New trend sees tourists flocking to Goa as Diwali approaches

Oct 18, 2014, 05:41 IST | Joseph Zuzarte

The trend is changing with Goa seeing a heavy influx of tourists during Diwali, instead of end of the year, as is commonly believed

The recent mega extended weekend with Gandhi Jayanti on Thursday, followed by Dussehra, the weekend and Eid on Monday, saw a deluge of tourists in Goa, more than the state could cope with.

Shake it up for Lady Luck inside the casino. It is full house at a number of casinos this season
Shake it up for Lady Luck inside the casino. It is full house at a number of casinos this season

There was a collective sigh of relief when some normalcy returned on Tuesday, October 7. But this is only the lull before the storm as Goa’s tourist season traditionally begins with Diwali, which is on October 23.

The Tripurari Poornima, which falls on a full moon night immediately after Diwali is celebrated with great fanfare in Goa. These boats are part of a contest held on that day
The Tripurari Poornima, which falls on a full moon night immediately after Diwali is celebrated with great fanfare in Goa. These boats are part of a contest held on that day

The Festival of Lights marks the start of peak season as droves of domestic holiday-makers pour into the sunny state to blow up their heard-earned Diwali bonus.

That, in turn, is ‘Diwali’ time for the tourism stakeholders as they rake in the moolah. Almost all domestic tourists seem to want a piece of the action in Calangute, the so-called queen of beaches in Goa.

With around 2,000 resorts, guest houses and hotels of all categories and sizes, the best nightspots, and more than 200 shacks, half of all the seasonal beach shacks in Goa, the twin villages of Calangute-Candolim generally take centrestage. The casinos will be deluged with gamblers, high-rollers and the simply curious, because of the great Diwali tradition of gambling.

Says leading hotelier Ralph DeSouza, spokesperson for the Travel and Tourism Authority of Goa (TTAG), “Casinos will have special gaming events. We are aware that gambling is a tradition during Diwali. Gambling facilities are restricted to a few 5-star hotels which have casinos attached, and to the floating casinos in Goa.”

The Deltin Royale is the biggest casino in Goa and is on a boat on the River Mandovi. Action is spread on four different levels over 40,000 square-feet and 123 gaming tables. In Goa, only the four floating casinos have live gaming tables with card games which is the real thing as far as gambling goes. Goa is the only state in India, besides Sikkim, to have casinos.

Normal entry fees are R 2,000, which go up to Rs 3,000 on weekends or during festivals at most casinos. But for a place at the high tables, the minimum entry can be around R 50,000, depending on the season, with gamblers betting in lakhs. And the prizes? In crores.

Money and Diwali, of course go hand-in-hand, with people lighting lamps, the Akash Kandils, to welcome Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity into their homes. According to regular Diwali gamblers, gambling during Diwali is all about luck. If you’re blessed enough to win, it shows you’re in the good books of Laxmi.

Delhi businessman Pankaj Sinha made his first trip to Goa for Diwali last year, and spent most of his time in the casino. After three days of playing American Roulette, Sinha won a jackpot, pocketing R 26 lakh. With the Gods having smiled on him last year, he is going to be trying his luck this year too.

Sameer Kukreja, a leading Mumbai-based banker, is gearing up for the annual Diwali-eve Teen Patti party at his Goa pad. “Even though nobody talks business, it is a great networking opportunity,” says Kukreja. “Typically, we have three to five tables. The minimum buy-in is R 2-3 lakh. It is strictly by-invitation only, with single malt and vegetarian food,” he says.

The action onboard the casinos can be a bit surreal for those not used to seeing money being poured around like water. “It was crazy,” one non-gambler says of his experience. “The rich sit at the gaming tables and are served the best whiskey. They give their wives and children money to blow up at gaming machines.” The air inside these casinos can get quite heady, and never more so than during Diwali.

Earlier, the period between Christmas and New Year was considered peak tourist season, the trend has changed in recent years. In fact, the single biggest entertainment event in Goa is now the Diwali celebration at the Fatorda stadium in Margao, south Goa, which attracts more than 50,000 people. Says DeSouza, “Goa was choc-a-bloc during the long Dussehra weekend. Buses loaded with people descended on Goa.

Almost all these lived in the buses and cooked and ate food on footpaths and other open places. There was no benefit from them to the trade, nor any revenue to the government, except excise on liquor. The insufficient infrastructure was totally over-stretched. We expect a repeat performance during Diwali. These will be standard tourists and those who come to gamble.”

The seasonal shacks on beaches normally start their operations during Diwali after the long monsoon, and are hugely popular with tourists. The foreign charter tourist season also starts around this time when winter sets in Europe, and foreigners come to Goa for a spell in the sun. The sight of bikini-clad foreign women tanning on the beaches is a huge draw for ‘sight-seeing’ domestic tourists. In fact, it has become a fad of sorts for domestic tourists to pose for photos with these foreign ‘bikini babes’ who usually politely pose for the photos. Water sports and boat cruises also start at this time.

Not everybody, however, is happy that Goa has become the go-to place for casinos and gambling, and social activists have ensured that no more new casinos are given licenses. As De Souza puts it, “TTAG supports the stand of the state government where no licenses will be given for new casinos, as we find that the present number is what Goa can handle without losing its positioning in the domestic market, from a family destination to a gambling destination.”

There are others who don’t quite like the ‘modern’ face of Diwali in Goa. A resident of Panjim says, “It is sad that our festivals have degenerated into merry making and ostentatious displays of wealth. The fundamental principle of Diwali, to invoke blessings to battle evils around us, has been lost. We have replaced it with greed and quest of acquiring material wealth.”

Many Goans have also taken to gambling, and there are umpteen stories of wealth squandered, bad loans taken and even murders and suicides because of gambling debts. But the party will go on, as a revenue-deficit government battles to balance the books with taxes from the casinos after iron ore mining, once the biggest industry in Goa, came to a grinding halt a couple of years ago.

All casinos have to pay a hefty licensing fee. There is a minimum annual fee of Rs 2 crore for a 100-square meter casino on land. It reaches Rs 5 crore for above 500 square-meters. Floating casinos pay as per their capacity. For a casino with a capacity of up to 100 persons, the license fee is Rs 6 crore while the maximum is R 8 crore. The government also gets entertainment and entry tax.

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