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Wooing the new Indian tourist out of london

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A model of India’s Taj Mahal floats past St Paul’s Cathedral in London on July 17, marking the launch of the three-month-long “India Now” festival.
A model of India’s Taj Mahal floats past St Paul’s Cathedral in London on July 17, marking the launch of the three-month-long “India Now” festival.

Hasan Suroor

The ‘India Now’ festival in London is a ploy to get the nouveau-richeIndian tourist into Britain somehow.

Ever since Gandhiji memorably declared that India lived in its villages, the popular idea of the country has been that of two Indias. And the country’s social and economic inequities have been analysed broadly in terms of either the urban-rural or the rich-poor divide. But now British diplomats tell us that actually there are three Indias, the third comprising the emerging new middle class, a product — and the beneficiary — of the post-liberalisation economic boom: the sort of people who, presumably, inspired the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘India Shining’ campaign.

In a briefing paper to the Gordon Brown Government, the British High Commissioner in India, Sir Michael Arthur, is understood to have highlighted the emergence of the “third” India both as a measure of India’s new economic prosperity, and as an example of the complexities of the Indian reality.

Actually, Sir Michael needn’t have bothered. For Britain already has its sights firmly set on this segment of Indians, with their new money and global ambitions. They are being wooed by British businesses, by British universities, and now they are at the heart of a high-profile tourism drive as we saw this week when the London Mayor Ken Livingstone launched a three-month-long festival of contemporary Indian art and culture, seductively titled ‘India Now.’ Millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money is riding on the festival designed to market London to the nouveau-riche Indian tourist — the denizen of the third India.

Big spenders

Remember that today’s Indian traveller bears no resemblance to yesterday’s budget tourist who seldom progressed beyond the bargain basements of Oxford Street. The new Indian tourist not only has more money but likes to splurge. Last year, for the first time, Indian visitors to London beat the high-spending Japanese to emerge as the second biggest-spenders after the dollar-rich Americans. Indian tourists no longer simply gawk at Harrods but actually shop there. On a good day you’re likely to find more Indians shopping in the upmarket Knightsbridge, with its expensive designer-label stores, than at the lowly Oxford Street, once a popular haunt of the penny-counting Indian tourists of the time.

With more money in their pockets and keen on flaunting it, Indian tourists have joined the big league, or are very nearly there. Any wonder then that Mr. Livingstone is so desperate for London to get a piece of the action by promoting it as a natural Indian habitat? According to figures released by his office, there are more than 400,000 Londoners of Indian origin, and some 4,000 Indian students are studying in London contributing an estimated £60 million to its economy. And last year, over 40 Indian films were shot in London, earning the capital an estimated £14 million.

The idea that Indians would be falling over each other to catch the next flight to London simply because Mr. Livingstone has decided to “celebrate” Indian culture is, of course, nonsense. But that is missing the point.

‘India Now’ is a cleverly dressed marketing gimmick designed to promote London as an India-friendly city. A city where Shilpa Shetty gets more attention — and better press — than in Mumbai and where people don’t really mind if Trafalgar Square is closed for hours because a Bollywood crew is shooting or an Indian dancer is trying some new steps. A city so deeply in love with India that if it can’t have a Taj Mahal of its own, it will go to great lengths to create a replica and then float it down the Thames to make sure everyone sees it.

(A proud Mr. Livingstone celebrated it with a champagne-soaked party on a luxury boat complete with loud Bollywood and bhangra music. But by then the Taj had disappeared. We were told it had been moved for storage overnight to protect it from the elements.)

‘India Now’ is a continuation by another name of that other headline-grabbing PR ploy, ‘Bollywood Britain,’ which saw Britain’s tourist promotion body unleash a map of some 30 British hot spots, which had been used as a backdrop for Hindi films.

The campaign was meant to lure Indian tourists into visiting the places where some of their favourites movies were shot.

The impulse behind ‘Bollywood Britain’ as well as ‘India Now’ is the same: get the affluent new Indian tourist into Britain somehow. If the pull of Bollywood doesn’t work, try some art and culture for God’s sake. Ms. Shetty, of course, is always there to lend a helping hand.

So, over the next three months London will be full of the sounds and smells of India culminating in an Indian-style mela in the heart of central London. If I were a prospective tourist wanting to get away from India for a bit I wouldn’t come to London until it is all over. And as for those Bollywood hot spots, don’t be taken in by the hype. Most of them are too unremarkable to be worth spending time or money on.


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