Love your money, not your ways

The errant Indian traveller is in the news, yet again. Ashis Dutta decodes the reasons why Indians are not welcome across the world, be it in hotels, resorts or tourist hotspots...

happy family jumping together on the beachErrant Indian travellers

Firstly, the good news. We, Indians, aren’t alone. What’s more, we aren’t even at the top of the ignominious chart. But getting there. A recent video went viral of a supposedly Indian family caught with items stolen from a hotel in Bali. Then the subsequent exposure of a Swiss hotel with a notice for “guests from India” to, which can be paraphrased as, ‘Please behave’. All these have ripped the lid off a pressure cooker which had all the while kept the broth of misdemeanour of Indian tourists to simmer below the threshold of outrage.

The reality of social media

To ask an uncomfortable question: is the fury over the Bali video because of the undesirable behaviour of fellow Indians abroad (how could they do that?), or for getting caught and hung from the pole for the world to see? My prickly doubt stems from a piece of news that had appeared back in January this year. Some members of the entourage of a chief minister of an Indian State to London were caught pinching silverware at an official dinner.

By what measure was this less disgraceful than the act of that family in Bali? There was only a whimper about the London incident then in social circles. The only difference being, the hotel in London which had caught the official guests did not blow up the matter on social media. Bali did. This brings us to the reality — in the time of social media, how the reputation of a country can get severely damaged by just one incident going viral.

This happened to China in 2013, and they couldn’t get over it yet, and since then got branded as the worst tourists of the world in several global lists of errant travellers. Ding Jinhao had scratched his name in Chinese on an engraving in the ancient Luxor Temple in Egypt. It was another Chinese traveller who could read what was written, and infuriated by the destructive conduct of a fellow countryman, had exposed it in Chinese media. It went viral. Ding Jinhao was hunted down by the authorities. He was found to be a 15-year-old boy. Is this a lesson for our authorities? Anyone listening?

India’s day out

The love-you-love-you-not relationship between Indian tourists and the hosting agencies across the globe — hotels, airlines, cruises — is not new. It started within a few years of the opening of the Indian economy in 1991. The new-found liberalisation kick-started economic growth and offered the middle-class Indians the much deserved disposable income to splurge which were till then the privy of only the super-rich, most of whom had inherited huge wealth and big business. More salaried people and small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs started flying abroad, on business or leisure. And were spending hard dollars.

I remember, way back in the mid-90s, over a friendly conversation with the owner of a souvenir shop in Copenhagen Airport, she said, “You Indians are big spenders. I have my best sales on the days SAS flies out from here to Bombay.” That was a revelation to me then. Soon, Indians were everywhere. In Singapore, with oversized suitcases filled with stuff from Mustafa – the favourite store of visiting Indians in the 90s. Doing DDLJ’s Sharukh-Rani act of running amid the Tulip Gardens in Keukenhof in Holland — in hundreds on any given summer day. “Looked like I was in Connaught Place, yaar,” said a friend who had just returned from a ‘Europe Dekho’ trip. “There were more Indians than all the rest put together. And it wasn’t London, not Paris, but Keukenhof. Can you beat it, yaar?”

Little wonder, since the mid-90s, we Indians are the new darlings of the global tourism industry. Move aside, please, you SLR-dangling Japanese of the 70s and 80s. The noisy Indians and selfie-stick-wielding Chinese have arrived on the scene. For Indians, red carpets have been spread for higher footfall. Vegetarian menu options mushroomed in Europe in places where once ‘vegetarian’ meant just lettuce and water. The picture-postcard town of Interlaken in Switzerland put up a statue of Bollywood filmmaker Yash Chopra at a prominent touristy point, and a fancy hotel, where Chopra presumably used to stay, decked up a Yash Chopra suite with a price-tag as high as Jungfrau.

‘You have money, you have numbers, and we love them.’ And why not? Take a flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi in Finland and you’ll find at least one Indian family riding along to see the Northern Lights. Indian companies are block-booking cruise ships for conferences and incentive trips for employees and dealers. An estimated 50 million — that’s 5 crores by desi count — trips abroad would be made by Indians by 2020. But honey, you buy one side of the coin, you get the other, too. Aye, there’s the rub.

The ugly face

Beware of Indians, whenever they are in a group — family, friends or business troops, with scant regard for the inconvenience to others. Even the most expensive noise-cancelling headphones would fail if you happen to be plonked in their vicinity. Last year, a group of 1,300 Indians, all employees of a gutkha manufacturer, made such a ruckus in a cruise ship along the Australian coast that it made headlines in the press for spoiling the cruise-experience for the rest of the passengers. Not that other nationalities are holy spirits. Let young Brits gulp a couple of pegs, they may pick up fights with their own shadows. Their football tourists are called lager louts, a security headache wherever they flock. Washington DC-based Yael Miller who writes on Israeli issues rues that Israeli tourists are ‘easily identifiable: they’re rude, impatient and make a lot of noise’. To boot, many are high on drugs, she adds.

Children running amok is another Indian speciality. In a restaurant, in the hotel lobby. Sardonically put by Hindi poet Surendra Sharma in a kavi sammelan, “Please keep your children safe with you. While they are the future of the nation, make sure the present is not spoilt.”

“Indian tourists are stingy when it comes to tipping,” said the manager of a well-known tour operating company. “That’s one reason they sometimes get ignored in restaurants abroad, which they take as racism.” A VP Housekeeping of a star hotel-chain added another perspective. For westerners, many of their own children have served as waiters in restaurants throughout their college days. So, their ways with a waiter are very different from that of Indians, many of whom treat them as an extension of their domestic servants. Consequently, it acts negatively, both ways.

Can we do something about it?

Whatever the reason — cultural, social or economic — there exists an undesirable fragment of perception about Indian tourists, even though the tourism world gives a long rope due to the jingle of cash that comes along. But can we, as Indians, do something about it?

The Russians have done it, in their own little way. Travel writer Tim Pile calls Russian tourists ‘unsmiling masters of the cultural faux pas.’ To amend ways, their Foreign Ministry came out with brochures of travel etiquette, with helpful tips which include: “refrain from prodding Kenyans and calling them monkeys”. Our authorities can sensitise outgoing tourists to be more mindful of their ways, so as not to bring disrepute to the country and its culture. As a deterrent, take appropriate and exemplary actions on evident misdemeanours. Can we do this much?

Remember: We have money. We have numbers. And they love them. Why not help them love a bit more? Why not?

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