Another tragedy in backpackers' haven as Briton dies of suspected drug overdose

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The Independent Online

There was little left to show of a life cut short in a £2-a-night hotel room just a stone's throw from paradise. There were some old T-shirts, a handful of undeveloped films and a battered journal filled with jottings and sketches. The rest of Michael Harvey's belongings had been taken away by police looking for clues.

Mr Harvey, 34, from Manchester, was found dead in his room at Laura's Guesthouse in the Goan resort of Ashwem Beach on Saturday morning, having checked in the night before, sweating heavily and "appearing drunk or something", according to the owner. A postmortem examination concluded Mr Harvey died from a pulmonary and cerebral oedema and police are now investigating whether a drug overdose was the cause.

Mr Harvey was the second British citizen to die in the past fortnight in Goa, a tropical playground that has long been favoured by European tourists for its beguiling landscape and easy-going lifestyle. But many believe Goa also has a darker, more dangerous edge, both as a result of tourists failing to take basic safety measures and a seedy drugs culture that permeates many of its resorts. In 2007, 40 Britons died here from natural and unnatural causes, while there have been 10 deaths so far this year, according to the British consulate in Mumbai.

"Goa is a very safe place, there is no doubt," the state's chief minister, Digambar Kamat, said. "But there are some stray incidents that we are trying to avoid. The tourists come here to enjoy themselves but they should also be a little careful."

Yesterday, Mr Kamat met the mother of 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling, the other British tourist to be killed here. Her family insist she was raped and murdered two weeks ago on Anjuna Beach, about half an hour south from where Mr Harvey's body was found, and that the local police are covering it up. Mr Kamat promised Scarlett's mother, Fiona MacKeown, that there would be a full investigation into the teenager's death and that if any foul play was discovered, the authorities would get to "the root of it".

The family said they were hopeful after their meeting and that Mr Kamat's attitude appeared to have changed since he confronted Mrs MacKeown on a news programme the previous evening and appeared to blame tourists for many of the crimes. "It went very well, it felt like he listened," said the family spokeswoman Dakini Runningbear.

While millions of tourists travel to Goa each year, the coming together of Indian and European culture is not always easy. Foreign women sunbathe topless on the beaches, drug- and drink-fuelled parties roar on into the night and tourists overrun the narrow roads on scooters which they drive without helmets or shoes. Common sense and cultural sensitivity are not always priorities. "I think the Goans are horrified by us," said a Scottish woman who has been coming to Anjuna for years, and has local friends. "If they didn't need to do business with us they would not."

John Fernandes, the owner of Laura's Guesthouse, said he had seen the state change tremendously in the past decade. "Lots of foreigners are coming in," he said. "The [locals] want them to come."

Yet when foreigners do fall through the cracks or else fall prey to some of Goa's more illicit offerings, many people say the police do little to help. It has long been alleged that tourists caught with a small amount of drugs might be forced by police to pay a bribe – either financial or sexual – to avoid criminal charges.

Amanda Bennett, whose brother Stephen, from Cheltenham, was found hanging from a mango tree after he disappeared from a train travelling between Goa and Mumbai in December 2006, has accused the police here of repeatedly lying to her over his death. She said they had even refused to let her formally lodge a First Information Report (FIR) to make them launch a criminal investigation. "The police refuse to allow it despite a continued effort from my family," she said.

In the case of Mr Harvey, who was due to return to Britain in less than two weeks, police are adamant there is no evidence of foul play. But Police Superintendent Bosco George said they were investigating whether drugs played a role in his death. "We will take everything into consideration," he said. "It is quite possible he did have some drugs."

Loui Vangelder, from Liverpool, who occupied a room next to Mr Harvey at Laura's Guesthouse, said he believed the fellow Briton had fallen foul of the darker side of Goa. Just a few weeks ago, he said, a Russian friend addicted to drugs had died in hospital from blood poisoning. He said the hospital had shown little interest in his friend's condition when they realised he was addicted to drugs.

Mr Vangelder, who spends each winter in India, said he was outside his room when Mr Harvey checked in on Friday evening and that he was sweating profusely. He added: "I'm from Liverpool. I see these people all the time... He was another Goan train-wreck."

Andrew Buncombe's Asian (con)Fusion at: