Death on the beach

Death on the beach

Goa’s glittering blue waters conceal jagged reefs, strong currents and a lethal undertow – a vivid metaphor for the problems of India’s most popular palm-shaded paradise. Robin Gauldie reports

First published in ITIJ 88, May 2008

Goa’s glittering blue waters conceal jagged reefs, strong currents and a lethal undertow – a vivid metaphor for the problems of India’s most popular palm-shaded paradise. Robin Gauldie reports

A wave of fatal incidents involving tourists has cast a dark shadow over the sun-kissed sands of Goa, India's most popular beach resort and a favourite with independent travellers, package holidaymakers and second home owners. Yet information that might help keep tourists out of trouble seems to be conspicuously lacking from official sources.

Statistically, it is now safer to be a British combat soldier in Afghanistan than to be a holidaymaker on the palm-fringed beaches of Goa. According to the Ministry of Defence, 91 British combatants or MoD civilian personnel have died in Afghanistan since allied forces invaded in October 2001 – 65 of them in combat or from wounds, 26 from other causes. In contrast, at least 40 Britons are reported to have died in Goa in 2007. Ten more died or were killed in the first three months of 2008. Many of the deaths were accidental.

More than 50 people – Indians as well as foreigners – drown every year on Goa’s beaches, where sparkling blue seas conceal jagged rocks, strong currents and a lethal undertow. In February, Goan authorities pledged a Rs1.5 -billion (£20-million) investment to train lifeguards, supply first aid and rescue equipment, and provide ambulance services at Goa’s most popular beaches (ITIJ 87, April 2008, Baywatch promised for Goa following death).

“Top priority is being given to upgradation of safety and security initiatives with additional emphasis on revitalising beach safety at all the popular and crowded beaches with the introduction of state-of-the-art monitoring system [sic], life saving techniques and technology,” said Goa Tourism Development Corporation (GTDC) chairman Shyam Satardekar, in his latest message on the GTDC’s website. Fine words. But they come too late for the latest British victims of Goa’s treacherous waters.

The latest fatalities were Stanley Horne (70) from Bexley and Clare Smith (37) from Dover. Witnesses said Ms Smith got into difficulties while swimming in rough seas at Morjim, North Goa, and Mr Horne – an expatriate resident in Goa – drowned while attempting to save her.

at least 40 Britons are reported to have died in Goa in 2007

India still lags well behind Thailand, overall the most lethal destination for British holidaymakers. On average, more than 200 Britons die in Thailand each year, compared with around 120 in India. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office says most of those who die in Thailand are long-term, elderly residents and their deaths are due to natural causes. But the upward trend in tourist fatalities in India is alarming.

Tourism booming

The number of foreigners visiting Goa has risen steadily, from under 315,000 in 2003 to more than 380,000 in 2006, the last year for which precise figures are available. Goa has its own north-south divide. Resorts like Anjuna and Vagator in the north still attract older alternative travellers squeezing the last dregs from the hippy dream that first brought them to Goa in the easy-going 1960s, along with a contingent of hardcore 1980s ravers and a steady flow of starry-eyed – and sometimes fatally naïve – younger travellers. Meanwhile, southern Goa (south of Panaji, the state capital, and its airport) is the province of upscale, internationally branded resort hotels and package tourism. The witches’ brew that is Goan tourism also includes a growing population of elderly and relatively wealthy expats who have bought cheap retirement homes in the sun – an estimated 3000 from the UK alone – and a new wave of nouveaux-riches arrivals from post-Soviet Russia. And more than two million people visit Goa every year from within India itself.

Goa’s booming tourism-driven economy attracts investors, entrepreneurs and workers from all over India. Most, like the traders from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Kashmir who peddle their colourful, trashy wares in Anjuna’s famous ‘hippy market’, or the tribes of itinerant labourers who live in temporary hovels beside the state’s many building sites, are simply trying to make a living.

But Goa also attracts fraudsters, parasites – and predators. In April last year, retired civil servant Denise Higgins (52), from Oxfordshire, was knifed to death at the apartment she had rented in Margao while she waited for completion of the house she planned to live in. Anand Kamble (27) from Mangalore in neighbouring Karnataka state, with whom she had become friendly, was charged with her murder.

The death in February this year of a teenager from Bideford in Devon, UK, has placed an even harsher spotlight on the seamy and dangerous underside of Goa’s apparent paradise. The body of 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling was found on Anjuna beach in the early hours of the morning. It was revealed that she had been drinking in one of Anjuna’s beach bars until around 3 am. Initially, local police attempted to dismiss the teenager’s death as accidental. Under pressure from her family, their lawyer and the media, it was revealed that she had been raped and killed. Two local men have since been charged with her murder. The incident is a chilling echo of the death two years ago of 19 year old Katherine Horton, who was raped and murdered by two islanders on Ko Samui in Thailand – a destination with a hippy past and a tourism demographic that is very similar to Goa’s and driven by the same market forces: guaranteed sunshine, low prices, and a ready supply of recreational drugs.

more than two million people visit Goa every year from within India itself

Goa's huge, multinational, floating population would present challenges to even the most competent of modern police forces. But following the murder of Scarlett Keeling, Goa's police stand accused of ingrained corruption, bumbling incompetence and simple laziness in dealing with her case. Sources allege that graft is endemic, with entrants bribing their way into police uniform and paying further bribes to superiors and politicians for promotion, while using their position as officers to extort money from drivers, shopkeepers and businessmen, and accepting cash to turn a blind eye to the activities of Goa’s numerous drug dealers.

Information gap

Foreigners who are familiar with the Goan scene also say that few new arrivals know much about local customs, local sensitivities and local risks.

“Indian lads are largely deprived of sex with local girls because of the strict rules of their society,” says one long-term expat resident living in Colva, in southern Goa. “Then here in Goa, they see young European girls in extremely skimpy bikinis on the beach and even walking around the streets in the main holiday towns. To many young Indians, they look as if they are offering easy sex. It boils down to Westerners failing to understand Indian society, its deprivations, its morals, its weaknesses. In fact, few try to understand and most behave as if they were still in Europe.”

Could they be better informed? And who should do the informing? “We are very much in favour of travellers being better informed of the risks they face when they travel,” says David Cameron, chief operating officer of Travel Security Services, a joint venture between International SOS and Control Risks. “We see considerable value in individuals and managers with responsibility for travelers getting independent, professional advice on issues of security and health risk. We believe that this advice is best provided directly by an experienced security specialist or medical professional.”

Out of almost 1900 words of advice and warnings about local travel in India, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website has just 55 words specific to Goa, warning potential second home buyers of strict rules governing property deals. There is no mention of the deaths of the last 15 months. In contrast, the FCO devotes around 400 words to warning against travel in Jammu and Kashmir and almost 600 words to the dangers of travel to the remote northeastern states of Mizoram, Manipur and Tripura – regions in which Indian security forces are engaged in operations against a portfolio of insurgents including Islamic fundamentalists, Maoist revolutionaries and ethnic independence fighters, and which receive only a tiny number of British visitors in comparison with booming Goa.

So, is the FCO perhaps over-focused on the threat of terror in far-flung corners of India – and insufficiently aware of more mundane dangers in more popular areas?

“A change of perspective might be appropriate,” says Association of British Travel Agents communications officer Sean Tipton, adding that ABTA will urge the FCO to raise the level of its coverage of Goa. “The FCO is normally extremely receptive to input from the travel trade and the travel insurance sector,” Tipton says. But, he adds, travellers themselves must bear some responsibility for their own conduct. “The normal rules apply in India just as they do anywhere else. Drugs are illegal in India, and people who will sell you Class A drugs are not necessarily the nicest of people.”

Should insurance companies warn clients more prominently that their policies will not cover them for accidents or fatalities while under the influence of drink or drugs? “It wouldn’t do any harm, but I can see why insurers would be reluctant,” Tipton says. “It isn’t the job of the FCO, or the insurer, or the travel agent to make people use basic common sense.”

the FCO has no plans to flag up Goa as a danger spot

Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman Matthew Costain concurs, but says the FCO has no plans to flag up Goa as a danger spot within its coverage of India. “The safety of British Nationals abroad is a principle concern for the FCO,” Costain states, quoting from the FCO’s long-standing boilerplate script. “We therefore attach great importance to providing information about personal safety and security overseas to enable people to make informed decisions about travel. The Indian travel advice page on our website does make reference to serious sexual offences in Goa.” Costain also points out that the UK maintains a British Tourist Assistance Office in Panaji, Goa’s capital, with a permanent staff of three, answerable to the UK’s Deputy High Commission in Mumbai.

But according to ABTA, most UK holidaymakers in India are on their own when it comes to looking after their own personal safety. “Nearly 70 per cent of holidaymakers in India are independent travelers”, ABTA public relations manager Frances Tuke points out. “This ratio is unlikely to change dramatically.” She says recent incidents must be kept in proportion. “Just because there have been three high profile deaths of British tourists in Goa so far this year, it does not mean that, as a destination, it is anymore dangerous than other holiday areas. The number of UK nationals dying in India in 2007 was 126 (out of 958,000 UK visits to India). In Spain it was 1,591 out of 14.4 million. That translates as one in 7,603 chance of dying in India compared to Spain where it is one in a 9,000 chance.”