Goa rape case threatens India-Russian relations

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.

Earlier this season, on Dec. 1, a local politician allegedly raped a young Russian woman. The Russian government noted this case too in its statement, complaining that the “investigation of that case is being conducted inefficiently.”

On Dec. 26, a taxi driver attempted to rape two Russian girls. The girls escaped into a forest and hid from him for four hours before they were able to escape.

In addition, a Russian teenager's mangled remains were found recently on a train track. There is no development in her case either.

It’s unlikely the most recent attack will affect the Indo-Russian relationship for now, especially since the alleged rapists have been arrested and booked. Still, the Russian government is angry about the lack of reaction by Indian officials. Defense ties may not end, analysts say, but tourism and cultural diplomacy could be affected.

Losing Russian tourists — who form a mixed group of backpackers, luxury travelers and middle-income travelers — would be harmful to Goa, which is beginning to depend more on income from Russian clients.

Tour operators blame regional migrants for the problem, a point bolstered by the fact that both of the alleged rapists were from other states.

“The scene has changed,” said tour operator Joseph. “Now you have an influx of people who come to Goa from other parts of the country to work here.”

Owners of shacks, straw matted thatch roof style beach restaurants with beach sand area as flooring, have yet another explanation: they point to Russian tourists for being crass and aggressive.

“[The Russians] are so rude and obnoxious and don’t know how to order properly,” said one shack owner who did not want to be named.