From Morjim to Fort Kochi, hubs of foreign travellers have become ghost towns

From Morjim to Fort Kochi, hubs of foreign travellers have become ghost towns


On his recent morning walk by the sea in Morjim in north Goa, Gaspar Cardoza, proprietor of the Mama Mids Home guest house, saw a welcome sight: after a long lull, work on the beach shacks had begun in right earnest. As Cardoza will tell you, the town on the Chapora River earned the moniker of “Little Russia” for the number of long-term Russian tourists it drew regularly, resulting in restaurants putting up signs and menus in Cyrillic script, and hotels coming up with names like Pushkin House.

“From November to March, about 85% of tourists used to be foreigners, mostly Russians, who book early and come via charter flights,” says Cardoza. With no charter flights from abroad allowed since March 2020, this annual transformation has ceased. But now, with foreign tourist visas and charter flights finally getting the government’s go-ahead, Cardoza is hopeful that Morjim’s foreign visitors will return. He sees the beach shacks as one sign of revival.

It’s a hope shared by owners of large hotels, small, family-run guest houses, tourist guides and souvenir sellers in destinations that have been bereft of the droves of foreign tourists that they depend on. In 2019, 10.93 million foreign tourists arrived in India, according to tourism ministry statistics, a growth of 3.5% over the previous year. The last year-and-a-half, these stakeholders say, has been unprecedented, with changes that are both tangible – like a crash in revenue – and intangible.

Tourism sector employees and entrepreneurs in destinations once teeming with foreign tourists say the places had become like ghost towns over the last few months. “Not many domestic travellers know about Varkala. So it’s been completely dead for the past year and a half. Cafes and shops shut down, migrant workers went back and we reopened only in August for a few domestic bookings,” says Subin George, general manager of Krishnatheeram Ayur Holy Beach Resort in Varkala, a beach town with rugged cliffs about an hour from Thiruvananthapuram. Jossy Francis, who runs Casa Feliz homestay in Fort Kochi, another favourite among foreigners, shares similar sentiments. “Usually, by mid-November, you would feel as if you are in a foreign country if you walk through Fort Kochi. Now, it is completely deserted,” says Francis. The Kashmiris, who run handicraft shops, were the first to leave last year, and have yet to return, he says.

In terms of revenue, some proprietors like Cardoza who own their property were able to stay afloat with domestic tourists who could stay for long, thanks to the option of remote work. But that does not hold true for everyone. Udaijit Singh, who runs the luxury Dera Amer Wilderness Camp where a night’s stay will set you back by `30,000, says his property has not been able to reach even 40% of pre-Covid occupancy. Indian tourists, he says, are not as keen as foreigners to stay in tents. “We are trying to do business by giving special packages for extended stay,” says Singh. His only guests at the moment are a set of rescued animals, including elephants.

Tour guides, too, have been having a harrowing time. Anand Tiwari, a tour guide in Khajuraho, has only got five assignments in the last 15 months, unlike the two assignments a day for eight months he used to get before Covid.

More intangible but still keenly missed are the conversations and swapping of cultural experiences with foreign guests. Dilip Sharma, who runs the 20-room Bharatpur Palace in Pushkar with his sister, Meena, misses these sorely. “We have had guests who have been coming for the last 20 years, and were like family members. They would tell us what’s happening in Europe and we would tell them about the news here.” Solicitous emails have been exchanged, but it’s not the same, he says. “It’s a bit boring now.”

Some have used the lull to take up online courses or indulge in pastimes they might not have had otherwise. Delhi-based tour operator Vishal Ghai has polished his linguistic skills for future clients. “I took online courses in French, German and Italian, and some refresher courses, too, as guides need to hold conversations with tourists from different parts of the world,” he says. Shivani Seth, another Delhi-based tour guide, who had to dip into her savings to manage expenses, wrote her second book, a work of historical fiction. George, the manager in Varkala, did some marketing courses online.

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With the government issuing foreign tourist visas from October 15 and the first foreign charter flights likely to arrive in November, there is, finally, a renewal of hope. Nitin Jain, who runs a handicrafts shop called Kuber in Khajuraho, has started ordering fresh supplies from artisans for the first time since May 2020. In the absence of the high-spending tourist, Jain had started disposing of his inventory at a discount since they were powdering but is optimistic about a turnaround from January. Tiwari, the tour guide, too, is hopeful of tiding over the crisis.

But experts say the recovery is likely to be gradual. There will be a slow start of foreign tourists, and a full revival is expected by Q3 of 2022, says Vikram Madhok, MD of Abercrombie & Kent, a leading luxury travel company. He has got his first booking from a UK-based group for January 3.

In Pushkar, Sharma says his old guests are still hesitant because they prefer to come for six months at a time and long-term visas are not being issued yet.

Like much else, this will depend on the Covid situation. “We haven’t heard of any charters from Russia yet because cases are rising there,” says Cardoza. Dominic Pereira, who runs the five-bedroom Jes Guest House in Majorda, used to have 70% foreign clientele who would stay for at least a month. He has not had any bookings so far. “It’s the first time we haven’t had foreign guests for so long. But we have to keep our fingers crossed,” he says



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