Mass tourism `is poisoning a paradise'

WESTERN package tourism is threatening to turn the Indian state of Goa, one of the newest and most exotic locations targeted by the holiday industry, into a 65km strip of concrete-lined beach "indistinguishable from Benidorm", it will be claimed this week.

Goa, "discovered" by hippies in the Sixties and now depicted in tourist brochures as an archetypal unspoilt paradise, is being "poisoned" by mass tourism, according to the pressure group Tourism Concern.

The group says Goa's "fragile ecology and unique culture are being systematically destroyed by hotel owners eager to cash in on the growing influx of tourists".

The allegations will be reinforced by Clive Anderson, the TV presenter and barrister, who, in a series starting on BBC2 on Friday, examines the local hostility to tourism in Goa - and advises Britons not to go there.

Britons in particular have been involved in tourism's impact. Roger Heape, managing director of British Airways Holidays, says: "The major impact on Goa and environmental issues has been the direct charter operation from the UK."

Officials estimate that the number of tourists visiting Goa has increased from 10,000 in 1972 to well over a million in the early Nineties. One reason has been the increased capacity in Goa's main airport, Dabolim, resulting from a runway extension.

Tourism Concern, which bases its charges on a new report from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests listing widespread and "flagrant" breaches of environmental laws by hotels and holiday complexes, blames British tour operators which use the hotels responsible. It has asked operators to ensure that the hotels they use "do not contribute to the environmental degradation of Goa".

Nearly 20 British operators send holidaymakers to Goa. Many claim to have espoused "green" tourism.

In "Our Man In Goa", part of a new series on "troubled paradises", Clive Anderson says that in 10 years' time Goa will be "just one long strip of hotels and development indistinguishible from Thailand, Miami Beach or Benidorm". He suggests that "not too many of us should visit Goa. We should find somewhere else to go to, with a culture that is not so fragile and with very little of value that can actually be damaged . . . somewhere like Euro Disney."

With a rich mixture of Portuguese and Indian culture, and 105km of coastline - two-thirds of it sandy beaches fringed with coconut palms - Goa is expecting five million tourists by the end of the century. Its director of tourism sees the holiday industry as the "backbone of the Goan economy". Dozens of four- and five-star hotels and complexes are being built.

Local opponents of tourism, such as the Goan Vigilante Army, claim it has brought drugs, raves and child prostitution, and has raised food prices beyond the reach of residents. Tourist buses have been pelted with rotten fish and cow dung.

A report by the Goa Foundation, a local pressure group, accused the state government of overloading the Goan eco-system "with a stunningly large number of tourists whose extravagant demands may only be met by compromising the basic needs and rights" of native people.

Among the findings of the Indian national government report are that hotels have been sited illegally on the beach, beaches have been closed to locals, threatened mangrove and wetland areas have been reclaimed in breach of the law, sand has been quarried from beaches, trees felled, and dunes levelled to make artificial lawns. Sewage is being discharged on to beaches or leaking into paddy fields.

The report says motorised water scooters are "shattering the tranquillity" of beaches, and scores of illegal and ramshackle cafes and shops are being erected. It accuses the state of condoning "indiscriminate" large- scale commercial development.

The Goan government has got round the regulation which forbids building near the high tide line by redefining beaches as rivers. The report says this "defies all logic and common sense".

Among hotels mentioned in the report are the Goa Renaissance, the Cidade De Goa, Goa Penta, Leela Beach Resort, and the Dalmia Taj Village and Whispering Palms complexes.

Other claims examined in Friday's programme are that villagers have been "intimidated" out of their homes by hotel owners and hotels are using water from dams built to irrigate paddy fields.

Tricia Barnett, Tourism Concern's co-ordinator, said: "For several years Tourism Concern has been telling tour operators of Goan environmental groups' concerns about the continuing violation of local environmental regulations and people's rights. As the government of India issued a report which confirms these problems, UK tour operators can no longer dismiss these concerns as unfounded."

Roger Heape said that none of the hotels cited in the report was used by British Airways Holidays but he suggested that tourism in Goa should be subjected to an environmental audit.

Ms Barnett praised British Airways Holidays for being "positive and even- handed" but said that most operators, despite "clapping furiously" at the annual BA Holidays' "Tourism For Tomorrow" awards, held last week, did not recognise that they had any responsibility for environmentally friendly holidays.

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