Armed police put damper on Goa beach parties

Under the palms near the Fort Aguada Beach Resort, a luxury hotel built inside the crumbling ramparts of what was once Goa's most formidable Portuguese castle, police have set up a sand-bagged observation post.

The post is one of a series of "bunkers" being built along the Goan coast to help fortify it against seaborne terrorist attacks of the kind that brought Mumbai to a halt last month. "Soon this fortress will be a bastion of armed guards," says an official at the Fort Aguada resort, a sister property of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower that was attacked in Mumbai.

With the peak western holiday season of Christmas and new year under way, the tourism industry in Goa, the main driver of the state's economy, is in crisis. The attacks and the global economic slowdown have led to 30-40 per cent fewer tourist arrivals than last year.

To make matters worse, the police have banned beach parties until January 5, citing a terrorist threat.

The announcement will deter the thousands of young foreigners, especially Israelis, and domestic tourists who flock to the former Portuguese enclave for its beach shacks and parties.

"This time of the year, we should have had a huge surge in the number of tourists but what we've seen is that these numbers are not there," says Elvis Gomes, the Goa state government's director of tourism.

Charter flights from Europe are arriving in Goa but the agents that booked them months ago are struggling to fill seats, says Ben Saldhanha of Saldhanha Holidays (UK), a tour operator.

The slowdown has come at a bad time for India. It needs tourist dollars to help counter an 18.4 per cent depreciation in the rupee against the dollar this year. Last year, 4.3m foreigners visited India, 9.4 per cent up on the previous year, and spent $10.7bn (€7.7bn, £7.2bn).

The security forces have launched a massive operation to restore confidence in Goa after the Mumbai attacks. Kishan Kumar, Goa inspector-general of police, says the navy and coastguard have stepped up patrols and checks.

Police patrol the beaches and highways at night and are banning parking in busy tourist areas. Hotels have been ordered to conduct background checks on guests checking in.

"We are trying our level best to make Goa safe," says Mr Kumar.

The luxury hotels have been taking these precautions to heart. At the Taj Exotica resort in Benaulim, south Goa, the driveway to the lobby has been blocked with two parked cars and security men do not allow non-guests to enter.

On the beach near the resort, Sanjay Fernandes looks out over his deserted beer shack which would normally be full of tourists. Nearby is a bunker. Heavily armed police patrol through here 10-15 times a day. "Security is good at present - sometimes too good. We're worried tourists will be concerned that something is about to happen," he says.

Mr Gomes argues that it would be better for security forces to adopt an intelligence-based approach. "I'm not very happy about the bunkers on the beach or the gun-toting police everywhere," he says. "The two worlds don't mix. This is a beach destination. People come here to forget the world."

In Anjuna, formerly the main haunt of young Israelis, there are almost no tourists. The few left are either the very adventurous or those too drunk or stoned to care about terrorism.

"We hesitated a bit because we were coming with the kids, but we decided to go anyway as Goa is a long way from Mumbai," says Sebastian Chialli, a young Parisian visiting with his wife and two children.

Vitoliy Laschchenko, a Ukrainian living in Russia, says his experience has been overwhelmingly positive. "We had not heard about it [the terrorist attacks] until our friends in Russia told us."

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