Panaji: Even as worried tourism stakeholders in Goa agitate about the shrunken footfalls of Russian tourists this season, stories and experiences penned by travellers about Goa on Russia's most popular social networking site offer enough clues to what ails tourism here.


VKontakte is reckoned as the Facebook of Russia with millions of members and a 'Goa' open community group where 52,000 members offer a diverse footprint of experiences, many of them unpleasant, about how greedy cabbies, shabby service, corrupt police and poor tourism-related infrastructure are taking a toll on the state's reputation as a top beach tourism destination.

 

The plight that Miroslava Sherbina pens perhaps echoes in the minds of every tourist, domestic or foreign, when he or she lands at Goa's Dabolim international airport and handles rogue taxi operators who operate without meters.

 

"For less than 100 rupees, they do not even start the car. In the current situation (with the ruble weakening against the dollar) this adds to quite an expense," Sherbina commented on the 'Goa' group, even comparing cheaper fares in Mumbai.

 

Loutish taxi drivers are commonplace in Goa's virtually unregulated public transport sector. Over 7,000 tourist taxis operate in the state and almost none of them charges metered fares.

 

The last few years have seen several scuffles, one even leading to a murder, between taxi drivers and Russians often due to overcharging, miscommunication (Russian tourists rarely speak English and cabbies do not speak Russian) and arguments after alcohol consumption. Russians form the biggest contingent of foreign tourists (over 150,000) to arrive annually in Goa, a state which gets around 3.5 million tourists every year.

 

Efforts made by the tourism department to rectify the taxi problem have been far and feeble.

 

The recent launch of 10 radio taxis driven by women has already hit rough weather following a strike by the drivers citing breach of contract. "We are making efforts. The women's radio taxi is a beginning. It may take some time," Nilesh Cabral, who heads the Goa Tourism Development Corporation, told IANS.

 

Sayana Banzaron, a professional travel agent, calls Goa an "interesting" and "fun" place, but asks her customers to think carefully before buying a travel package to the western Indian state.

 

"Prices are just rising and owners of the grand resorts (in Goa) just get fat in their bellies and forget that they have to work and provide services for that money that they charge," Banzaron told IANS, citing other issues like lack of faith in the police and the dirty eyeballs foreigners get when they wear bikinis on the beach.

 

That drugs are easily available in Goa is an open secret. Several VKontakte users have narrated their narcotics stories in Goa.

 

One such, Sergey Eliseev, said that drugs and alcohol are the two major spoilers as far as a Russian holiday in Goa goes because consumption of both "subsequently leads to inadequate money, conflicts with the local population and with compatriots, accidents while riding a bike" and the like.

 

Others complain about garbage and lack of hygiene not only on the streets and beaches but also in hotel kitchens.

 

"Kitchens look scary. Even in two and three starred hotels, kitchens are full of trash, cockroaches, dust and dirty linen. Not everywhere, but in 70 percent of the hotels," Banzaron said.

 

Even as complaints of Goa as a grudging, inhospitable host for foreign tourists abound, the state tourism ministry has squarely blamed the vagaries of international politics as the immediate reason for the shortfall in tourists.

 

"The Russian problem is that their economy is down. The ruble has come down and their president has asked Russians not to travel outside the country unless it's on an official visit," Tourism Minister Dilip Parulekar told IANS recently when asked about the reasons for the drop in tourists from Russia by as much as 35 per cent.