Goa, India (CNN) – In July, when the threat of Covid-19 ebbed out, the Goa government declared the popular Indian state open to domestic tourism after months of lockdown.
Since then, thousands of travelers have flocked to this safe beach paradise. Traffic jams during the day are back and decibel levels have risen at local nightclubs as the party returns to Goa.
But has this destination once been associated with eradicated hedonism and monstrous commercial tourism returned to its old ways without thoughts of the negative economic, environmental and social impact?
This group of 20 different tourism companies, formed in 201
Here we take a deeper look at the offerings from several of these companies and find out how they are working to reinvent Goa for the better.
An attentive approach to dolphin watching
The Terra Conscious Ocean Biodiversity Expereince tour includes dolphin watching.
Ulrich Müller / Terra Conscious
Its most popular is the Ocean Biodiversity Experience, which includes dolphin safaris and takes approximately three hours.
Just after dawn, we push in a cheerfully colored fishing boat into the estuary of the Chapora River before heading out to sea.
Mitra offers an exciting briefing on the humpback dolphin in the Indian Ocean – even using a stuffed toy dolphin as a demonstration support.
But it is not dolphins we encounter when we enter deeper waters. Just below the surface there is a multitude of jellyfish.
Mitra says they are attracted to the growing number of plankton close to the coast – a consequence of global warming – while their predators (sunfish and turtles) are in decline for the same reason.
“We need to think of the marine ecosystem as an interconnected world, where everything affects everything else instead of existing in isolation,” says Mitra.
After some time, a glimmer of gray and pink appears as the mammals hover through the ocean, searching for prey. They surface and move so fast that it’s hard to catch more than a fleeting glimpse, but nonetheless, it’s exciting to be so close to these beautiful inhabitants from the depths.
The boatman makes no attempt to chase them and trigger a stress response.
Mitra explains that Terra Conscious has partnered with the traditional dolphin watching boats to give them a bigger share of the business while raising their operational standards to comply with globally accepted ethical standards for running such tours.
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, where it reports on (and if possible rescue) marine life being stranded on Goa’s numerous beaches.
Terra Conscious’s specific role with the IUCN is to coordinate the operation on a daily basis, while the two groups also maintain a stranding database that is regularly sent to the Forest Department.
Fresh food, fresh ideas
Goas Prana Cafe serves dishes prepared with organic ingredients from the local area.
Greetings from Prana Cafe
Some of Goa’s restaurants are also responding to the call to make a greater commitment to sustainability.
“The idea of Prana relates firstly to the foods that are brought completely fresh to the table (it is never stored another day) and secondly to the overall focus on using local organic ingredients,” says founder Vikram Malaney.
Dishes range from delicious shrimp buns flavorful with ginger and garlic to hummus and couscous salad. Innovative smoothies are made from unique ingredients such as goji berries, almond milk and dates.
The café itself is housed in a soaring thatched hut built in traditional Tamil Nadu coastal style that uses only wood and palm trees without the use of 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 their annual artist retreat.
Once a week it hosts a farmers market, while guests are once a month encouraged to take part in a beach clean-up drive.
Profits are donated through a family fund and used to sponsor educational films focusing on environmental issues and also to provide free consulting services with local NGOs who need help conceptualizing, implementing and monitoring their projects.
Enriching local experiences
Make it Happen offers guided walks through Goa’s colorful Fontainhas district.
Greetings from Make It Happen
Goa has a rich cultural heritage dating back centuries of Hindu, Muslim and Christian rule under the Portuguese, a fact often overlooked by the crowds rushing after 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 creating livelihoods (patronizing cafes and eateries along the way and supporting local musicians and dancers).
“We curate experiences for life lessons that should unfold with every personal interaction on our trips,” says Victor.
Its flagship tour is a walk through Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter of Panjim, Asia’s largest and oldest district.
Fontainhas is named after the small spring that bubbles up at the bottom of the Altinho hill. Its narrow streets, filled with standing balconies with wrought iron railings and walls painted daily in a multitude of colors from yellow to magenta, are a pleasure to explore.
During a recent tour, our young guide gets us to try typical Goan sweets at the venerable January 31 bakery, where the tour ends at another café, Nostalgia, where we are treated to a soulful rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” by the local musician Maxie Miranda.
Our second cultural tour is an e-bike ride on Divar Island, a large river island on the Mandovi River. Here lies a piece of rural Goa that has clung violently to its past, it is 6,000 inhabitants who have rejected all attempts to connect them by bridge to the mainland.
We ride our bike on a battered old car ferry that pulls its way across Mandovi and is transported into a quiet world of uncultivated fields, winding roads and lovely churches.
Everywhere on the green island are fascinating traces of a Hindu civilization that was annihilated under Portuguese rule, including hidden idol caves and ancient ruins of temple baths. After three hours of exploration, a delicious vegetarian meal at Devayaa Resort is a welcome end to the trip.
Konkan Explorers offers tours of Goa’s beautiful mangrove forests.
“As a trained anthropologist, I was always fascinated by the complex relationship that Indians had to the natural world, while as a trained sailor I could draw on my nautical experience of growing up as part of a sailing family in Marseille,” he tells CNN Trip.
“Konkan Explorers was the obvious way for me to combine these two passions.”
We board the small specially designed Red Mangrove fiberglass boat from the Chopdem ferry and are soon on our way up the Chapora River towards the current of the current as the tide recedes.
Conservation is part of the package, and solar panels on the canopy provide power to run the navigation equipment and the marine toilet.
We cross around for about an hour before dropping anchor in the middle near a large mangrove swamp, where we climb into the expedition kayaks with sit-on-top and throw towards the swamp.
Soon we are engulfed by a mysterious shadowy green world when gray langur monkeys swing out of sight and mangrove crabs spread down through gnarled tree trunks. The water is pretty shallow here, and at some point, Ribo jumps out to complete a mini-biology lesson.
Several of us follow and sink into nutrient-rich black mud, which Ribo encourages us to polish on our faces and arms until we look like hidden commands.
Then it’s back to the mother ship and time for stand-up paddle boarding.
The whole trip is fun and satisfying, the crew’s extreme professionalism and the detailed knowledge-based briefing given by Ribo ensures a positive experience with water.
Behind the scenes, Konkan Explorers is committed to protecting the environment in which they operate, with the entire crew participating in a cleanup run on the river every two weeks. Twice a year, the crew brings together local school children as part of their efforts to educate the locals about the importance of protecting the area.
Luxury in natural surroundings
Cabo Serai’s cottages provide easy access to the sea.
Greetings from Cabo Serai
The palace cottages are equipped with every luxury and offer easy access to the sea, which fills a secluded bay 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 stone, mud and coconut straw.
Water is served in copper dispensers to eliminate disposable plastics, and waste is carefully handled through garbage aggregation and composting.
“At Cabo Serai, we are proud to have instilled a culture of attention in our staff and in our product that allows us to offer guests a true experience of well-being and sustainability,” explains resort manager Trupti Wesley.
This commitment to sustainability extends to the resort’s restaurant menus. The dishes are prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients from the local area.
In terms of community involvement, Cabo Serai employs a significant number of its staff from the surrounding villages, organizes clean-up of beach drives and sterilizes and feeds the stray dogs near the resort.
For those wishing to explore, Cabo Serai offers some very interesting trails with panoramic views of the cliff, including one to the distant fort of Cabo De Rama, one of Goa’s five important forts.
Built by the Hindu Soonda dynasty, it was removed from them by the invading Portuguese in 1763, who used it as a main bastion in their coastline defense. The scattered fort has fallen into ruin, and there is nothing left but the ramparts and a few iron cannons, but it offers some commanding views of the Arabian Sea and has a functioning chapel dedicated to St. Anthony.