In all the din of the diplomatic row between India and Maldives, the former decided to flaunt fledgling Lakshadweep as a competing coastal tourist destination to the island nation instead of Goa, which had always been pitted against Maldives till then.
This did sadden the Goa-lovers but it did not surprise anyone. It’s been some time since Goa, fast descending as a tourist haven, has fallen way behind Maldives as a luxury coastal getaway. Similarities between the two have blurred. They’ve walked miles apart from each other.
Maldives is now in the league of the French Riviera, Bora Bora, Seychelles, Bahamas and other such sand-fringed-turquoise-sea coastal places or islands. Goa, on the other hand, is struggling to get there but is being pulled back due to lack of vision, political resolve and economic conservatism.
The two began to develop as a coastal tourist destination at about the same time in the 1970s – when they were still virginal in their beauty with pristine beaches and coral blue seas. Maldives harnessed its unique beauty to build tourism around it. Goa has not been able to fully do that. In fact, it has squandered some of its natural beauty because of unregulated development and over-tourism.
Tourism in both – Maldives and Goa – took off with a few hotels and resorts building properties to sell the untouched sandy beaches to their guests. By the 1980s and 1990s, Goa had become the favourite party destination for India’s rich and famous. It was sprinkled with a few five-star resorts and hotels – Taj, ITC, Ritz Carlton and Leela. This had boosted its image as a high-end tourist destination.
It hardly figured on the budget travellers’ travel list. Hippies and a few domestic backpackers roughed it out in the beach-shacks, fishermen’s hut, at the houses of benevolent Goan hosts or small lodges and guest houses. It was all going well for Goa till then.
Maldives, with its over thousand islands, took a different path to reach its goal of becoming a destination for the high-end tourists. It incrementally built infrastructure to cater to those arriving into the island nation.
There’s no missing the sense of exclusivity and that snuggly feeling of being indulged the moment a tourist lands at the Male airport. They are not niggled by the thought of how they would reach their hotel. A boat or a seaplane from their resort is ready to lift them off. Properties on some uber luxury islands even provide landing facilities to those who arrive on their private jets or charters.
Maldives has kept its strategy tightly tied to attracting luxury-seeking tourists by largely following a policy of ‘one island one resort’. This has kept its room rates in the top bracket. Just before the pandemic, its average room tariff was the highest in the world, beating some of the best coastal tourist destinations of the western countries.
Name a global celebrity and chances are that he/she would have visited Maldives some time or the other. Statistic on arrivals by region put out by the island nation’s ministry of tourism shows it has highest number of arrivals from Europe at 94,725 (54.64 per cent) followed by Asia Pacific at 61,688 (35.59 per cent), Americas at 8,078 (4.66 per cent), Middle East at 7,297 (4.2 per cent) and Africa at 1,536 (0.01 per cent).
In terms of market, China is at the top with 31,744 arrivals (18.31 per cent). At the second spot is Italy with 20,766 arrivals (11.9 per cent) while India comes third with 13,845 arrivals (7.99 per cent). The total arrivals into the tiny island country were 1.77 lakh in 2023.
Maldives’ tourism sector contributes 28 per cent to its GDP and generates employment for a large portion of its population. If tourism and travel are clubbed, they constitute 79 per cent of the Maldives’ national income.
In the 1980s, agriculture and fisheries were the largest revenue generators for it at 35 per cent of the GDP. Tourism was just 13 per cent of the GDP then. Many experts believe today’s heavy reliance on tourism is a bit risky for Maldives if, at all, uncertain times like the pandemic were to befall upon it.
But for now, rapid development has swelled its debt-to-GDP ratio to over 100 per cent of the GDP. This makes it imperative for the island nation to further use its tourism market to earn tax revenues from tourists to meet its high spendings and borrowings to create better tourism infrastructure and improve domestic welfare.
Goa’s debt-to-GDP ratio is projected at 38.3 per cent for the current fiscal. However, this particular data point of the two economies cannot be compared because their economic dynamics are divergent.
Goa’s tourism sector contributes 18 per cent to its GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) while fisheries and agriculture around 3 per cent and 3.74 per cent respectively. Of the current over 7,000 rooms in the state, category B – hotels with six rooms – constitute more than 40 per cent.
In recent times, the tiny coastal state’s crumbling infrastructure and creaky service, which are getting better at a slow pace, have driven away high-end tourists. A tourist’s journey in the coastal state begins with haggling for cab fare or be stranded at the airport.
Most five-star hotels provide airport pick-up and drop services but a large number of tourists arriving into Goa are left to find a mode of commute by themselves. Today, there’s not much in the name of public transport in Goa. This has been a lingering grouse of tourists for more than a decade without any solution.
Once the tourist’s taxi issue is sorted, the vehicle has to weave through heavy traffic to reach the hotel. They get the final jolt from finding that the once secluded and clean beaches have vanished and in its place is a beach chock-a-block with unruly holidayers and garbage.
This is the state of most beaches in North Goa. Many beaches of South Goa have still not been maculated by unplanned and unchecked tourism. There are very few palm-lined beaches with a crystal clear sea that resemble beaches in Maldives left in Goa.
So, it isn’t very baffling if discerning tourists are giving Goa a miss to dash off to Maldives, Thailand, Bali, Seychelles, Vietnam or even Bora Bora at a slightly higher cost. This is reflected in the declining number of foreign tourists. It slumped 80 per cent in 2022 at 1.69 lakh foreign tourist arrivals from 9.37 lakh in 2019.
At some point in the race, Maldives zipped ahead of Goa. India has now picked Lakshadweep to faceoff with the island nation. It’s to be seen whether Lakshadweep rises up to meet the challenge or will fall by wayside like Goa due to its internal economic, regulatory and governance challenges.