Susan Marling's Traveller's Checks

No disaster here, but Goa's buildings are under threat

A journey to India is always bittersweet. Hardship casts a long shadow, even on the beautiful beaches of prosperous Goa - especially in the aftermath of the earthquake in Gujarat, 800 miles north of here. The papers are full of recriminations, of lessons not learnt, of warnings and building regulations ignored.

A journey to India is always bittersweet. Hardship casts a long shadow, even on the beautiful beaches of prosperous Goa - especially in the aftermath of the earthquake in Gujarat, 800 miles north of here. The papers are full of recriminations, of lessons not learnt, of warnings and building regulations ignored.

Curiously, here in Goa it is buildings which are central to the tourism debate - which ones to encourage, which to knock down. The government has been keen to welcome five-star resorts to south Goa which, unlike the north, has escaped the rash of hotels built to accommodate the cheaper end of the package holiday market and the influx of winter migrant ravers from Ibiza. The Leela Palace is by far the grandest, and the Taj Exotica the most recent, of these well-manicured, impressively marbled retreats. But they, and many of the other big hotels, have not made themselves popular with some local people - not least because of their efforts to close down, bulldoze or otherwise force out of business that essential component of a Goan holiday - the beach shack.

"Shack" is perhaps too derogatory a word. These are beach cafés, made simply from a frame of wood thatched with palm, with a few tables and chairs set in the sand. They serve anything from English breakfast in the morning to Goan lobster (with fireworks) at night. When the season ends in April and the monsoon begins, shacks are dismantled as though they had never been. The popularity of the shacks (whose loyal European guests are treated to a family welcome each time they return) is a thorn in the hoteliers' side. Sebe d'Souza, chairman of the Shack Owners' Association, who runs his own Boat Shack on Candolim beach told me that bully-boy tactics have been used. The government had tried to ban shacks completely and had now settled instead on a Byzantine lottery system for issuing licences. The hotels, meanwhile, try to sign up their guests to half- or full-board to keep them on site, a ruse which "only ever works with first-time guests", according to Mr D'Souza.

The official concern for the welfare of tourists on the beaches has led, this last week, to the delivery of 40 new chemical toilets intended for service along the coast. One of these bright pink sentry boxes now stands behind Mr D'Souza's shack and, in theory, he is in charge of it. It has arrived with a very fat instruction manual but no door key. The question of replacement chemicals and maintenance is also unresolved.

The buildings most at risk in Goa are the colonial-style mansions that were the homes of Goan officials and retainers employed by the Portuguese. With their owners cut off from an income after the Portuguese colonists left in 1961, the houses have, with a few exceptions, been left to deteriorate, or have been abandoned to squatters. The houses are immensely handsome with steep-pitched roofs sloping down to form deep verandahs and sitting porches. The rooms are cool and lofty, built around a courtyard garden and with shuttered windows that are often glazed with oyster shell rather than glass. Antiques and sepia photographs scattered through some houses give a glimpse of former grandeur.

Unlike the Portuguese-built churches here, which are supported by a Catholic foundation, no protection is offered to these buildings. Restoring them would be a difficult but worthwhile job for a charitable organisation such as The Landmark Trust. Rather than see the houses turn to dust, why not renovate and run them as guest houses for the Panama hat-wearing tourist with a taste for nostalgia?

The worst tourist blight in Goa is people who don't use buildings at all. I've just been to the beach at Agonda, an idyllic boulder-strewn sandy bay famous for turtles and tall palms. Parked under the trees were a dozen or so "traveller" vehicles - huge, overland trucks hung with fuel tanks and dirt bikes and decorated, often enough, with maps of the journey so far. Terrific adventure, you may think. But talking to John Fernandez, who runs the Carferns beach restaurant and a few rooms (£3 a night with fan and shower) behind the beach, it's another story. These travellers, mostly from Germany and Holland, pay nothing to park, and obscure the view from Mr Fernandez's place. Sometimes they stay for a month. They buy supplies in the market at rock-bottom prices, cook for themselves, and contribute nothing to the local scene except human waste dumped in the bushes. No doubt these people will go home and congratulate themselves for having "done" India and making the trip last six months. This is not green travel. It is mean travel.

s.marling@independent.co.uk

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