Is ecotourism always a positive? Goa under the spotlight

When I returned to Panaji, the headquarters of the North Goa district—a destination at the crossroads of all sanctuaries making it a perfect place to learn about the interplay between hinterland and tourism—I started getting up early to explore and learn about the nature around the surrounding Campal Forest Department on the Mandovi River. One day, on an expedition to learn the name of the sweet-smelling trees inside the encampment, I met Jivan, a 49-year-old forest officer who’s been working here for the past 11 years.

Jivan can recall the scientific name of all the unique flora and fauna that are found in Goa. “The depletion of forestland is nothing new,” he tells me, “but if ecotourism can start the conversation about sustainability and evoke a sense of responsibility among people, it is worth a shot.”

I thought about our conversation on my way back to the homestay I’d rented near Miramar Beach, a gently arching beach that forms the longest stretch of coastline in Goa. It’s one of the most idyllic, palm-lined strips, and home to many people who work and live in the surrounding protected habitats. But when I stepped onto the beach, I could see a white line of plastic formed where the bluest of waves reach the limit.

I’d arranged to take part in a beach clean-up with a group and the next morning, met Varun Gopal, a 43-year-old local guide and fisherman. Following a summer of political unrest sparked by the unethical cutting of trees in Mollem National Park, he decided to gather willing tourists for beach cleaning projects across Goa. It was both a personal mission and a demonstration of protest, something Mr Gopal, who grew up playing in the forests, hoped to model for the young generation. While the nine of us met as strangers, our discussions on modern travel and shared ideas about climate-friendly tourism brought us closer,  so much so that we decided to merge our itineraries. In an odd reversal of events at the beach, which is often the end goal for those who are travelling here, became our beginning.

Mr Gopal handed us all a ‘grabber’, a tool specifically designed to pick up litter in and under the sand, and introduced us to the task at hand: Walk six feet away from the beach and stop plastic waste at the source—basically, pick up anything and everything that can pollute the waters. “I don’t think we can control the outcome or influence it, but we can be responsible even in a thick fog of unknown,” he told us. “The scientific community is scared but loud, and so are the conservationists who failed to get their voice heard, and people like me who grew up here.”

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