Life of Pi storms China, kindles interest in Indian culture

Through his critically-acclaimed film Life of Pi, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee has appeared to have succeeded in doing what the Indian government has failed to achieve over more than a decade of tourism campaigns and promotion drives in China: rekindling Chinese interest in travelling to India and in Indian culture.

The film, which has scenes set in Puducherry in South India, has triggered huge interest in China since its opening last week, breaking box office records and raking in $16 million in its opening weekend — more than four times the amount in India.

Beyond the box office too, the film has sparked wide debate — and thousands of comments — in the vibrant online community, with Chinese writers and microbloggers seeing the film as a long-overdue introduction to Indian culture for a Chinese public often ignorant about India.

Lost chance

“A beautiful film; India is now the most beautiful travel destination in my heart,” wrote a blogger named Beautiful Carpenter who writes on travel and fashion.

Au Xin, a DJ at Radio Guangdong, said in a message to his 45,000 followers on the Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo that what he liked about the film was director “Ang Lee’s respect and belief in Indian culture.”

Miss Ruby, a Beijing-based microblogger, added on Weibo in a message that echoed most of the online reactions that the film, which also dwells on India’s religious and cultural traditions, would “correct the prejudice and ignorance about Indian culture [in China],” while Xu Xiaohuang, an executive at an insurance company in Zhejiang, said the film was “meaningful and beautiful, and makes me want to travel to India.”

Another microblogger in Shanghai, who professes an interest in films and travel, said in a post on Weibo that he had taken his daughter to see Life of Pi. “India’s Minister of Travel should award Ang Lee with a medal!”, he wrote. “He presents the beauty of India to the world.”

The Indian government has not, however, followed his suggestion of using the film’s hugely anticipated release here last week to promote tourism in India – a popular practice followed by other countries looking to tap the China market.

China’s booming tourism market has, over the past few years, largely ignored India. Of the around 50 million Chinese who travel overseas every year spending some $40 billion, less than 1,00,000 travel to India on business and tourism, according to tourism figures from two years ago.

This year’s tourism figures, excluding business travel, paint an even bleaker picture. In the past six months, India only issued 25,000 tourist visas in its Embassy in Beijing and three Consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, suggesting that tourism figures are only in the range of 50,000 annually — 0.001 per cent of the total outbound tourism.

Chinese tour operators say demand for travel in India is low because of inadequate promotion efforts in recent years — particularly involving tour operators — and dissatisfaction with the service offered by current operators, from a lack of Chinese-speaking guides and the availability of Chinese cuisine. Hence, tourists were choosing to travel to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and even Sri Lanka and Nepal instead.

Up until March, India did not even have a director at its Tourism Office in Beijing, with the position remaining vacant for many months because of delays in appointing a new director. Officials in New Delhi acknowledge that the China market is low on the Tourism Ministry’s priorities, reflected in the small budget accorded to tourism promotion in China which has, in recent years, not been expanded despite the multibillion dollar tourism boom.

When asked why the Indian government did not, for instance, look to use the success of Life of Pi or the hugely successful 3 Idiots by flying in actors such as Irrfan Khan or Aamir Khan who have since become popular in China — a practice followed by other countries — one official said: “The budget for tourism isn't even enough for campaigns such as external advertising, so where is the money for flying in film stars?”

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