Stereotypes suck. Your sociology teacher probably gave you one of these speeches: “Stereotyping inhibits socializing, it doesn’t even give the person a chance. You go into an interaction with certain preconceived notions. This is unfair and can be harmful. One must never use stereo… SIDIN! STOP TALKING IN CLASS. YOU UNRULY, REBELLIOUS MALAYALI BOYS ARE SUCH PAINS IN THE BACKSIDE. WHY DON’T YOU GET A VISA AND GO TO DUBAI, TOO!… As I was saying people, we must never, ever use stereotypes…”
And, what is the great engine that helps spread such vile ethnic stereotypes all over the world? Bad advertising! And besides that? Global tourism!
With all this economic growth brouhaha, rising incomes and greater connectivity, more people are travelling across the world than ever before. The World Tourism Organization estimates that international tourism generates revenue of over $2 billion per day. And they expect this to grow by around 4% a year till 2020.
And the intrepid Indian is a sizeable chunk of this pie. A recent Kuoni report on Indian travel projects that India will despatch between 17 million and 20 million outbound tourists marching all over Sentosa, Mt Titlis, New York and other such top destinations by 2020. (Something spectacular, I assume, will happen to tourism in 2020. No one wants to project beyond that. Perhaps teleportation will finally become a reality. Or global warming will wipe out civilization. Either way, don’t make plans for that summer.)
(Illustrations by Jayachandran / Mint)
Outfits such as Cox and Kings, Raj Travels, Kesari Tours and Travels and an ever blossoming number of travel websites have all begun to tap into this growth trend. But with more Indians going abroad on holidays, what is happening to the great Indian stereotype?
For centuries we were the land of colours, jewels, elephants, insane maharajas, the rope trick and graduate students in electronics engineering. We were also, by and large, seen as nice and friendly people.
No more. Apparently the globetrotting Indian tourist has put paid to this warm impression.
In 2007, Expedia, an international network of travel websites, published the Best Tourist League Survey report. They painstakingly asked 15,000 hoteliers across Europe what they thought of tourists from various countries. Which ones were polite? Which ones were well dressed? Which ones liked to try out local delicacies such as that Italian cheese which has, yum is the word, maggots thriving in it?
India came second. From the bottom. We were officially only better than the French who, it turns out, are le absolute pits when it comes to leisure travelling etiquette.
Our Chinese brethren, by the way, came in third. So poor is the prevalent reputation of Chinese trippers that in 2006 the government put out guidelines for outbound tourists. Littering, spitting, snatching bus seats and queue-jumping were some of the practices frowned upon.
The French ranking I can understand. Just last week I was at the wonderful ITC Grand Central hotel in Mumbai trying to have a quiet dinner (the wife was out of town) when a large group of French tourists walked in and planted themselves in the smoking corner. They then proceeded to add immense atmosphere to the evening by usurping the guitar from the walkabout serenader and launching into some Gallic hits.
Gallic hits, unfortunately it seems, are sung with passion and emotion from deep within the respiratory system. To the untrained ear they sounded remarkably like nasal grunts. However, the largely Indian crowd, being the polite hosts we are, smiled at them for a while, then ignored them and then finally left, making a mental note to bad-mouth the French in some forthcoming newspaper article.
But surely we are leaps and bounds above the French? The spirituality, mysticism and thirst for knowledge within us giving us Buddha-like calm and 99% percentile scores in the Graduate Record Examination? Surely we are not philistines?
Unfortunately, it seems that rapidly prospering India has unleashed upon the world a new package tour-taking, aircraft cutlery-pilfering Indian, one who is quickly creating a rather unpleasant stereotype for himself. I decided to find out for myself what exactly this stereotype was and whether it was warranted. Was it true? Why was it happening? And should this stereotype worry us?
The stereotype goes like this: First, we are rude and talk to people, even ones who try to help us, in a very unfriendly fashion. Second, we are extremely budget-conscious and get all nit-picky about money. Third, we hate trying local food and immersing ourselves in local cultures. Fourth, we are obsessed with the same boring old destinations and simply refuse to try new and exciting ones.
Now, the rudeness can surely be a misunderstanding. An outcome of mis-translation and syntax.
When I asked Hari Nair, founder of travel site and forum www.holidayiq.com, about this “rude” factor, he agreed with my syntax theory. “We Indians normally tend not to add additional pleasantries when we talk to people. We don’t have a separate “please” or “may I” usage in our languages. So, we tend to translate in our heads poorly.”
(Of course the vice versa is also true. Remember that Hindi is a language in which fax machines are female in gender, while fax printouts are male. Malayali boys tremble at ever having to translate such sentences into Hindi: “He told her to switch on the fax machine and then take a fax printout and hand it to him”. Machine ki... printout ka...? uske... uski...?!)
Which is probably why Indians tourists may walk into a store and say, “Show fake Fendi bag and Toblerone now!” in a Gestapo-like fashion. We don’t mean to be rude. But, alas.
I also spoke to Parthasarathi Mandal of www.oktatabyebye.com, another online community and a sister concern of the popular www.makemytrip.com travel portal. Partha, as we shall call him to stay within space limits and prevent carpal tunnel, added another perspective: “Rudeness can also be a defensive mechanism. The average Indian becomes more conscious and aware of his behaviour and interaction the minute he goes ‘abroad’.”
Another aspect to the rudeness is that when we go abroad we are too loud and make quite the scene when we are in large crowds. Nair said, only half-joking: “We love to talk. Besides, when you have a billion people you need to make a little extra noise to be heard!”
Anecdote to highlight Indian sociability: I was recently informed of an Indian traveller’s experience on a domestic flight. The flight, a long one, was delayed on the ground before take-off. The traveller’s neighbour, being all Indian and sociable, leaned over and asked him in a serious tone: “Toh aap kahaan jaa rahe ho?” (So, where are you off to?)
Rudeness, then, was not criticism to be taken too seriously. Much of it was a matter of insecurity and language. This was one crib I found to be mostly hollow. Over time, as we travelled more, things got better.
Now what about our budget-focus and penny-pinch-ery?
A few days ago, I located Anand Contractor from Surat. In December 2006, Contractor went off on a South-East Asian tourist package serviced by one of the larger Indian operators. I asked him how important budget was a factor in his choice of tour and operator. “It was my top priority. First, I chose three or four good operators, studied their packages and then chose the most economical one,” Contractor said.
Nair said that this was a major factor for an older generation of travellers, especially people who were travelling overseas for the first time. But, once they’ve got some miles under the belt, he said, they’ll get better at pricing their trips. They would learn the advantages of buying “up”.
Partha agreed with Nair’s generational perspective. He said there were socio-economic underpinnings to the way a generation earns and spends: “Our parents were taught to earn and save for the future. So, we have this bang-for-buck mentality hard-wired into us.”
Coming from a traditional village where my family lived on agriculture till a generation ago, I know exactly what Partha means. Try telling my grandparents that the midnight buffet at the ITC Grand is great value. (“Take him out of our will immediately! No coconut orchard for him.”) Not a word about Wasabi, please.
By now we have broached the topic of two generations of Indian traveller. One is a first-time traveller, emerging on the back of the economic boom. Probably from a tier II or a tier III city looking to see pieces of the world as economically as possible. He was “ticking off must-watch places and must-do things on a checklist,” as Nair liked to put it.
But there was also a new generation of traveller. The young, educated type who wanted to see the world on his own terms; who wandered off the beaten path to Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica.
Yet, the stereotype that prevails, Nair said, was strongly based on the old one: The generation that still preferred to go for the package tours with the “delightful Indian meals” every night. Perhaps this was also why most Expedia survey respondents thought that we were unwilling to experience local culture, especially food.
A year ago, I did a whirlwind tour of Malaysia starting from the Genting Highlands. For my first lunch there (it was included with the room fare), I walked into a huge coffee shop teeming with people. Mostly Indian. And then I noticed that more than half the buffet was stocked with “authentic Indian specialties”. Dawl Tarkah and Naan Bread. The Indians tucked in with gusto.
Contractor mentioned how one of the highlights of his trip was the “traditional Indian meal buffet”. Each noon and night the group of 40 trippers were herded to a local Indian eatery. “I am a non-vegetarian, so I was the only person who had a single meal outside the prescribed package meals,” Contractor reminisced.
Partha thinks it’s a question of cultural background. Even the inbound tourists to India, he says, experiment a little bit before going back to their usual cuisine. In fact, he thinks that the Indian tourist from a metro city is much more experimental with food when he goes abroad than most other cultures.
Score 1 for the desis!
Which left us with just one fundamental crib. Why are we so obsessed with Singapore, London, Titlis and Cruises?
Indians love Singapore. We adore it. If we could, we’d just move in and eventually marry it. Our lust for Switzerland is just as fiery and passionate. US and Europe have always been the apples of the Indian eye. So, why don’t we go to new places?
“South-East Asia and Singapore are great cheap places to go to for the first-time travellers. Visas are easy to get and most countries there have packaged themselves really well,” Nair said.
Then there are the iconic qualities of Europe and the US. All thanks to Bollywood. Remember the rich boy coming back to take over the family business? Or the villain in his sharp suit and huge sunglasses, played by Ranjeet, flying in to marry the heroine even if her heart really belongs to Vijay...a mamuli (simple) office clerk?
So, when many of our first-time travellers make a little money, they want to see places that they dreamt of when young.
But, like most other Indian tourist-isms Nair believes that this, too, is changing very quickly. And, it all has to do with that emerging constituent—the new Indian traveller. One of the first questions that was ever posted on Nair’s HolidayIQ travel forum was about Botswana. People were beginning to experiment.
This whole Indian stereotype, then, is a slightly overblown thing. And change is simply a matter of time; when first-time travellers make their second trips and that “new traveller” starts marching around a little more. How long will it take for the old stereotype to go and a new one to emerge? Not any time soon, the British Tourism Authority continues to promote things such as the Bollywood tour of the UK. And people are lapping it up.
Yet all is not lost. We are not the hopeless philistines surveys picture us as being. But wait. Stereotypes suck right?
Nair again: “Dude! A stereotype is the ultimate stamp of global stardom. If your country has one, it means you’ve arrived. So, what the hell...”
Now that he put it that way... what the hell indeed. So will you please pass me that portion of Dawl Tarkah, please? And some Indian naan bread.