Panaji, India — The Indian resort state of Goa is getting tough on drink, drugs and loud music as the new tourist season starts, to restore its tarnished reputation after the shock murder of a British teenager.
Scarlett Keeling’s death earlier this year cast a long shadow over the party state in western India, with claims that drug abuse and drunken debauchery were taking place with the full knowledge of the police.
But the local force is now looking to crack down on the practice as the first foreign visitors arrive in search of fun and winter warmth on Goa’s inviting tropical beaches.
“From this season onwards, shack (beach hut) owners will be held responsible for drug consumption, sale or deals in their premises,” police superintendent Bosco George told AFP.
Scarlett, 15, had been on a six-month holiday with her family when she was found dead on a beach in February.
At first it was thought she had drowned. But under pressure from her mother, police opened a murder probe after a post-mortem examination revealed the teenager had taken a cocktail of drink and drugs shortly before her death.
A bartender and an alleged drug dealer are currently awaiting trial, accused of plying her with booze and narcotics in one of Goa’s many palm-thatched beach huts. One was said to have repeatedly raped her before leaving her for dead.
George said they were now striving to keep Goa’s beaches drug-free — to allay fears about the safety of visitors and dispel claims against the state home ministry that they allowed pushers to target tourists.
Nearly three million tourists flock to the former Portuguese colony every year, drawn by its climate and reputation as a centre of the hippie counter-culture in the 1960s and 1970s. Of those, some 400,000 are foreigners.
But return visitors could find the nightlife quieter this year, as police have told beach hut owners not to play loud music after midnight, to stick to licensing laws and stamp out drugs.
“The shack owners can’t just get away with any nonsense,” said George, who led the high-profile probe into Scarlett’s death.
Cane-wielding police officers will be patrolling the beaches, stopping anyone seen loitering, especially at night, he added.
“We really want to stop all the illegalities. It’s not the sole duty of police to do so. Everybody has to be conscious not only about their rights but also about their duties,” George added.
Goa’s tourism authority, which regulates the beach huts, has already issued 305 licences to serve food and alcohol on the state’s 105-kilometre (65-mile) stretch of coastline. The huts are also allowed to keep sun loungers.
But some beach hut owners are opposed to the new measures.
“You can’t hold shack owners responsible if someone snorts drugs on his premises,” said Agnelo Silva, who owns a beach hut in Colva, south Goa.
“We are not supplying the drugs and it is the responsibility of the police to check the trade.”
A common complaint is that owners feel that they cannot check every cigarette smoked for signs of drugs. They also fear police harassment if they refuse to comply.
“If we continually frisk or question customers, no one will come to my shack,” said another beach hut owner, Elvino Rodrigues.
Tourist chiefs, though, back the police action.
“It’s a good step. All this while we have been saying that safety and security of the tourists is very important,” said tourism ministry official Lyndon Monteiro.
“If we allow the drug trade to flourish, we will lose good tourists. We want healthy tourism.”