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Goa rape case threatens India-Russian relations

A brutal attack on a 9-year-old girl resonates far beyond the beaches of Goa.

A general view of Anjuna beach in the western Indian state of Goa, March 11, 2008. (Punit Paranjpe/Reuters)

GOA, India — The approach to Morjim beach is dotted with signs in Russian. "Prechechnaya" (laundry) says one sign painted on a wooden slat hanging from a tree. "Russkaya Kuxna" (Russian food) says another.

Over the last few years Morjim, a beachside village in north Goa, India’s smallest most popular tourist destination, has become a veritable Russian enclave.

But since last week, when the Russian Embassy in New Delhi threatened to issue a travel warning to Russians after a 9-year old Russian girl was raped in broad daylight, Goan authorities and the tourism industry have been scrambling to do damage control.

The strongly worded press release stated that the government was “shocked and deeply outraged by the reports about the disgusting incident.” In addition it stated that the rapist be “subjected to severest punishment in full accordance with India’s laws.”

Russia and India have long shared close political, defense and cultural ties. Goa, as a preferred destination for Russians, is only a recent addition to that relationship. But if attacks on Russian women continue — there have been three incidents in recent months — it could damage the Indo-Russian relationship and affect tourism revenue in Goa.

Goa, the smallest state in the Indian union, depends heavily on tourism. It receives more than 2 million visitors a year, a quarter of whom are foreigners. Although domestic tourism is at its highest level ever, much of the spending comes from charter tourists. Some 75 percent of these foreign travelers come from Russia. In 2008 some 44,000 Russians visited Goa. Since then, that number almost doubled to 80,000.

“If it wasn’t for the Russians, we’d be suffering the impacts of the global recession,” said Martin Joseph of Freedom Holidays, a travel and tour agency that organizes charter vacations. “We would have been 20 or 30 percent less this year but that gap has been filled by the Russians. We need to be grateful to Russia.”

For years Goa has coasted on its reputation as a free love, sun, sand and sea location made famous in the late 1960s and 70s by hippies who hung around its beaches, mostly nude. But since becoming a premier vacation destination, Goa has opened to all sorts of travelers, not all of them happy ones. Russian women, in particular, have found themselves to be targets of sexual harassment and rape.