Here is one myth we would like to bust about Goa: People of the costal state are so fond of the sussegado (laidback) culture, that they are wont to miss out on the entrepreneurial revolution that has gripped most of India.
For long, Goa, hugged by a stunning Arabian Sea coastline and enveloping within its beautiful villages an enchanting blend of heritage, a vibrant beachlife and its reputation as a party capital —has remained a precious gem in India’s tourism crown
. “The local Goans are known to benefit from small businesses connected to tourism, which earns them enough in eight months to help survive most of the year (once, Goa used to shutter itself up during the fiery monsoon months). Immigrants to the state, both Indians and those from the western world have been happy to come to Goa to ‘escape’ — bad jobs, bad careers, bad relationships, urban stress. Many once set up tiny businesses – they made lights, or furniture, or some sort of craft, or ran a shack or maybe a small restaurant, but none with any clear vision or plan for the future,” ruminates Neelima Amin Jaffer, a jewellery designer who moved to Goa from Delhi almost 12 years ago.
Since the beginning of the last decade, though, Jaffer, and many of her ilk have noticed a perceptible shift. The once sussegad-loving people are waking up to the transformation that entrepreneurship can bring to their society, and more importantly, their economy.
Consider these facts: the state, known more for its shacks, beaches and the Russians who have forcibly usurped much of the north Goa beach strips, was adjudged ‘the best emerging startup destination’ in the States Startup Ranking 2018, conducted by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. Goa, without many of us noticing, has been putting together the building blocks required to make it a viable destination for entrepreneurs.
Hemant Arondekar, an architect and a Goa native who runs a company offering sailing and yachting experience, says, “There is a lot of movement in the IT sector and also in the agro-business. Goa is a huge hub for agro-business and we have a lot of food brands that are sold either in the state or across the country.”
But this column isn’t about what’s happening on the start-up scene. Instead, it examines how a clutch of entrepreneurs in segments such as upscale real estate, gourmet coffee, alcohol, experiential travel and design has created a thriving eco-system of sustainable luxury businesses.
Some like Arondekar have leveraged Goa’s fabled tourism industry to set up an experiential travel company, Clube Nautilus de Goa, which offers sailing and yachting experiences around the emerald islands that pepper the coastline.
Among Goa’s most interesting experiential travel startup I also count Terra Conscious that offers eco-sensitive dolphin-watching trips. It is run by Puja Mitra, once a senior programme coordinator for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India, who managed the Goa State Marine Programme. They do not chase dolphins, instead cruising peacefully along the coast which the dolphins inhabit; she constantly reminds her clients to not raise their voices as loud voices disorient dolphins who often lose their way. There are others such as Wild Otters, which helps trace the ocean journey of Asian small-clawed otters.
Others have set up businesses ranging from gourmet coffee to gin brands, from graphic design companies to even real estate and interior design businesses.
Niche real estate businesses: indie and hyper-local
No one needs an introduction to Tarun Tahiliani. India’s fashion impresario first experimented with his interior design offshoot (then known as Ahilia Homes) in Goa, with interiors of uber-exclusive villas and even a boutique hotel, Hotel Sol De Goa. Today, that business is no longer just an offshoot – it has been spun off into another division, Tahiliani Homes, headlined by his ex-finance professional son, Jahan, with deep tentacles across Goa, besides other cities in India.
Jahan Tahiliani analyses Goa’s popularity as a business destination, “The road connectivity is so much better. The new highway has ensured that the villages are far safer to both live in and do business. The roads that connect even the far-flung villages are sometimes even better than what you find in cities.”
What about the fact that land in Goa is a contentious issue, with several generations laying claim to a piece which has no clear title?
“We ensure that we only buy land that come with licences,” Tahiliani insists. “Once you ensure that all the titles are clear, there is very little that can go wrong.”
Tahiliani Homes doesn’t just build beautiful tropical homes from scratch; they also offer after-sales service, maintenance and safety arrangements. Under Tahiliani Advantage, their expert team maintains the homes and estates, helps owners living in different parts of India to rent it out to vacationers (much like a hospitality business) and offers concierge services.
Tahiliani Homes have created several villa projects that depict their brand — a unique blend of the iconic Geoffrey Bawa’s tropical architecture language with the ‘Indian Modern’ design aesthetics. The properties they have designed (and some sold) include three villas in the heritage village of Moira; Salvador Villas in the village of Succurro, and a gorgeous glass and wood villa in the backwaters of Nachinola, for which they co-ordinated with Asahi India (AIS), a leading glass manufacturer.
Much like Tahiliani, Varun Nagpal set up his boutique real estate business, Vianaar Homes, 12 years ago. In fact, you can call Vianaar a pioneer in the luxury real estate segment in Goa. Over the years, they have built several apartments and villa properties in villages such as Vagathor, Assagao and Anjuna that were once considered sleepy hamlets but are now abuzz with activity. “Goa has one of the best markets for real estate in the country right now. In a city like Delhi rentals are really low. Even short term rentals to vacationers in Goa attract a good yield.”
Nagpal is, about the first time he came to Goa, on a holiday in 2005, “and falling in love with everything – its people, culture and history, particularly its Portuguese history. So, he decided to build apartments and then villas for people like him, who craved a piece of the sussegado culture. Vianaar began with 12 apartments in the once-lazy neighbourhood of Nerul and now has several villa projects. “I have seen villages such as Vagathor, Anjuna and Morjim, where no one but the hippies once lived, turned into vibrant residential zones with lovely lifestyle options such as cafes and bars,” he says.
Arondekar attributes the ease of doing business as one of the reasons why any luxury experiential business would look at Goa as its base. “Even if government officials do not understand what you are doing, they are ready to listen,” he says. “It wasn’t so before. I have been trying to set up a yachting/sailing company that offers marine tours across Goa for a decade.
India’s policies of security and licences make it difficult for a sailing outfit like mine to undertake long sailing trips, say to Cochin or Mumbai. But even within Goa we have challenges – like the lack of a marina (required to dock sailboats and yachts) or the policy that categorises sailing under the water sports segment, which means you cannot go beyond one nautical mile.”
Which, for any company offering sailing trips and yacht charters, is rather restrictive; Clube Nautilus de Goa does sail to the islands around Goa and deep within the coastal waters. A mild-mannered but tenacious Arondekar has studied how to design a marina in France; he can cite several reasons why Goa needs one (among them, the fact that the almost 3000 or so odd luxury yachts that make their way from Europe to South East Asia, via Maldives or Mauritius, skip Goa completely); and is labouring on a report about how the perennially sunshine state is losing out precious revenue it could earn - besides the employment it could generate - from the lucrative cruise and yachting industry. “But at least the government is ready to listen now. It has taken 10 years to reach this stage and I think we may see a breakthrough.”
From finance professional to gourmet coffee
Ease of doing business is also one of the reasons cited by Devika Dutt, the woman behind the gourmet coffee company, Sussegado Coffee. Her hand-roasted gourmet coffee brand, DEVI Coffee finds home in several cafes and luxury hotels across India. “My husband and I worked in the finance sector internationally and would regularly visit Goa, which was home to my parents. We loved the lifestyle it offered and also saw the opportunity to set up a gourmet coffee brand. We never found great coffee in Goa on our visits!”
Devika Dutt quit her last job in Singapore and moved to Goa to hand-roast coffee.
Dutt quit her last job in Singapore and moved to Goa to hand-roast coffee. The café is no more but Devi Coffee is a brand to reckon with. At her roastery in Goa, they make about 40 types of coffees from beans sourced from some of India’s best coffee producing estates in Coorg, Chikamagalur, Nilgiris, Wayanad and several such. Sussegado Coffee’s repertoire also consists of several rare house blends and Indian specialty coffees, among them Devi Kaapi Royale, Devi Monsooned Malabar and Devi Mysore Nuggets.
Devi at Confeitaria Grand Hyatt Goa.
“I have lived outside India most of my working life. I can’t comment on the rest of the country, but it has been rather easy to get licences and set up a business here. We do require quite a few licences to run this coffee business, but they aren’t so many that you get frustrated,” she contends. “Besides, it is quite easy to acquire licences.”
The only drawback, in her opinion, is the tiny size of the Goan market which does not completely sustain a business like hers. “You have to be ready to travel across the country. Your revenues will come from distributing your product across India, rather than just in Goa,” she warns.
Living between two cities, or states
Devika Dutt isn’t alone in believing that businesses need to have your feet in two cities. Last year, Hanumant Khanna moved a part of his Delhi-located graphic design studio, Quick Brown Fox, and his family to an area that falls between the cool `hood of Assagao (where all the trendy boutiques, cafes and stores have opened up recently) and Anjuna. “While it is easy to work out of Goa in a hyper-connected world of Skype and emails, most of your clients come from cities such as Delhi. And while the older clients may bear with you, with the new ones, you need some face time initially.”
Khanna travels between his hometown and the state he has decided to call home. “The internet connection is one of the biggest problems in Goa. The connectivity is really bad. I have devised a three-pronged system: I have a regular Ethernet connection; I have a Jio dongle; and if everything fails, I hotspot my mobile connection.”
Despite these niggling infrastructure issues, Khanna talks passionately about the kind of life Goa offers to creative entrepreneurs. “I buy my veggies sometimes and I know the vendors by name. My wife and I often take short breaks during the day to go watch the sea or even head out to a forested part nearby. Our interactions with the locals are far richer; once you stop being a tourist from whom the locals can benefit, you become part of the community. Also, you experience the beauty of different seasons in Goa.”
Nagpal cities better connectivity between Goa and other cities in India, a far better and cheaper lifestyle, and better schools and education system for reasons why the coastal state has begun attracting some real talent.
Tourism, over the years, as well as the rapid changes in even the tiniest of Goan villages (which are now better connected and not so secluded) have brought with them several problems, such as congestion and the growing issue of garbage.
Despite these civic issues that plague most of India, there is a visible and exciting new entrepreneurial energy. Goa continues to retain its indie spirit. The luxury and creative business often eschew economy of scale to remain boutique and fiercely independent.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
Read the first part of the series here. Deepali Nandwani's columns