DEHLI - The palm-fringed beaches of Goa attract millions of tourists lured by the white sands, dreamy blue water and trance parties held alongside the pounding surf.
But the idyllic coastline of Goa is poised to get a controversial new addition in the form of a flotilla of floating casinos that will operate off shore in order to get around federal laws restricting such enterprises on the land.
Reports suggest that up to 11 ships could be operating along the coast by the end of the year.
The plans by a series of foreign and international operators have already sparked intense opposition in some parts of the state, with campaigners claiming the casinos will not only cause environmental damage but have a detrimental social impact by targeting not only tourists but local people.
At the forefront of the opposition has been the Catholic church, which has a long history in Goa and which remains a powerful influence in the former Portuguese colony.
Fr Maverick Fernandes, secretary of the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman's Council for Social Justice and Peace, said campaigners were hoping the state government will change its position and block the proposals but said activists were ready to launch statewide protests if it did not.
Speaking last night from the city of Panaji, he said: "We are fighting on two issues.
There is the dredging of the river [in one location where a floating casino is planned] which will destroy the traditional fishing industry - it's going to destroy the ecological balance and the spawning grounds." He added: "The second aspect is the social damage.
There are many youths and people here who have worked abroad - people will be spending their money on the casinos rather than on their families.
We are hoping the government will heed to the demands of the people immediately to stop this." So far opposition to the proposals has been most active in the communities along the Sal river where the Leela Group of hotels and resorts plans to locate a floating casino, close to the town of Cavelossim.
The company has already started dredging the river bed to allow its ship to enter.
Villagers have formed the Save River Sal Front to prevent measures they say will destroy livelihoods.
There is already one floating casino in operation in the area, the MV Caravela, but a report in the Indian Express newspaper claimed there could be floating casinos along the entirety of Goa's coast once tourism picks up after the monsoon season.
Among those planning to establish an operation there is RD Tuttle, an American citizen known as the "Casino King of Nepal" after he pioneered a booming gambling industry in Kathmandu.
Mr Tuttle has already arranged to have a vessel fitted out with 50 gaming tables sail from the US to Goa, where it will operate off the state's southern coastline.
Another operator planning to open a floating casino in Goa within months is Premier Leisure, an Indian company which currently runs the "Winners" casino located inside the Goa Marriott hotel in Panaji.
In 1993 legislation was passed that allowed casinos to operate inside five star hotels.
Manager John Snowball yesterday confirmed the company's plans to operate a casino on the Mondovi river but claimed opposition to the floating establishments was largely confined to the Sal river area and was a "particularly local situation".
He added: "There is always some opposition to casinos wherever they open anywhere in the world.
But they have operated [in Goa] since 1993 and this is not a new issue." Reports suggest the state politicians, with their eyes on foreign tourists and the success of locations such as Nepal, are keen to expand the number of casino operations this year.
- INDEPENDENTBy Andrew Buncombe