How tourists in Goa are disrupting life in historic neighbourhoods

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It is barely 8 am on a weekday, but the lanes of Panjim’s historic wards – São Tomé and Fontainhas – are buzzing with activity. The narrow streets of the “Latin Quarter” are brimming with tourists accompanied by an entourage of photographers and their assistants. Couples in formal gowns and suits pose against a bright doorway, gazing lovingly at each other while the photographer shouts out instructions from across the street: “Look here! Look up! Smile!”

Further down, a couple frolics in the middle of the road while the photographer zooms in and out, capturing a wide array of angles. An assistant holds up a reflector while another requests passing traffic to wait for a minute until the perfect shot is captured.

This scene is replayed endlessly, at all times of the day, throughout the year. Nothing is sacred, not even the façades of the churches and chapels that dot the area. Unable to bear the constant shouting and peering into their windows, residents in this neighbourhood now keep their windows and doors tightly shut. Most suffer in silence, unwilling to take on aggressive tourists every day. Others, though, are not giving in yet.

Some residents and businesses now display “No photography or videography” signs on their homes and establishments. Many tourists not only ignore this, they actually pose next to the signs with gleeful smiles. It is this blatant disrespect of residents’ requests for privacy and arguments about how “a street is public property” that infuriates fed-up homeowners.

A colourful street

“There are pre-wedding and post-wedding shoots, pre-baby and post-baby shoots,” said São Tomé resident Aloo Gomes Pereira. “We are fed up of the noise, the disturbance and the arrogance of some of the tourists.”

Pereira is a tourism industry veteran and has seen the character of the neighbourhood change dramatically over the past few years. “When this first started we said, ok, let them click photographs, they are harmless,” he said. “Then over time we saw them putting their feet on the wall. Then they started screaming, shouting and dancing on the street. I ask them, is this your playground?”

Pereira holds the professional photographers responsible for the situation. “They are the first culprits to promote this ‘colourful street’ and they are profiteering at the cost of someone else,” he said. “This is not fair.”

Like many residents here, Pereira and his family have had several confrontations with tourists and photographers. “They say they are on a public road and have every right to take a photo of my house,” he said. “I tell them, ‘But you are disturbing me! What about my privacy? What about my sanity?’

Residents report that photographers often instruct clients to lie down or sit in the middle of the road, obstructing traffic. Wedding shoots include bridesmaids, make-up artists and assistants. Traffic jams are routine, especially on weekends or holidays.

A couple pose in the doorway of a building in Panjim. Credit: Vivek Menezes

Everyone’s a photographer

The backdrop of the gaily painted heritage homes in Goa has always drawn visitors. It is only in recent years, though, that the volume of tourists and photographers has increased exponentially, to the alarm of residents.

With the advent of cheap smartphones and the explosion of photo-based social media, everyone is a photographer or a budding influencer. India now has over 400 million Instagram users and is adding new ones at the rate of 100 million every nine months. “Best Instagrammable places in Goa” is a popular topic for many travel sites.

Especially popular as with camera crews is Rua 31 de Janeiro (31st January Road), which begins in São Tomé (near the Mermaid Garden) and ends at the Fonte Phoenix in Mala-Fontainhas. Historian Vasco Pinho, in his book Snapshots of Indo-Portuguese History III, says that the name of the street commemorates the revolt against the monarchy on January 31, 1891, in the northern Portuguese city of Porto. This ultimately led to the creation of the Portuguese Republic in 1910.

Other sections of the wards of São Tomé and Fontainhas, the oldest in Goa’s capital, also have distinct personalities that is much more than their façades. Though now viral, these “colourful streets” have a history across centuries and continents.

For most visitors, though, everything in the area is “hashtag Fontainhas”, erasing the identity of São Tomé and its history, much to the annoyance of residents.

No privacy, no interest in history

“There is absolutely no privacy,” said a São Tomé resident who did not wish to be identified. “Inspite of us having gates, tourists walk into our homes like they own the place.”

This sentiment is echoed by many residents. Tourists make themselves comfortable in the entrance of homes, sit on staircases eating, drinking or making loud phone calls. They ring door bells at all hours enquiring whether there are rooms to let, if they can see the house or if they can use the toilet.

“It’s not just tourists outside our doors who are the issue,” said a resident of Fontainhas. “They click photos of us in our verandah, send drones into our bedrooms, walk into our gardens and pose among our potted plants, often breaking them.”

The tourists are here only for photographs, she said: “They don’t read up on the area, they are not interested in the history or architecture of the place.”

Neither are they concerned about residents being ill, or elderly or disturbed. She said couples can often be heard fighting while some tourists bump into the cars of residents while reversing down the narrow lanes. “It has become so bad that we are thinking of moving out of the area,” she said.

No photography signs are displayed on a home in Sao Tome. Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias

Threat to person and property

In old Panjim, the nuisance goes beyond the noise. A resident said their newly painted walls have been dirtied by tourists posing with their feet up. “Some even climb up on the window-sill and sit there to pose,” said the resident. Recently, a part of the new cladding on their wall was broken after a tourist leaned against it.

“We put flower pots to protect our walls but tourists move them time and again,” said a resident.

It is not just the walls and property that are in danger. The neighbourhood is beginning to feel unsafe, residents complain. A few days ago, alert neighbours chased off someone trying to break into a home at 3 am.

Last month, a teacher named Josefa Pinto was attacked outside her São Tomé home.

“Tourism is changing the culture of Goa,” said Gustavo Pinto, an eminent veterinarian and Josefa’s husband. “We’re seeing it in the food that’s served in restaurants, in the music that we hear. There’s little left of the Goa we grew up in.”

The Pinto family spent decades in the area but has now moved to another apartment. “We had people walking into our house ‘by mistake’, which is scary for us and our daughters,” said Josefa Pinto.

The cost of invasive tourism

Closer to the Mandovi river, residents like me are under siege the casino industry which operates from ships that dock on the pier. Our homes are surrounded 24×7 by vehicles belonging to casino drivers, employees and patrons. Their vehicles occupy every available space, often insensitively double-parked, blocking others from leaving.

In the past 13 years, residents have called the police numerous times at 3 am or 4 am to complain about raucous casino workers who come off their shift and proceed to have impromptu parties on the road. Their cars are stocked with alcohol and food wrapped in foil packets. Broken bottles and litter is routinely found outside many homes.

Vans full of casino-goers park on the road, disgorging out men who strip to their underwear and change into their “casino clothes”. The vehicles often carry gas cylinders to allow for cooking by the roadside, though this is prohibited in Goa. We have expended a great deal of energy being vigilant, objecting, chasing away drunks or cleaning up after them.

It is exhausting fighting a constant battle.

Such invasive tourism is an act of appropriation. Tourists looking for Goa’s “European vibe” would dare not behave like this overseas. In a residential area that is not gated, there is a fine line between public and private. There seems to be no legal basis for preventing someone from taking a photo of your home but as a resident put it, “We have a right to privacy and control over where photos of our home appear.”

The photos of homes (often with many of the residents clearly visible) are shared on social media with no little thought for how it could affect privacy or safety. On Instagram, residents can be seen sitting in their verandahs, praying, framed in their windows, unaware their presumption of privacy has been violated by a long lens or a drone. With a significant number of elderly people in the neighbourhood living alone, the concerns about the changing nature of the place have become more urgent.

A photo shoot in progress. Credit: Chryselle D’Silva Dias

In 2021, Goa received over three million tourists, down from its pre-pandemic 2019 high of almost eight million. With the pandemic receding, the footfalls are only going to increase. Residents of this section of Panhim are already dreading the forthcoming festive season.

Look, I get it. When on holiday, everyone wants photographs with a stunning backdrop, especially one that all the cool kids are sharing. So what can aspirational visitors do to reduce the frustration and hostility of the local residents?

First, respect a direct request. If someone has posters all over their house asking you not to take photos or videos, move on. Keep the noise level to a minimum and feet off the walls.

Remind yourself and others that these are not just your Insta backgrounds but that there are people who live behind those walls. These people have a right to peace and quiet, to rest and live their lives without you sending up a drone or peering through their windows. Take your litter back. Leave the potted plants alone – a stolen cutting is a cursed souvenir.

Maybe put that camera down for a second and admire the colours and the graceful lines of the homes. Think about the history the place has seen and hope that when you return – you know you will – these houses will be still standing in all their glory.

Chryselle D’Silva Dias is a freelance journalist who lives in Goa.

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