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Asian tourism revolves around the white man

In early February, Vijai Sardesai, Goa’s Town and Country Planning Minister, spoke at the Goa Biz Fest.

Directly contradicting his Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar’s position that Goa should attract one crore tourists this year, Sardesai made it clear that he did not want too many domestic tourists whom he described as “the scum of the earth.”


Sardesai then explained why he didn’t want a lot of tourists. It wasn’t that he was against all tourists. He liked foreign tourists, he said. He liked upper class (presumably, he meant wealthy) Indian tourists. But he did not want down-market North Indian tourists who wanted to create “another Haryana” in Goa.


   When I read the quotes from Sardesai’s speech, which was front paged in national papers, I was a little taken aback. It is unusual for a minister in a state that relies so much on tourist revenues to bad-mouth tourists. And it is even more unusual for a minister in a state government to take a stand that is directly opposed to his chief minister’s. I guess it may have something to do with the nature of Parrikar’s coalition. Sardesai is not from the BJP but represents a party called Goa Forward, whose name he might consider changing to Goa Forward (But Only If You Are Rich and not Scum).


   I tweeted a screenshot of the story about Sardesai’s speech and waited for the response. Twitter is always good when it comes to outrage and Sardesai’s remarks were particularly outrageous. Not only is it unacceptable for a state that wants to attract tourists from all over India to bite the hand that feeds it, but the remarks were also classist (stay away, you scum-like middle class tourists!) and ethnically-offensive (why single out North Indians and Haryana in particular?). Moreover, he was unusually abusive for a minister. (Scum of the earth? Really?)


   So yes, my timeline was full of angry tweets of the if-this-is-how-you-feel-then-I-am-never-going-to-Goa variety.


   But there was one huge surprise.


   An astonishingly large number of people tweeted to say that they agreed with Sardesai! Even those who did not approve of his language said that they understood the sentiment behind his outburst!


   Presumably Sardesai got the same sort of response because the next day, he said that he stood by the thrust of his remarks, that Goa was being destroyed by a certain kind of domestic tourist, etc. etc.


   Ever since this controversy blew over – Goa is back to its target of one crore tourists, whether or not we are scum – I have been trying to work out why Sardesai’s remarks struck a chord and what it tells us about attitudes to tourism.


   Here are some tentative conclusions.


   Many people in Goa don’t really like tourists. Part of it is that usual fear of outsiders who change the way an area or a region looks. But in the case of Goa it is a little more specific. Till the 1990s, you had a sense that even though Goa had been an integral part of India since 1960 when we booted out the Portuguese it still had an ethos all of its own. That’s not really true any longer. Each time I go to Goa it seems more and more like any other part of India. Some Goans believe that tourism has destroyed the spirit of Goa.


   Nobody can deny that Goa has profited enormously from the tourism boom. The state administration also does its best to make sure that local Goans benefit from the flow of tourists. This ranges from making it difficult for non-Goans to run businesses without local partners to encouraging a taxi mafia throughout the state (especially at the airport) so that the state’s favourite sons can make money ripping off tourists.


   Despite all this, there are huge levels of resentment over the so-called outsiders who have made millions from the tourist boom. The days when tourism in Goa was about little beach-front properties run by locals and the dining experience focused on Goan shacks are fading. Most of the new, successful places in Goa are (effectively, if not always on paper) run by people from elsewhere – and often by North Indians.


   Even the employment pattern is skewed. You find fewer and fewer Goans employed at the newer places. The hospitality sector likes to hire people from outside the state, from as far away as Sikkim and Meghalaya.


   So, Goans often feel left out by the boom in tourism.


"All over Asia, Chinese and Indian tourists spend much more than most tourists from so-called white countries. But the prejudices persist."

   And then there are the problems that plague all Indian resorts. Name a hill station that was once celebrated through the ages and I will show you a hideous urban sprawl.


   Shimla? Ugly and overdeveloped beyond belief. Ooty? Hard to believe that this town was ever considered charming. Nainital? You must be kidding!


   One consequence of the expansion in domestic tourism over the last two decades is the need for accommodation at all price points. Corrupt politicians and unscrupulous local officials have lined their pockets by approving all kinds of unregulated construction. Lovely towns have been destroyed and entire regions ruined.


   One by one, all the great and beautiful destinations have had the charm ripped out of them. The real cause of this is corruption. But tourism is the motivating factor.


   It is not clear why but locals all over Asia are like Sardesai in that they seem to prefer white tourists to all other kinds.


   Nearly everywhere you go in Asia – even in such cities as Singapore which are dominated by ethnic Chinese – you will hear complaints about tourists from Mainland China. They are rude, they are pushy, they have no culture, they are dirty – the complaints will keep coming.


   If you suggest that worse things could be said about white tourists whose behaviour is not much better, your opinion will be brushed aside. Asian tourism revolves around worship of the white man.


   There is no logic to this. All over Asia, Chinese and Indian tourists spend much more than most tourists from so-called white countries. But the prejudices persist.


   There is, however, one kind of white tourist that nobody wants. Way back in the 1970s, Lee Kuan Yew who founded modern Singapore, banned people with long hair from entering the country. He was merely reasserting a region-wide prejudice against ‘hippies’


   Other countries have been less harsh but as unenthusiastic about ‘long hairs’. Goa was once a ‘hippie’ paradise but most have now been run out of the state. The nicest part of Kathmandu used to be Thamel, the ‘hippie’ district. Then the government of Nepal decided it only wanted upmarket tourists and threw out the ‘hippies’. As a consequence Thamel became as crummy and charmless as the rest of Kathmandu and eventually Nepal itself collapsed, both as a country and as a tourist destination.


   In the case of Goa, the we-love-white-tourists policy is complicated by the influence of the Russians who many Goans see as having introduced drugs, prostitution etc. to the state. Despite these charges, Goa has continued to welcome Russians and Goa’s tourist earnings still fluctuate wildly, depending on the state of the Russian economy.


   But still, I guess, some Goans would rather welcome white-skinned Russians over middle class North Indians.


   There is, in Sardesai’s remarks and in some of the comments on Twitter, a classist bias. This is the first time in the history of independent India that young, middle class Indians can afford to travel far and wide for holidays.


   Obviously, this changes the character of domestic tourism. And many people don’t like it. They don’t like hearing Hindi, Punjabi or Gujarati spoken loudly on planes and they hate seeing people in salwar kameezes walking on the beach.


   To which, what can one say but: get over it, you snobbish idiots. This is the new India. And we should all be proud of the social and economic mobility of 21st century India.


   And finally, one rather sad admission. Indians are not always the best travellers. We make lousy passengers. Often we misbehave with airline staff. We don’t treat people who serve us well. We can be insensitive to local sensibilities.


   To that limited extent, Sardesai may have had a point. But he destroyed his case with his disparaging references to North Indians (rather than all Indians) and by pleading for more rich Indian tourists. In my experience, the richer the Indian tourist, the more obnoxious he can be.


   So, all things considered, Goa should be thanking us. And people who call others scum should take a good look at themselves in the mirror first.



Posted On: 24 Feb 2018 04:00 PM
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