albaras isnt against tourism. "The overall best policy is yes to tourism. But we need sustainable tourism that provides year round stability to locals. In order for locals to get a piece of the pie, theyve had to re-invent themselves. Fisherman are now taxi drivers."
For people interested in visiting Goa, it is at its greenest from mid-June to the end of September, when the monsoon is at its strongest. This is when Goa is deserted and if you can take the heat, youll find amazing deals.
If you dont mind sharing Goa with plane loads of travellers, the best time to visit is from October until the end of May. The restaurants, the shops, the night clubs, the beachside shacks and the river cruises are all open for business.
For seafood lovers Goa is a total flavour burst: clams, squid, crags, lobster and prawns. But there is much more to the menu than just fish and rice. The Hindu cuisine is mostly vegetarian but the curries are unique and theres bound to be one to thrill anyones palate. The fruits just dont get any fresher.
Goas national drink is feni. There are two varieties, coconut and cashew. They are 100 per cent alcohol. If youre not careful, they will creep up on you and youll pay for it the following morning.
And true to the Portuguese heritage, there is Goan Port wine.
There is no question that Goa is an exotic pearl. It is gloriously natural.
As travellers we must show consideration for the local society and conduct ourselves with proper etiquette, just as we expect people to behave when they come to our country. The Goa Foundation, private enterprises and the government have a long way to go to meet both the needs of guests and residents. However, Goa was the first state in India to have a coastal management plan approved by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forestry to regulate all development along Goas coastline. There is reason to hope that all sides will manage to work together.
The faded touches of the Portuguese still remain, and the future will depend on how much reverence is bestowed to the land from both locals and visitors.
Sri Lanka welcomes back tourists as it recovers from civil war
"Ceylon, undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world."
Late one March afternoon, I landed at Bandaranaike International Airport, 30 kilometres north of Colombo. The monsoon was in full force. Palm trees were standing up against the wind, their branches splayed out against the dark sky. I took a taxi through the relentless rain and headed south. I wanted to go straight to the beach.
Sri Lanka changed its name from Ceylon in 1972. Shaped like a teardrop falling down from India, I soon discovered Sri Lanka is glorious.
The Tamils and Singhalese gave inhabited the island for 3,000 years; unfortunately, they have spent most of that time fighting with each other. The north and east are home to the Hindu Tamils. The rest of the island is home to the Buddhist Sinhalese. But the perpetual political instability has, until recently, meant few tourists visited the island.
There were three kingdoms in 1505 when the Europeans began to colonize Ceylon: Jaffna to the north, Kandy in the highlands, and Kotte in the southwest. The Portuguese ruled until 1658, the Dutch until 1798 and finally the British who took over until independence was granted in 1948.
Sri Lankas first independent government was formed by DS Senanayake in 1948. Twelve years later, in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first female prime minister in the world. But despite an apparently progressive electorate, tensions between cultures increased. Governments changed frequently over the years and rebel factions were formed.
The Tamils felt alienated, and by the mid-1970s they began to get violent. In 1975 a teenager by the name of Vellupillai Prabhakaran and his friends founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE. Discontent, and violence, escalated. The Tigers wanted an independent Tamil state, called Eelam. Massacres wiped out innocent civilians. Amnesty International condemned both sides for torture and disappearances. For almost two decades the country created some of the worst atrocities in recent Asian history.
Finally, on Feb. 22, 2002, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, with the Norwegian government playing an important intermediary role in the agreement. The objective of the MOU was to give greater autonomy to areas in the north and south parts of the island. Both sides agreed to move forward to settle the conflict and restore peace to the country.
The change in the last year is real and it is palpable. A local guest house proprietor told me, "After the MOU was signed, locals felt peace. A year ago if a member of a Tamil family didnt return home from work or school by late afternoon it used to leave family members in deep worry. With the cessation of hostilities, people are visiting friends and relatives in the evenings and children are playing cricket in the streets."
Tourists are also visiting Sri Lanka again.
It was a four hour journey from the airport to Mirissa. It was almost midnight when I arrived and I was exhausted. The place felt vacant and unfriendly, but I awoke in the morning to sheer ecstasy. Birds sang and in the distance waves were crashing the shoreline. Yawning, I stood in my door way gapping at the lush, lime green, manicured lawn, with hammocks strung between palm trees. Thankfully I hadnt walked into one of the hammocks in the middle of the night.
I strolled across the dewy lawn and stepped onto the squeaky white sand. The beach surpassed all my expectations. The curved shoreline was clean. The water was clean. And other than a few beachside restaurants and bungalows, there wasnt too much else around. Paradise, I said to myself.
After a couple of restful days lounging on the sand and in a hammock I ventured off to the port town of Galle. The Dutch built the fort in 1663; today it is a World Heritage Site. Inside the fort walls are hotels, restaurants, churches, mosques, and shops. I strolled along the top of the forts walls just as the sun was beginning to set on the Indian Ocean.
My walk ended at a restaurant specializing in seafood. The menu featured crab, prawns, lobster and local fish, all served with a salad and chips. And naturally, dinner was completed with a steeping cup of hot Sri Lankan tea.
Tea from the island is world famous, and a major export of the Sri Lankan economy. It is grown on a bush that is pruned back to about one metre in height. Women pluck the tea leaves and then they are dried before being processed. Plantation and factory tours are available on most of the estates in the country.
Between Galle and Mirissa, on a quiet stretch of beach, are turtle hatcheries. Several tanks are home to different species: the green turtle, the olive-backed ridly turtle, the loggerhead turtle, the hawksbill turtle, and the leathery turtle. All five species are endangered. It was a miraculous feeling to hold a three-day-old turtle. It was so gentle and so tiny. I wondered how on earth it would ever survive life in the ocean.
The hatcheries have become a tourist attraction, and most visitors pay a modest entrance fee or give a donation to support the work of the hatcheries. Ironically the resorts along the coast are detrimental to the egg-laden turtles.
While it is struggling with tourism and the industrys impact on the natural environment, Sri Lanka is revelling in the freedom that grows from peace.
I was back in Colombo the day the war started in Iraq, Thursday, March 20. At my guest house, over breakfast, I watched the BBC broadcast events from the Iraq-Kuwait border.
Later that morning, as I spent some time in a department store, I heard loud voices coming from outside. I could hear shouting and traffic horns blaring above the normal Asian city noise.
I walked through the department stores security gate and into a demonstration. Protesters were trying to climb a statue while they were burning the American flag. I cautiously took out my camera and snapped a few photos. The protesters were all men. They were extremely well organized even their banners and signs were professionally made. They shouted their grievances and angrily marched on through the intersection while the military watched.
I was in a vulnerable position. Although I stood amongst the pedestrians, and felt reasonably safe, I went back inside the department store and waited for the protest to pass.
On my way back to my guest house, I passed the British and American Embassies. Military personnel guarded their entrances, but there werent any demonstrators. Later, on the evening news, I learned that demonstrations were happening all over the world.
For the people of Sri Lanka Im sure they were grateful their nation now tolerates demonstrations. With so much ugliness in the world today, lets hope the peace process on the teardrop island will hold, and both sides will see the benefits of truce.