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How Goa's holiday homes have weathered the pandemic

The state has the highest proportion of holiday homes in the country, a trend that’s hurting the local environment and culture

Goa’s appealing blend of East and West makes it India’s getaway capital.
Goa’s appealing blend of East and West makes it India’s getaway capital. (Getty Images)

Heta Pandit has seen Goa’s character change drastically since she made it her home in 1995. The empty roads, clear blue skies, clean beaches and slow pace of life—the reasons she moved from Mumbai—have been replaced by traffic jams, high-rises, malls and tourism waste. “And lots and lots of people,” says the 66-year-old resident of north Goa’s Saligao who chairs the Goa Heritage Action Group, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the built and natural heritage of the country’s smallest state.

The constant construction work across Goa is replacing freshwater springs and forest cover, Pandit says. “Goan village communities are shrinking into their shells; they are unable to cope with the onslaught.”

The onslaught she’s referring to is the massive influx, over the years, of people with disposable income looking for a break from the city—a trend that has only picked up steam since Goa opened its borders post-lockdown and many more Indians from outside the state decided to shift base, temporarily or permanently, to work from a more scenic location.

The practice of buying a second home or a vacation house in the hills or near the beach is not new. Since the lockdown, however, there seems to be greater interest in engineering an escape to Goa. From less than 15,000 passengers in June, the first full month of operations after flights restarted, November recorded nearly 300,000 passengers, 75% more than October, according to official data.

There has also been an uptick in enquiries for vacation rentals and house sales since July, with people from cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi looking for options to move away from the dull work-from-home setup, says South Goa’s Aatish Babani, managing director at Aansav Realty & Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd. “There has been an increased interest in our beach belt housing projects (in Varca and Benaulim) from outsiders since the lockdown restrictions started to ease,” he says. “The city project, mostly meant for locals, hasn’t seen any interest.”

Pandit’s concern is more about the way new houses are being built. “They make vacation houses with swimming pools, in architectural styles that have no context or relevance to local heritage or design, where the building materials are sourced from outside the state. They do not see that they are changing the entire character, landscape, demography, architecture and culture of a community.”

A Step Back In Time

Historically speaking, Goa has all the ingredients of a getaway capital. Writer and academic researcher Jason Keith Fernandes explains: “India’s relationship with the former Portuguese colony has been shaped by what I call the British gaze. For Victorians, southern Europe was a place they could escape to: not only for the milder climate, but also to escape the oppressive social norms in England. They looked at the Portuguese, as they did other southern Europeans, as lazy and socially permissive, a lens that British Indians inherited while looking at Goa.”

This blend of East and West is an integral part of Goa’s mass appeal, going back to the hippie trail of the 1960s and 1970s. The Flower Power generation in the US, rejecting the Vietnam War and the politics of materialism, found in Goa a refuge to express its Western-ness in an Indian space. Affordable hostels and flea markets along the north Goan coast are enduring symbols of this era.

Subsequently, economic liberalisation paved the way for a more commercial tourism industry. Easy access to loans, low-cost airlines and aggressive marketing led to more tourists and investors—and land prices soared. “Around 2004-05, when I was handling the marketing and sales for Air Deccan,” says Babani, “all our Goa flights used to be full. If you saw the passenger manifest, there were hardly any Goans in it…. This gave me an idea that the next trend is going to be the sale of second homes.”

For the urban elite, a second home in Goa is a status symbol. Ashish Bhatia, 58, a healthcare professional from Chandigarh, bought a two-bedroom apartment in a gated community in Arpora in December 2016. “We decided to buy the place once we realised we vacation here a lot…. Our home in Chandigarh is very different, it’s closer to the hills, so Goa offers a change of pace,” he says. “I visit around twice a year. The house is locked for the rest of the year.”

His story fits into a larger pattern: Goa has the highest proportion of locked homes in the country—almost one in every five homes is unoccupied (according to the 2011 census). The rising demand for vacation homes has led to the number of homes in Goa increasing by 25%, three times its population growth, between 2001-11 (according to censuses).

Saligao resident Heta Pandit has been living in Goa since 1995.
Saligao resident Heta Pandit has been living in Goa since 1995.

Besides the ambience, Goa offers easy access to real estate. Unlike other holiday destinations such as Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh, there are no restrictions on how much land non-residents can purchase. As a result, real estate firms have projects specifically earmarked for clients from metropolises.

Fashion stylist Akshay Tyagi, 34, who moved to North Goa on a two-year lease at the end of May, says he was in search of a slower pace, away from the din of the city. “My partner and I moved into a four-bedroom stand-alone villa, Portuguese-style, which comes with a pool and a garden. It sounds ludicrous because this costs us almost the same as our two-bedroom flat in Bandra (Mumbai).”

Can You Even Afford it?

Naturally, real estate prices are soaring—a 2 BHK in South Goa can cost anywhere from 60 lakh to 1.2 crore. Rates are 40% higher in North Goa because of the land rates. Homes in gated communities and mansions—a staple among vacation home buyers—start at 3 crore and 13 crore, respectively.

As luxury homes eat into the land, long-time residents are wary of new economic pressures. Game Of Homes (2020), shortlisted for the Nagari film competition on urban spaces, looks at some of these fears. Donovan Gracias, one of the film-makers, says the project is based on their own team’s anxieties about housing and land affordability. “We realised that the affordability of a home (in Goa, their place of origin) in the near future would be a massive hurdle to overcome,” he says.

The problem, says Vishvesh Kandolkar, associate professor at the Goa College of Architecture, is “when a wealthy few, who do not have any stake in Goa’s future, take hold of much of the land, putting pressure on scarce resources of the state. Goans, who usually do not have these kinds of deep pockets, then do not get access to basic housing.”

A growing realty sector also implies an influx of construction labour. Without proper housing for workers, shanties too are growing alongside luxury homes. The Goa Economic Survey for 2017-18 shows that the slum population grew by 81% in 10 years. As Gracias puts it, “Many love the Goan landscape and its idyllic sensibilities, but because of rampant construction of real estate that nobody lives in, that Goa is in an endangered state of existence.”

The real estate market in Goa functions like much of the rest of the state’s economy, effectively unregulated and filled with scams and illegalities, says writer-photographer Vivek Menezes, a resident of Miramar. “In this arena, Goa is suffering from an abysmal lack of governance and administrative incompetence.”

The real estate boom is also threatening the nature of coastal towns and villages where these homes are built. “Villages have something called critical densities. When you build huge apartments in such areas, you not only destabilise the delicate ecological balance of such settlements, you also disrupt villages’ population statistics. The high-maintenance second-homes projects have to rely on the same infrastructure that is meant for the village, whether it is roads, water supply or sewage networks,” explains Kandolkar.

Not surprisingly, resentment against outsiders has been rising—and the brunt is being borne by the poorer migrants and daily-wage workers who make for easier targets, says Kandolkar.

In sustaining Goa as a vacationer’s paradise, any criticism of state policies by locals is seen as a hindrance to the tourism and industrial sectors. This was evident in July, when state borders were reopened even as the public healthcare system struggled to keep covid-19 cases in check. Widespread criticism by residents was brushed off on grounds of economic recovery. It’s evident too in the state’s seeming determination to push ahead, despite protests, with three infrastructure projects that threaten the biodiversity at the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park.

Goa’s identity has been changed, says Andrew Pereira, a resident of Socorro. “I grew up in a village where I had never seen a plastic bag on the roadside. Today, the new residents are dumping their waste by the roadside or in brooks and streams in which we used to play as children. Looking at plastic bags filled with waste on Goan roadsides is now the new normal.”

Malavika Neurekar is a Goa-based writer.

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