Goa, India (CNN) — In July, as the threat of Covid-19 ebbed, the Goa government declared the popular Indian state open to domestic tourism following months of lockdown.
Since then, thousands of travelers have flocked to this safe beach haven. Daytime traffic jams are back and decibel levels have risen at local nightclubs as the party returns to Goa.
But has this destination once associated with untrammeled hedonism and rampant commercial tourism reverted to its old ways, with no thought to the negative economic, environmental and social impact?
Formed in 2018, this group of 20-odd tourism businesses is committed to practicing and promoting responsible and sustainable travel.
Here, we take a deeper look at the offerings of several of those businesses and find out how they’re working to reinvent Goa for the better.
A mindful approach to dolphin watching
The Terra Conscious Ocean Biodiversity Expereince tour includes dolphin watching.
Ulrich Müller/Terra Conscious
Its most popular is Ocean Biodiversity Experience, which includes dolphin watching and takes about three hours.
Just after dawn we push off in a gaily colored fisherman’s boat into the estuary of the Chapora River before heading out to sea.
Mitra offers an engaging briefing on the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin — even using a stuffed toy dolphin as a demonstration prop.
But it’s not dolphins we encounter as we enter deeper waters. Just below the surface are a multitude of jellyfish.
Mitra says they are attracted to the increasing numbers of plankton close to the coast — a consequence of global warming — while their predators (sunfish and turtles) are on the decline for the same reason.
“We need to think of the marine eco-system as one interconnected world where everything affects everything else rather than existing in isolation,” says Mitra.
After some time, a flash of gray and pink appears as the mammals surge through the ocean foraging in search of prey. They surface and move so quickly that it’s hard to catch more than a fleeting glimpse, but nonetheless it’s exciting to be so close to these beautiful denizens of the deep.
The boatman makes no attempt to chase them and trigger a stress reaction.
Mitra explains that Terra Conscious has partnered with the traditional dolphin-watching boat operators to give them a bigger slice of the business while at the same time raising their operational standards to comply with globally accepted ethical norms of running such trips.
But its most innovative program is perhaps a partnership with the Goa Forest Department, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) India and Drishti Marine Services, in which it reports on (and rescue if possible) marine life that gets stranded on Goa’s numerous beaches.
Terra Conscious’s specific role, along with the IUCN, is to co-ordinate the operation on a daily basis, while the two groups also maintain a stranding database that is periodically submitted to the Forest Department.
Fresh food, fresh ideas
Goa’s Prana Cafe serves dishes made with locally sourced organic ingredients.
Courtesy of Prana Cafe
Some of Goa’s restaurants are also answering the call to make a greater commitment to sustainability.
“The idea of Prana links firstly to the food that is brought absolutely fresh to the table (it is never stored for another day) and secondly to the overriding focus on using locally sourced organic ingredients,” says founder Vikram Malaney.
Dishes range from delicious prawn dumplings flavored with ginger and garlic to hummus and couscous salad. Innovative smoothies are made from unique ingredients like goji berries, almond milk and dates.
The café itself is housed in a soaring thatched hut built in the traditional Tamil Nadu coastal style, exclusively using wood and palm fronds with no recourse to concrete or nails. Solar panels are used to heat the water.
Scattered throughout the space are creative works of art donated by painters invited to join their annual artist retreat.
Once a week it hosts a farmer’s market, while once a month guests are invited to participate in a beach clean-up drive.
Profits are donated through a family foundation and used to sponsor educational films focused on environmental issues and also to provide free consulting services with local NGOs that need help with conceptualizing, implementing and monitoring their projects.
Enriching local experiences
Make it Happen offers guided walks through Goa’s colorful Fontainhas neighborhood.
Courtesy of Make it Happen
Goa has a rich cultural heritage stemming from centuries of Hindu, Muslim and Christian rule under the Portuguese, a fact often overlooked by the crowds rushing for the beaches and casinos.
Victor is a strong believer in community-based tourism, meaning Make it Happen contributes to the local economy through its tours by livelihood creation (patronizing cafes and eateries en route and supporting local musicians and dancers).
“We curate experiences for life lessons to unfold with every personal interaction on our tours,” says Victor.
Its flagship tour is a walk through Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter of Panjim, Asia’s largest and oldest such district.
Fontainhas is named for the tiny spring that bubbles up at the base of Altinho hill. Its narrow streets, filled with standing balconies with wrought iron railings and walls gaily painted in a profusion of colors from yellow to magenta, are a delight to explore.
During a recent tour, our young guide has us sample typical Goan sweets at the venerable 31st January bakery, with the tour ending at another café, Nostalgia, where we are treated to a soulful rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” by local musician Maxie Miranda.
Our second cultural foray is an ebike tour of Divar Island, a large riverine island on the Mandovi River. Here lies a slice of rural Goa that has clung fiercely to its past, it’s 6,000 inhabitants having rejected all attempts to link them by bridge to the mainland.
We wheel our bikes onto a battered old car ferry that chugs its way across the Mandovi and are transported into a tranquil world of paddy fields, winding roads and lovely churches.
All over the verdant island are fascinating traces of a Hindu civilization that was obliterated under Portuguese rule, including hidden idol caves and ancient ruins of temple baths. After three hours of exploring, a delicious vegetarian meal at the Devayaa Resort is a welcome conclusion to the tour.
“As a trained anthropologist, I was always intrigued by the complex relationship that Indians had with the natural world while, as a trained sailor, I could draw on my nautical experience growing up as part of a sailing family in Marseille,” he tells CNN Travel.
“Konkan Explorers was the obvious way for me to combine these two passions.”
We board the small custom-designed fiber-glass Red Mangrove boat from the Chopdem ferry and are soon heading up the Chapora River against the flow of the current as the tide pulls out.
Conservation is part of the package and solar panels on the canopy provide the power to run the navigation equipment and the marine toilet.
We cruise along for about an hour before dropping anchor midstream near a large mangrove swamp, where we clamber onto the sit-on-top expedition kayaks and cast off towards the swamp.
Soon we are swallowed up by a mysterious shadowy green world as Gray langur monkeys swing out of sight and mangrove crabs scuttle down gnarled tree trunks. The water is quite shallow here and at one point Ribo jumps off to conduct a mini-biology lesson.
Several of us follow suit, sinking into nutrient-rich black sludge, which Ribo encourages us to plaster on our faces and arms until we look like stealth commandos.
Then, it’s back to the mother ship and time for stand-up paddle boarding.
The entire tour is fun and fulfilling, the extreme professionalism of the crew and the detailed knowledge-based briefing given by Ribo ensuring a positive experience with water.
Behind-the-scenes, Konkan Explorers is committed to protecting the environment it operates in, with the entire crew taking part in a clean-up drive on the river every two weeks. Twice a year the crew brings local schoolchildren along as part of their efforts to educate locals about the importance of protecting the area.
Luxury in natural surroundings
The palatial cottages are equipped with every luxury and offer easy access to the sea, which fills up a secluded cove with steep black cliffs. Built on stilts and on high ground to minimize the structural impact on the jungle environment, all construction was carried out using wood and native materials such as laterite stones, mud and coconut thatch.
Water is served in copper dispensers to eliminate single-use plastic and waste is carefully managed through garbage segregation and composting.
“At Cabo Serai, we are proud to have instilled a culture of mindfulness in our staff and in our product which allows us to offer guests a true experience of well-being and sustainability,” explains resort director Trupti Wesley.
This commitment to sustainability extends to the resort’s restaurant menus. Dishes are made with fresh, locally sourced seasonal ingredients.
In terms of community engagement, Cabo Serai hires a considerable number of its staff from the surrounding villages, organizes clean-up beach drives and sterilizes and feeds the stray dogs in the vicinity of the resort.
For those looking to explore, Cabo Serai offers some very interesting trails with panoramic cliffside views, including one to the distant fort of Cabo De Rama, one of Goa’s five key forts.
Built by the Hindu Soonda dynasty it was wrested away from them by the invading Portuguese in 1763, who used it as a main bastion of their coastline defenses. The sprawling fort has fallen into ruin and there is nothing left but the ramparts and a few iron cannons but it affords some commanding views of the Arabian Sea and has a functioning chapel dedicated to St. Anthony.