Foreign tourists walk past a row of empty beach chairs on Anjuna Beach in Goa, in this September 2016 file photo. The state has long attracted Western holidaymakers with its relaxed vibe, but rapid construction, swelling crowds and fears over people's safety are threatening its reputation as a tranquil haven. (Photo by Indranil Mukherjee/AFP)
The planeloads of foreign tourists and pleasure-seekers are no longer descending on the coastal state of Goa — a bastion of Christianity in India — with such regularity, lured by its palm-fringed beaches and hippie vibe.
The lines of local tourists vying to try their hand at jet-skiing or paragliding have also shortened in this former Portuguese colony that sits on the country's western coast.
For the first time in years, hotel occupancy rates reportedly shot down to around 50 percent on average over Christmas and New Year, significantly lower than in previous peak seasons in this former tourism hot-spot.
But now Goa's tourism industry is in trouble, industry experts say, and increasing costs are just one factor.
Britain's Rob Humper has been a regular visitor in the past but he doesn't plan on returning anytime soon.
"We're backpacking folk. The food here has been really good, but we won't be coming next season. It's hard to afford the taxes, visa prices, and the ever-growing basic room rates, and even harder to find available trains," he said.
"I don't blame the locals for wanting more profit, but I wonder if they've shot themselves in the foot," Humper added.
Other tourists have taken to social media to express their gripes, especially about what they see as over-inflated prices.
"For those with white skin, the prices are doubled, even tripled. I doubt I will return, rather look at Southeast Asia," one disgruntled traveler posted on Facebook.
Lower taxes in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as their more liberal visa policies, are poaching tourists, said Savio Messais of the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa.
The Goods and Services Tax (GST) the federal government introduced in 2017 has made room tariffs uncompetitive, Messais said. High petrol costs and spiking taxi fares were cited as other contributing factors.
He took issue with the government's "lopsided policies," and said that Tourism Minister Manohar Azgaonkar has not met with other stakeholders since he took charge of the ministry in March 2017.
Meanwhile, Catholics in the state have been campaigning for more responsible tourism that respects the local culture and protect the environment.
Church officials in Goa, where Christians make up a quarter of the state's 1.4 million people, have for decades campaigned in favor of developing tourism policies that respect the local culture and protect the environment.
The problem now is the tourism industry has lost its sense of direction, according to Goa Archdiocesan Father Maverick Fernandes, who heads the Centre for Responsible Tourism.
"It has become a free-for-all. Our plea to the government has been to promote community-driven tourism. We do not see any serious move [on their part] to address issues such as the deaths of tourists. The government's casual approach has hit tourism," he said.
"If tourists don't feel safe, they won't come," he added, noting that at least 245 foreign nationals have died in Goa in the 12 years leading up to 2017, according to media reports based on police records.Some 20 tourists die in the state every year on average. Some pass away from natural causes, are killed in accidents, or die from drug overdoses; others are either confirmed or suspected of having been murdered.
Father Savio Fernandes, director of the Diocesan Council for Social Justice, said the mountains of garbage, the loss of the area's natural beauty due to rampant development, and the high costs of food, board, and transport are turning tourists off.
He said alarming numbers of domestic tourists treat Goa as a littering ground, smashing or hurling empty beer and water bottles, even scattering food stuff and wrappers.
However, while tourist operators and hotels report a widespread downswing in tourists, official data from the government data shows no decline; quite the opposite, in fact.
The data shows that 7.7 million tourists visited in 2017, including 6.8 million Indians and nearly 900,000 overseas tourists. That marks 300 percent growth since 2012, when 2.7 million tourists arrived, according to the data.
Moreover, official statistics show that in the first six months of 2018, 481,000 foreign tourists turned up, surpassing the year before.
"We don't believe the government figures," said Messais. "Every stakeholder has complained of a huge drop in footfalls."
According to his calculations, 55 percent fewer Russians and 25 percent fewer Brits took a trip to Goa in October and November last year compared to the same period in 2017.
He said the industry estimates the overall drop in the rate of foreign nationals who visited in the final two months of 2018 stands at around 40 percent.
The tourism minister also told the media recently the government was committed "to providing all support possible to make Goa the destination of choice for tourists. Measures are being taken to make tourism a memorable experience."
But for people like Jaime Barreto, who was born in Goa but is based in the U.K., the government has proven itself incapable of even organizing a proper taxi system.
Some years ago the state-initiated a pre-paid taxi service at the airport to stop cabbies from overcharging tourists. But that system now charges 30 percent higher fares than taxis operating outside the airport, critics say.
"It has become an exploitative system with no authority providing checks and balances," Barreto said.
Cab driver Prakash Desai admitted many of his colleagues were getting greedy, and even losing their moral compass.
"One of my clients of ten years was shocked when he was presented with a bill for 32,000 rupees (US$450) for hiring the taxi for six days. Following my intervention, the bill was settled at 20,000," Desai said.
He said entrenched taxi operators have been resisting the entry of online taxi services such as Uber, as well as a government move to introduce digital fare-meter devices that use GPS to track taxis and connect them to an emergency system.
Minister Azgaonkar attempted to bring down the cost of hotel rooms by proposing on Jan. 4 that a bill be drawn up to cap room rates.
However, Messais' organization warned the move could further damage the tourism industry and adversely effect the local economy, of particular concern at a time when Goa is reeling from a ban on iron ore mining.
"Our pricing is based on input costs and taxes," he said. "The tariffs vary among hotels depending on how they are rated and what standard they adhere to. So any effort to impose a cap would destroy rather than nurture the industry."
Travel agents say tax rates of up to 33 percent for tourists end up doing more harm than good, and compound other problems like traffic congestion, and reports of rape, murder and other crimes involving tourists.
Others bemoan the lack of professionalism on the part of those tasked with promoting Goa as a holiday destination.
Rights campaigner Ranjan Solomon, a consultant who specializes in conflict situations, pointed out that visitors to the state have to contend with an overall decline in quality.
"The quality is going down in terms of infrastructure, access to facilities, law and order, and the attractiveness of the beaches," he told ucanews.com. "There's a lot of overcrowding, with too many different kinds of people coming, which makes the situation less pleasant," he added.
According to Solomon, rising costs are not the real problem. "Tourism planning is close to zero. It needs to be decentralized to local village governing bodies so that they feel a sense of ownership when new measures are implemented."