Dollars Or Soul?
India can keep one of these, all hinges on how it treats tourists
STATISTICS prove that India has received 1.2 million tourists since January, a drop of 40 per cent compared to last year. As against the 3.5 million tourists who flocked to China during the same period! The Indian government blames this on the sanctions imposed after India’s nuclear tests, but the reality is quite different.
Take flying. I often shuttle between Chennai and Delhi. An Indian Airlines (IA) return ticket costs more than Rs 15,500. For that price, I can fly Paris-New York and back, and that’s double the distance. Also, IA runs only two flights daily between New Delhi, the capital of a one billion nation, and Chennai, of five million souls, the gateway to the South; and even these don’t run full (only ten per cent of IA passengers pay their actual fare—the rest are bureaucrats, executives of state and private companies; so most of the money goes from the government to the government!) The French, on the other hand, have one flight every half hour between Paris, the capital, and Nice, their gateway to the South; and they’re always full, due to the incentives on offer: discounts, off-season fares…
Absurd visa laws, steep airfares and hotel bills, is what marks the Indian tourism scene.
Try telling IA that they should give discounts on return-tickets and all they’ll give you is a dirty look!
This complacency when there’s a 15-day waiting list for a Chennai-Delhi IInd class AC sleeper ticket costing Rs 3,000 taking
36 hours—that’s if you are lucky and the train isn’t a few hours late, or isn’t hit by another train from behind, as it happened to my wife and me a few years ago. If IA had the foresight to offer their Chennai/Delhi tickets at Rs 4,000, I’m sure train passengers would gladly pay another thousand bucks to avoid the 36-hour business. And IA could run six Airbus 300s full daily and make a tidy sum, instead of hiking up prices four times in five years. It’s also very sad that many governments, including the present one, have sabotaged the Tata proposal for a private airline, which would have given IA, the world’s most-staffed airline, a run for its money.
Take hotels. When Jacques Chirac, the French President, visited India in January, he stayed at the Taj Bombay and we journalists tagged along. The price of a room in the new wing was $300 plus, that’s nearly Rs 13,000. The rooms were nothing extraordinary, save for the view of the Gateway. The sea was dirty, with plastics floating around and there were hawkers, snake-charmers and con-men galore, waiting to pounce on tourists who dared to step out of the hotel. The food at the Taj and other fivestar hotels can’t compare even with that of a one star restaurant in a minor French town. For the price charged, one can stay at a better hotel in Paris, or Madrid, and enjoy better cuisine and service.
Take visas. In Sri Lanka, all foreigners are automatically handed a one-month visa on landing. But not in India. One has to apply to sour-faced, underpaid staffers at Indian embassies abroad—forget five-year visas, even if you’ve been visiting India for 35 years, like Roger Anger, the famous French architect, who designed Auroville, near Pondicherry, and was recently refused one. Renewing a tourist visa can be a nightmare too, though I have a friend who recently bought one through an ‘agent’ in Nepal for Rs 10,000 and even got a genuine embassy receipt for it!
Take banks. Thirty years ago, it took half-an-hour to change $100 in Pondicherry’s State Bank of India branch. Today, despite computers, it still takes half-an-hour! Being a resident of India and married to an Indian, I have an Indian Grindlays Credit Card, besides American Express and Visa international credit cards (since the Indian government has a policy of milking tourists: one rate for Indians in rupees at hotels, or air/ railway tickets, another for foreigners in dollars, which is 40 per cent higher).In short, Grindlays, which charges an outrageous interest rate for the card and debits Rs 100 for clearing cheques, cancelled my credit since I was six days late in paying my monthly installment. So my card was refused by IA when I had to pay for a ticket and had to use my Visa card instead, ie. 40 per cent extra! I’m considering the consumer courts…
Take the Indian Tourist Department. In Paris, I met the Indian Director of Tourism, a courteous man. He explained that he spent most of his time there showing Indian ministers and their wives around, and had practically no budget to invite French journalists to India. And when scribes were invited by the Indian Government, it was usually the wrong ones—instead of reporting on India’s positive aspects, they dwell on its negative, more sensational side—Calcutta, poverty, Mother Teresa, etc, or ‘fanatic’ Hindus (like Christophe Jaffrelot, who wrote The BJP and the compulsion of politics in India) because that’s what foreigners wanted to hear.
However, after all is said and done, it may very well be that the politicians stalling pri-vatising India’s airlines, the obscure bureaucrats who make absurd visa rules, the arrogant hoteliers and bankers who inflate prices, are all doing a great service to India.
Because tourism kills the soul of a nation. As it did in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Nepal. India lives for itself, within itself—its festivals, dances, ways of life are not (yet) custom-made to please ignorant tourists. As for myself, I’ll willingly suffer at the hands of IA for the rest of my life, if it helps India keep its soul, which is what makes it so unique.
(The author is a French journalist, who has lived in India for 30 years. He’s the correspondent in South Asia for Le Figaro, France’s largest circulation newspaper and has published Rewriting Indian History.)