Russians in Goa, down to a trickle, still swing to the beat
Goa records arrivals between 3-4 lakh from Russia and 30-40k from Ukraine annually. These numbers have reduced drastically, first due to pandemic and now due to the war
The love that the Russians have for Goa has often been reported in the media and anyone visiting Morjim and Arambol in North Goa would know why this coastal belt was being vastly referred to as ‘Mini Russia.’ What had started as a trickle of Russian tourists ended up becoming a fast-growing tourism market for this beautiful beach destination.
Russians and Goa have been synonymous since the time of the former Soviet Union. India and the former Soviet Union have had historic ties that formed the basis for a strong connection developing between the two friends. As the Russian markets opened and a larger number of people began traveling outside the country, India and Goa in particular became their favourite haunt. Most Russians back in the day, as old-timers in the Goan hospitality business recall, found a freedom that they had never experienced before.
Says a former Morjim panchayat member, under whose watch many Russians also got involved in local businesses like real estate to support their visiting countrymen and women, unlike any other regular tourist who swings by for a holiday, most Russians would make the best use of their long-term visa and sometimes spend up to the entire six-month stipulated time here. “In Russia, they had to follow rules. In Goa, they were treated as special guests where no questions were asked and there was no one to intrude into their privacy. This made them feel special,” this former panchayat member recalls.
However, somewhere since around 2014, all this has begun to change, he says. Former Morjim sarpanch Amit Shetgaonkar, who had sent notices to those who put up signages in Russian using Cyrillic alphabets during his tenure in 2017, says that he observed the Russian interest in doing business in Goa dwindling after the Russian invasion of Crimea in February 2014. Several Russians who ran various businesses in Goa began shifting their base to Crimea, he claims. Though there is nothing to substantiate Shetgaonkar’s claims, there is definitely a decrease in the number of cases being booked against Russians in Goa.
For locals like Shetgaonkar, though the Russians bring in business and revenue, not everyone is very happy with them, given their arrogance. And despite them keeping to themselves most locals believe that the Russians in Goa seemingly for business purposes are part of a mafia that grew stronger after the collapse of communism. They believe that this mafia has set its eyes on buying up property in Goa by forging local partnerships.
However, Vikram Verma, the Goa-based Russian counsel for the Russian consulate has been quoted in the local newspaper as saying that the number of Russians actually buying property is minuscule. Of the 90,000-odd visitors from Russia, only about 200 arrive on business visas, while the rest are tourists. The number of Russians having invested in property is also roughly said to be a few hundred.
One of the reasons why Morjim has been called ‘Mini Russia’ is because it had at least 10 established restaurants run by Russians over the past decade. Before the pandemic, when the Russian presence was much larger there also used to be a kindergarten that would keep the children occupied as their parents un-wound or catered to their work.
As per police records, cases against Russians have been mostly pertaining to overstaying and a few brawls. This, however, does not stop the locals from alleging that Russian criminals have managed to flourish in Goa due to a favourable ecosystem that supports narcotics with support from law enforcement and corrupt officials at every level.
The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has completely slowed down the arrival of Russian tourists which had taken a beating when Covid cases began rising during the Omicron outbreak. Goa on average records arrivals between 3 lakh to 4 lakh from Russia and 30,000 to 40,000 from Ukraine annually. These numbers have reduced drastically, first due to the pandemic and now due to the war.
Goa is currently receiving one chartered flight from Russia every 10 days and one flight a week from Kazakhstan. There have been no chartered flights from Ukraine this season.
While the lack of tourists from Russia is a worry for charter operators and hoteliers banking on them for business, those tourists who have since holidayed and returned to Russia are yet to pay their dues in full. This has led to the hotel and travel operators having approached the directorate general of foreign trade and the department of commerce seeking their intervention.
Also, many of the tourists stuck in Goa and other parts of India are finding it difficult to make payments, according to TTAG. Due to various international sanctions, payment service providers such as Visa, American Express, and Mastercard have suspended their Russian operations. This has resulted in credit cards being blocked. Though Russian tourists have applied for fresh credit cards, the applications are pending as banks are yet to issue cards using China’s UnionPay or Russia’s MIR.
“There are several queries from tourism and travel operators in Goa and Kerala over pending payments from Russian tourists. In some cases, they have returned to Russia but are yet to make full payment. This should get resolved through an alternative payment mechanism,” officials said.
But while their numbers might be dwindling, the Russians and even Ukrainians in Goa have kept the night parties and get-togethers going even as they wish for peace to prevail. Even as the local community keeps tracking the war with an eye on bettering its tourism business, parties at Morjim and Arambol have been keeping these tourists busy as they dance away to devotional songs on an Indi-Pop beats.
War or no war, we have not heard the last of the Russians.
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)