Image courtesy: IncredibleIndia.org
As a photo of actor-model Milind Soman running on a Goa beach in his birthday suit went viral, Aloke Bajpai - CEO & Founder of online travel agency ixigo - tweeted that "Goa Tourism should boom now."
Soman's uninhabited birthday celebration would surely bring notice to Goa, but as Bajpai himself knows, the picturesque state on the western coast is already seeing signs of a boom as Indians head to its sunny beaches to get rid of virus blues.
Data from ixigo shows that bookings for Goa have jumped by 74 percent in October, from a month ago. Inquiries are up 66 percent. It's even higher from pre-COVID-19 levels. Year-on-Year, the bookings have grown by 31 percent in October 2020.
"We are witnessing a trend of 'escape tourism' around 2020 with Indian travelers looking at breaking away from the rut of their daily routines. Increasing levels of pollution in metros like Delhi also has tourists flocking to destinations like Goa in search of fresh air," Bajpai told Moneycontrol in a written response to queries.
He added that low airfares, especially from Mumbai, on the lead-up to Diwali are also helping. Data shows that tickets are 27.78 percent cheaper on the Mumbai-Goa route. For the rest, including flights from Bengaluru, Kolkata and Delhi, fares have inched higher.
On EaseMyTrip too, Goa has now emerged as one of the top destinations. The Goa-Mumbai route is the sixth most sought after by its customers.
"If you go by the most popular vacation destination in India it is Goa right now," says Nishant Pitti, CEO of the OTA.
One of the main reasons, adds Pitti, is that Goa is now faring better in terms of COVID-19 cases. The positivity rate in the state is now at 11 percent, as compared to 30 percent a month ago. The rate, however, is still higher than the national average. As of November 5, the coastal state has recorded 44,544 cases, of which 41,849 have recovered.
One of the top tourism destinations in India, Goa annually gets over seven million tourists, with about a million coming from overseas. Winter is the peak season in the state, with many from Europe hiring charters to come down to enjoy Goa's sunny beaches, and escape the harsh cold conditions at home.
In 2020 though, things have been different. Even as hotels and shacks get back to business slowly, overseas visitors are largely absent. Indian government is yet to allow visitors to enter the country on tourist visas. Even if these were allowed, the collapse of Thomas Cook - which used to organise the charters - has impacted the inflows. The few who manage to come to Goa, are on a medical visa.
But the lack of visitors from across the border is being made up by domestic ones.
"Apart from flights, we are seeing people drive-in from Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. People are fed up sitting at home and Goa is one of the favorite options as one can't travel out of the country too," says Gajanan Kerkar, Director, Best Tourism Deals India Pvt Ltd. The company runs over 60 websites that cater to niche tourism segments focusing on Goa.
It helps that the state no longer requires visitors to come with negative test reports. Earlier, the waiting time at the border could go up to six hours.
Up to 70 percent of the hotels in the state have opened up, albeit with lower capacity. The local government has now allowed commercial establishments to open to boost the economy, which is now all the more dependent on tourism as the other major activity - mining - has taken a backseat.
High-end hotels and villas are the most sought out after.
"From March to September, there was hardly any business. But now weekends are full, and during the weekdays the occupancy levels are at 50-60 percent," said Anand Chatterjee, who heads the hospitality business for Viking Ventures that has the franchise of Planet Hollywood in India.
Chatterjee, who runs the flagship Planet Hollywood Beach Resort in Goa, said the property is getting a lot of calls for weddings. "These are mostly intimate and small weddings. We have got confirmations for December and January," he said.
The MICE (Meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) segment remains sluggish. Companies have begun holding events in the state, the numbers have been low. There have been instances of cancellations, or companies reducing the number of participants. "Tomorrow I have a corporate event for which 100 people were to attend. Now it is down to 15," says Adrian Pereira, founder of event management company Clockwork Goa. He has had to cut rates by up to 50 percent.
Chatterjee added that room rates have 'rationalised' by up to 20 percent, though during the weekends prices peak to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Both Chatterjee and Kerkar, agreed that service apartments and villas are doing brisk business. The demand is coming from those who are 'working from home' from Goa. "They book these villas on rentals for three months," said Kerakar. These are also popular because public swimming pools are still closed, but the private ones in villas can be accessed.
The coming months will be critical. Even as demand increases, and so do tourist numbers, leading to the New Year - casinos will soon open and the popular Sunburn music festival has been announced - one eye will be on the COVID-19 numbers.
"COVID-19 is here to stay. We have to learn to live with it, take the necessary precautions, and also get on with our business," says Pereira.