My India:Little things mean a lot

By Rudy Otter

Tourists never forget the major delights and thrills they experienced while on holiday. But they also remember the hiccups, the drawbacks, the petty annoyances. What, for instance, is the point of a foreign tourist having a wonderful break in India, visiting one or more of the subcontinent’s 26 World Heritage sites, or walking through the magnificent palaces and forts of Rajasthan, or watching hundreds of people bathing in the holy River Ganges, or being photographed on the Taj Mahal bench made famous by the late Princess Diana, or marvelling at the awe-inspiring waterfalls and wildlife of southern India, when a taxi driver dishonestly charges them twice the normal fare, or a railway clerk botches up a simple verbal enquiry, resulting in them missing a train and having to spend two hours on an overcrowded sweltering platform waiting for the next one? “Array, what is two hours?” I can hear some Indians say. Well, in time-sensitive western culture, a two-hour wait is considered almost as long as a lifetime. What is more, such experiences overshadow the tourist’s holiday memories and may discourage him from returning.

One friend booked a holiday to India for the first time and became increasingly excited at the prospect of having an “exotic experience”. After the fortnight’s holiday, accompanied by her mother, she returned home disillusioned. “Oh dear,” she said, shaking her head. “We tourists were hassled by vendors everywhere we went. The same thing happened on excursions.”  I know the feeling. But there is an effective way to deal with hasslers and I shall reveal it later in this column.

On our first visit to New Delhi, many years ago, my wife and I liked to go for strolls in Connaught Place, the main shopping area, but this was not the pleasant experience it ought to have been. We were harassed by touts offering to take us to cottage emporia to buy locally made souvenirs, despite our polite “No thanks”. Also, when we took a taxi to Chandni Chowk (Old Delhi), the driver pulled up at a cottage emporium and urged us to go in. Surprised at this unscheduled stop, I said: “But we don’t want to buy any souvenirs.”  “Just go and see,” he persisted, overcoming all our meek objections.  We had no overwhelming desire to buy impressive hand-crafted wooden elephants, paintings of historic Indian battles, beautifully designed carpets or salt-and-pepper mills, and came out empty-handed, sending him into a sullen mood. We later learned that cottage industry touts earned hefty commissions when the tourists they brought in actually purchased something

We also learned from an old India hand, who spent all his holidays in India for the past 12 years, never to say “No thanks” to touts – because this merely encourages them to persist in the belief that they can change your mind. The technique is to say nothing. Just ignore them completely; pretend they are invisible, and they will soon go away. We tried it and it worked like magic.Last year, India’s Ministry of Tourism launched a tremendous programme called “Athithi Devo Bhava” (my guest is my god) aimed at improving services to tourists to the level of care and hospitality found in typical Indian households, making visitors feel so welcome that they keep coming back year after year.

“Athidhi Devo Bhava”, if promoted enthusiastically across India, will give tourism a massive boost and help bring in many more millions of foreign visitors, proving that India is one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations.

Rudy Otter is a UK-based travel writer

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