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From Orchard to Golf Course: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The recent Expression of Interest (EoI) bid to set up Goa’s first Golf – Resort project was bagged by Leading Hotels Limited; however with the villagers’ protests and a Public Interest Litigation on cards, the pertinent question is will the 312 acre project estimated at a cost of Rs 200 crore legally muscles its way through the opposition and a fickle government. GoaChronicle.com investigates…

In 2007, under the banner of the Leading Hotels Limited – a group company of Asian Hotels Limited belonging to Shiv Jatia and Raj Kumar Jatia (owners of the Hyatt properties in Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, and more recently the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai; the hotel business promoters bought 12, 50,000 sqmts of land in Querim-Teracol in Pernem. The point man to the deal was the representative Sandip Ganguli who subsequently became the project head to the tourism initiative. After convincing the landlords, the company embarked on the effort to convince the 88 tenants on the property about their tourism initiative. The land was purchased on the Sale Deed agreement from the owners for Rs 8 crores, but highly placed sources reveal that other ancillary costs indicate that the total amount spent on the land including the tenants and politicians pay-out till now crossed an estimated Rs 50 crores, though all documented in the records of the buyers; even on our insistence Leading Hotels refused to part out with the details on this. This property was in negotiation since 2005, however, Leading Hotels were not able to close the deal even though they had Political backing.

On March 8, 2010, Sarpanch Reema R Hargi of the Village Panchayat Querim – Teracol sent an appeal letter to the Chief Minister of Goa, Digambar Kamat the following key points:

  1. 1. During the process of ‘suggestions’ and ‘objections’ we are pleased to inform you that our Panchayat had unanimously voted in favour of such a proposal (reference to the tourism golf resort project) and a resolution was duly passed and forwarded to your government through the Town and Country Planning (TCP) department.
  2. Our Panchayat reconfirmed support for such tourism activities including the resort project in Teracol through a second resolution which has also been earlier submitted to the TCP office.
  3. We are surprised to learn that a lone resident of Teracol participated along with Goa Bachao Abhiyan representative met with you on March 4, 2010 and apparently objected to the creation of the golf course in our Panchayat limits. This lone objection goes completely against the will and wishes of our constituents since all of us believe that Querim and Teracol in particular requires development of clean activities which is environmentally friendly at the same time. We welcome the creation of such tourism resort along with golf courses in such areas as determined by your government.

Subsequent to this, Leadings Hotels Limited on November 11, 2010 procured a Declaration of Support letter from the villagers of Querim – Teracol. The contents of the letter are as follows:

“I/We hereby confirm voluntarily my/our complete support and co-operation to the resort/hotel project along with related facilities that has been proposed by M/s Leading Hotels in the Village of Teracol and Querim Panchayat of Pernem. I/We wish the project every success”.

Records that are in our possession show that out of the expected 600 families; it got 531 signatures supporting the tourism initiative.

In fact most tenants have claimed that their lands have not be cultivated for many years and Leading Hotels will be finding a legal route to buy  tenanted land as tenants cannot sell their lands and even if the tenants give a Negative Declaration the new owners cannot construct on that land. So far mutation on 7.25 lakh sqmts has been cleared in the name of Leading Hotels, 5.05 lakh sqmts is yet to be cleared.

In anticipation to problems in the state of Goa, Leading Hotels also extended its buying spree into Maharashtra in order to get more continuity to the proposed plan. As the project main viability is hinging on the coming up of the Mopa Airport.

On December 5, 2010 the Regional Plan for Pernem and Canacona were notified by the government. And the 312 acres of land some of which comes in the Coastal Regulation Zone, some in the Eco-Sensitive Zone received Eco-Project clearance for 40,000 sqmts which can be developed into an eco-resort along with the other tracks of bought land for the purpose of a Golf Course. However Eco project was never on TCP cards in the Regional Plan 2021. But Eco projec has been brought in as a back door entry to give developers who have brought land, away to pass their projects.

Plans to shown to GoaChronicle.com indicates that besides the hotel suites, premium villas and golf course; the project also has got government nod for a Disaster Management Unit, Health Centre, Waste Management Unit and Rain-Water Harvesting Unit.

On April 30, 2011, in order to take advantage of the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for viability gap funding announced by the Centre in the 2007 Union Budget to further tourism business potential convention centres, golf courses and medical tourism projects which any state in the country with a tourism potential could avail off and bring Golf tourism to Goa. The Department of Tourism floated an Expression of Interest (EoI) in January this year and received one bid from Leading Hotels; they then floated yet another EoI inviting reputed developers in the month of March.  This time though in response, the tourism department received proposals from three interested parties – Leading Hotels, DLF and Oxford Properties. The tourism department zeroed down on the Leading Hotels Limited; this was done because Oxford did not have the required land mass necessary to avail of the Centre SPV scheme, DLF had lost out as a small part of its land mass was under litigation. Hence, as expressed by Swapnil Naik, Director of Tourism, Department of Tourism, Goa, “Based on the merit of the bid and the criteria established by the Department of Tourism – we decided to give the project to the Leading Hotels.”

Through this Leading Hotels can reduce its debt burden by Rs 50 crore, since the Centre will fund Rs 50 crore (25 per cent of the project). The government will play a supervisory role in the entire SPV to ensure that the government money which will be released on phase-wise performance of start phase Rs 12.5 crore, mid-phase Rs 25 crore and project completion – Rs 12.5 crore and not misused. Though the most important question is whether a Jatia Group company really needs Rs 50 crore from the Centre to make their project viable.

The resort and golf course is to be managed and operated by the Canadian group – Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts – a prestigious upmarket hotel brand.

On April 1, 2010 few villagers from the village decided to raise objection to the Golf Course; Francis Rodricks one of the tenants of the land and also one of the 12 tenants who refuse to enter into an agreement with Leading Hotels on this property, even plans to file a PIL against the project as he feels that the buyers have manipulated the villagers and used the government machinery in connivance with some ministers to ensure that the State Legislative Committee and Town and Country Planning Department gives the land which was acquired in 2007 as a eco-project even before the Tourism Department announced the floating of EoI scheme for setting up of a Golf Course cum Resort.

Similarly, Sabina Martins too of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan raised questions about the TCP approval for the project.

The Good

The initiative of Leading Hotels and the government to set-up a Golf Course cum Resort for the high-end tourist to Goa is a tourism initiative that has come at the most opportune time; since many in the tourism business in Goa, India and Internationally feel that Goa as a destination is losing its charm as it is not able to go beyond the beach destination tag. “An excellent golf course is a must” said Ralph de Souza, spokesperson for the Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG) , “Travellers from South East Asia and Japan in particular are avid golfers. An eco-friendly, well designed golf course will surely add to the infrastructure for tourism and is most welcome”. He added, “In certain cities, a well planned golf course act like the lungs of the place due to its extensive green cover, rain water harvesting systems, ponds and eco-friendly designs which can be maintained with a limited supply of water. Goa needs such a golf course, which is built by experts in the field”. In the similar vein many believe that besides Golf Courses, Goa also needs to explore Meetings Incentives Conference Exhibition (MICE) Tourism for which one or two convention centres in the North or South is a must, since Goa loses out to Thailand and Sri Lanka on this front. Also the focus on eco-tourism concepts in the future will be imperative as it will take concentration to the hinterland tourism potential in Goa.

The Bad

Government’s ineffectiveness on spearheading viable and profitable tourism infrastructure development initiatives, constant opposition by activists to tourism and hospitality projects of socio-economic credence has seen many international reputed brands such a Shangri-La, Club Med, Starwood and real estate fund companies such as Emaar MGF, Walton Street Capital, Sun Apollo Investments retreat from their search in Goa as they did not find the market conducive; not on account of the market potential but government bureaucracy, complacency and extortion coupled with NGO oppositions.

In the last couple of years, the government of Goa has undertaken nothing to spearhead the tourism infrastructure development. In fact, in a bid to make hay while the sun shines, the erstwhile TCP Minister now Education Minister willfully allotted land to all and sundry in 2005-2006, leading to a complete ad-hoc development of infrastructure and tourism in Goa. On account of which, many good tourism projects, while some have been blatant violations of CRZ and Eco-Sensitive norms had to face the axe because of the withdrawal of the Regional Plan 2011; so while the minister continues, good tourism projects now face the hurdles to come through and other states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and even Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh are benefitting from the tourism infrastructural development which Goa lost out on.

The Ugly

Post the withdrawal of the Regional Plan 2011, many prominent builders who have purchased large tracks of land in Goa are left with no option but the find loopholes in the government mechanisms. Many to GoaChronicle.com knowledge will be using the Regional Plan 2021 route wherein some projects will come under the guise of Eco-Project and other such schemes to ward off any opposition to the buying of the land which in most cases are Orchard or Agricultural land. In fact in the same village Anil Counto of Alcon too has got permission for an eco-project near the property of Leading Hotels. Clearly indicating that the lack of prompt and planned action of the government is leaving most buyers of land in Goa with no option but the bend the government machinery to their requirements and in some cases alter the laws.

GoaChronicle.com point of view

Promoting new and successful concepts of tourism will only benefit the state. Golf tourism attracts a far more elite clientele, it will be a welcome change from the hordes of mid-market tourists crowd flocking to Goa from India and rest of the world, though that too forms a part of the tourist circle. The route taken by the Leading Hotels to maneuver their way through the deal is questionable to the point of the options left open to serious developers looking at making hotel or tourism business a viable option. Of course if you look deeper they have moved the government machinery at the highest level not only here but at the Centre. In all this the government is to be blamed since till today they have not come-up with a integrated tourism infrastructure development strategy and play extortionists to serious developers. Neither have they found a legitimate solution to crisis created by Babush Monserrate wherein many developers have been left stranded with their land. So by paying more money to decision makers of the Regional Plan 2021, some will find a way to get their investments worth.

Lastly, not every project merits agitation. Goa needs to see an economic growth, we need to allow sustainable and economic tourism to grow with viable concepts; otherwise as an economy we will be left with mining which is even more detrimental than tourism. And the government has no curb on it.

 

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