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Wooing the global hopping tourist

Travel is said to teach tolerance but for most globe-trotters, an experience in India tends to border on the morbid. If it's not the dirt, overcrowding and the touts, to begin with, it's the unimaginative thinking, hastily planned schemes and lopsided economics that ruin everything in the end. Will things change, asks GEETA DOCTOR, in the `Year of the International Traveller'.

"INDIA is an addiction. I am an India addict," declared Franz, the modern equivalent of a flying Dutchman, who had just finished his third visit to India.

That he was in the company of a group of like-minded Dutch who brought with them a keen perception of the architecture and ancient artistic heritage of the country might have contributed to his positive good will towards India. Or it might have equally been due to the fact that the organiser of the tour was a great lover of India who could understand the needs of her Westernised guests to experience the exotic and the unusual under pristine conditions. She on her part was certain that the tour had gone so well because of her travel agent who had made all the arrangements from Delhi.

When they were asked to compare and contrast a visit that some of them had made to China, they readily responded with the remark that "India is so open, when you compare it with China. For one thing, no matter where you are, you will surely find someone who will be able to speak English. You can feel the vibrations, when you are here. In China, people look at you in a suspicious manner."

This, however, is the response of a very select minority. They are tourists who could be called Pataya phobes, or Bali resistant, who actually believe that spending time on a cruise to the Caribbean is something that only plumbers from Poland might find interesting. The majority of travellers today, however tend to view an experience in India with mixed feelings, bordering on the morbid. If not the beggars, the dirt and the overcrowding that constitutes the almost inevitable part of the Indian experience, there are the triple hazards of dealing with touts, taxi-drivers and tour operators who are waiting at the exits of every airport to prey upon the unwary traveller.

Take for instance, this true-life experience of landing in the middle of the monsoon season at Mumbai's Sahar airport well after midnight. Except that Mumbai is supposed to be a relatively safe city, the scene is representative of what the average tourist experiences on getting out of the airport terminal anywhere.

There were half a dozen passengers who had been told that we would be given a free transit to the Airport Hotel, a small distance at Juhu. Even as we emerged from the terminal, touts began to swarm around us shouting, "Taxi? Taxi?" "Which hotel?" "What price you give?" "I have best taxi for you." Others tried to help us with our baggage. Some good Samaritans told us that the last shuttle bus had left and that we would have to spend the night at the airport. It was a good half an hour before the bus finally appeared. We climbed gratefully into the bus, while the conductor and his assistant helped to load our bags helter skelter near the front aisle, so that we had to stumble over this obstacle before getting to our seats. Worse was however to come. As the bus went through the miserable line of squatter colonies that line both sides of the road out of Sahar, it had to stop at an intersection. Almost at once, we were deluged not just by the rain, but also by a mob of people from the slum. They rained blows at the side of the bus. They shouted for money. They jumped and clawed at the doors and windows of the bus trying to attract attention to their plight. They relieved themselves against the side of the bus. It was like watching a scene from "Les Miserables", except that we were trapped within the scene, helpless to control any event that might follow. At that point, one of the foreign tourists broke down, screaming that she wanted to get back to the airport. She did not want to be any part of this horrendous welcome to the real India. In a few moments the bus had lurched past the small knot of frenzied people and taken us to the safety of the hotel that was as bland and beautiful as a hotel anywhere in the world. It has never been easy however to erase the memory of that night, human beings reduced to scrabbling at each other like a pack of rats, the realisation that they were also my people, or as the poet says, that backward place is me.

Compare this to an arrival at Singapore. Not only do the airport authorities insist that transit passengers with enough time on their hands be given a free ride through the city, once they stick an appropriate badge onto your lapel, you find just one person in charge of helping you into a bus, that is perfectly clean and comfortable of course, but who them drives and guides you through the city. Nothing could serve as a better means of promoting Singapore as a tourist destination than this type of quietly efficient service. When it comes to attracting tourists, the standard thinking on the subject varies from "We are a poor country, we cannot really afford the luxury of tourism"; Or "We lack the proper infrastructure", or "Do we want to destroy our culture by bringing in different cultural values such as drinking and gambling and sex tourism?"

The ultimate price is not all right.

This is then followed by hastily planned schemes that dangle some suitably quixotic "theme holiday" that will lure the Western tourist to the Indian shore. If they are not being treated like fake royalty in one of the numerous tattered royal residences of Rajasthan attended by caparisoned camels, they are persuaded to mount elephants and bounce gently through the lush landscape of Kerala on a hundred elephant walk. Anyone who has been on an elephant, or on a camel, sat on a machaan being eaten by mosquitoes, or floated down that romantic house-boat listening to the snores of the boatmen and "staff" who are also on board, will admit, albeit somewhat sheepishly that it's the most bottom numbing exercise that has been devised to entertain the unwary traveller. There's also the question of "After the Elephant, what?" Perhaps it is exactly to experience such existential moments that people come to India.

"I think what few people here realise is that when we Westerners come to India what we are really looking for is the Sun," explains Josceline Dimblebey, another veteran traveller, who regularly reaches these shores to get her annual fix of sunlight. She is referring to a particularly "exotic" resort that has been situated in a converted agraharam or former line of houses used by the priests of a temple town in the South. Despite the obvious attempts at ethnic authenticity, she found that the rooms were dark and depressing, the food bland and the entertainment that consisted of very good live music, performed by musicians who may well have been attached to the temple, not accessible without the help of a seasoned guide, or promoter. As she went on to remark, except for the beaches of Goa, very few places on our very long coastline are actually accessible to the sun bather or water sport enthusiast.

"We have some of the best beaches in the world, but we have not been able to attract the Western tourist who wants to get away from the cold," agrees Shankar Menon, a well-known consultant in the hotel industry. "Unlike in Sri Lanka, where you find that people make sure that the beaches are clean where there are tourists, over here you will find that the fisherfolk who use the beaches, which is naturally their right, because it is their livelihood, not only spread all their nets and material over the sands, they will be sitting in their boats watching the visitors, which is not very pleasant for them." He also describes how in places like Kerala, there are often unfortunate clashes of interest between fishermen who allege that their nets might get caught in the high speed boats, or when sand-quarrying barges topple over when the same boats cause ripples in a once calm lake environment, leading to fights about original rights and compensation.

Quite apart from these questions of perception, as he calls them, that need to be addressed both by those foreign tourists who see India as a dirty, disease prone place, and the local population that view them with suspicion, Shankar also maintains that there has to be a clear understanding of the economics of attracting the global traveller.

"Quite often the base price is all right, but the ultimate price is not all right," he explains. "For instance, if you have a luxury tax of 25 per cent and another 10 per cent for a State expenditure tax, your room, that $100 room, now costs $135. What do they get for that extra $35? Nothing. Again, when an international traveller wants to order a glass of beer, he looks for a brand with which he is familiar. He doesn't want to drink one of the local brands no matter how good they may be and if he asks for an imported beer, or glass of wine, he will find soon enough that he has to pay a 70 per cent tax on it.

"Naturally he feels that he has been taken for a ride. Naturally, he finds it cheaper to go for a holiday in Thailand or the Maldives, where no such thing exists."

Menon also touches on the delicate matter of hygiene. "It's not just the international traveller we must worry about, but the Indian traveller also, who has begun to look for destinations within the country. For a Gujarathi, or a person from Assam coming to the South is like going to a foreign country, that person also deserves a better environment.

Unless and until we have some standards of hygiene by educating the public to use our beaches and heritage sites with the sensitivity and respect that they deserve, I am afraid we will destroy every bit of the enormous resources that we have in making this the kind of tourist destination that we could feel proud about. It's all a matter of perception. It requires a degree of imagination combined with the right kind of guidance from the powers that be to create this change in perception."

Dirt evrywhere ... the delicate issue of hygiene.

Even without the type of political savvy required to transform the tourist industry to resemble those in other countries of South Asia and South East Asia, there have been small triumphs of individual endeavour that have been helped by means of promotional efforts via the web. The international tourist is discovering various individual holiday offers by people who have been opening up their homes, their tea, coffee and rubber estates, or re-inventing heritage sites in Rajasthan, or Tamil Nadu, offering unique insights into local cultures by designing special types of river boats and treks, combining archaeological, or environmental incentives for a holiday with a purpose that go beyond the lure of just a beach with sun and sand.

In the end, it's people power that will change the image of tourism and transform it from a scary experience to a singular one.

"I'll always come back here," says Dimblebey. "If not anything it's the variety. There's no country in the world where you can experience this amazing diversity of food and cultures and festivals, and yes, the people! It's the natural warmth and immense hospitality of the Indian people that makes all the difference."

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