Outside, above the entrance, a sign says “Welcome, Namaste, pray stay at this worthy lodge.” But a warm welcome exists only if you are in possession of a foreign passport. Indians are not welcome at Highlands Lodge (name changed) in Chennai. An apparent ‘No Indian’ policy is quite strictly enforced, whereby only Indians in possession of a foreign passport may stay. Many rickshaw drivers in the city know it as the ‘firang place’, and the Lonely Planet guidebook omitted it from its main edition a few years ago, partly in response to this. Over the years, this place has hit the headlines on more than one occasion because of it’s discriminatory policy.
Highlands is a former nawab’s residence, dating back at least 160 years. The lodge is a beautiful, crumbling place, and peeling paint and flaking plaster are its hallmarks. There is a fine line between ‘old world charm’ and ‘crumbling dereliction’, but as far as Highlands is concerned, the former definitely applies. It is an oasis of serenity in what must be one of the most hectic cities in the world.
Someone once wrote that it looks like a heritage hotel that is having a bad day. I might further add that it is a lawsuit waiting to happen, given its rickety banisters and falling plaster. Its tree-shaded courtyards, decaying wooden blue-painted balconies and sunlit verandas hark back to more genteel times. Walk through the door and you no longer feel as though you are in Chennai. The squawking crows, squealing chipmunks and serene bats contrive to give the impression that you could be in a remote country retreat, rather than in a city-based lodge.
Unfortunately, few if any Indian tourists will ever get to discover the charm of this guest house. Highlands is far from unique, however, as many hotels in India seem to prefer foreign tourists and have an unstated but definite no Indians policy. A well known hotel in Jaipur had not let ‘locals’ stay for 25 years until recently, and many hotels near New Delhi railway station do not let Indian people stay. It’s a similar story in Goa, where many family-run guest houses and hotels prefer foreign tourists over Indian people. And Indian people themselves tell me that they have been discriminated against or made to feel very unwelcome in hotels and restaurants in Kerala, Pondicherry, Gokarna and Mysore, to name just a handful of locations.
So, just what is going on here? Before the Indian economy began to exhibit year on year growth of over eight per cent, Indian hoteliers and restaurateurs perceived foreign guests to be a much more profitable investment than their compatriots. In simple financial terms, foreigners could and did pay more, although with many Indian people now earning increasingly high salaries, I have indeed noticed that some hoteliers now accept Indian guests. But that’s not always the case.
I have stayed in over 140 hotels and guest houses throughout India and have seen some of the places where foreigners stay, particularly toward the lower end of the market, and many Indians would not be prepared to pay the prices requested for such run-down rooms and poor service. Quite simply, while many foreigners will pay what they regard as low room rents for tatty rooms, Indian tourists will not. For instance, as far as Highlands Lodge in Chennai is concerned, would Indians be prepared to pay between Rs 300 to Rs 500 per night anyhow for quite basic, often run-down and crumbling rooms, without attached bathrooms in many cases, when better quality exists throughout the city? Foreigners may feel they are experiencing a taste of the ‘real India’ when they stay in such places, but some cynics would say that it is the foreigners who are losing out and being taken for a ride when they stay at run-down lodges or eat at second rate restaurants with inflated prices.
Of course, many hoteliers and restaurateurs prefer foreigners to Indian people, not just because of economic reasons but because they say that the Indian tourist complains more, demands room service more often, tips less and makes too much noise and mess. The accusation is that they have scant regard for other guests and treat the hotel corridor as an extension to their room and turn the whole place into something that resembles the inside of an Indian train.
There is, however, another reason for the discrimination experienced by Indian tourists when they visit the hotspots of India. Before the advent of guidebooks and mass tourism, foreign travellers stayed as guests in people’s homes or, if available, in basic lodges, eating local food and mingling with local people. These days, partly thanks to various guidebooks, traveller ghettos now exist. Foreigners tend to stay in areas where restaurants serve the ubiquitous banana pancake and Western menus, where other foreigners congregate and where hotels and lodges accept only foreign tourists. This is a damning indictment of modern travel.
The point is that whole areas within locations, such as Varanasi, Pushkar, Goa and Hampi, have been designed to cater to the foreign tourist. Restaurants and hotels take great pride in being mentioned in the Lonely Planet. Consequently, everything is geared to Western tastes, and owners know they can charge over the top prices for poor service, for which Indian people would not pay. These are traveller ghettos where India and Indian tourists have been eased out of the picture in favour of the foreign ‘tourist dollar’. There’s nothing much ‘Indian’ about these places. Perhaps things will change as middle class Indian tourists gain greater spending power and have more leisure time. After all, money talks. But who can say?
In the meantime, perhaps ‘unwritten laws’ should be spelt out and made public. Just because they exist and are tacitly accepted by many and enforced by hotel and restaurant owners, does not mean they are right — or indeed legal. After all, hotels exist where both Indians and foreigners co-exist in harmony. There may be good reasons for excluding certain troublesome types or undesirables, but wholescale social exclusion is divisive and is the thin end of a more sinister mindset. I think this kind of thing was tried somewhere else before — the southern states of the US and South Africa.
During India’s Republic Day recently, I watched the film Gandhi, while lodged in my Chennai hotel (not Highlands!). Early in his life, he fought against discriminatory laws against Indians in South Africa. Not without good reason is Gandhi on each and every bank note. How ironic it is then that discrimination against Indians in favour of foreigners is rife in India. This is a very strange country indeed. It seems to have a strange fascination with fair skin, face whitening treatment and all things white. ‘Fair and lovely’, with a ‘pinkish, white glow?’ — not least where tourism is concerned.
I know how I would feel if I approached a hotel in England only to encounter a ‘No Brits’ policy or to be rudely treated in a restaurant just because I am white. A bit like Gandhiji once did perhaps?