To see the woman in the bikini he travels great distances to the Goan coast where he sits on the beach in his morose underwear with that Y-front as though he wishes to convey ‘two roads diverged in the wood and I…’ On his lap, like an infant, is his high-carb belly filled with subsidised grain, and the other sugars of his recent economic progress.
He is drunk and one opportunity away from becoming a molestor. He is with friends, he is almost always with friends, and they are a lot like him. Sometimes he walks behind white women asking to take selfies with them, holding their waists. For some reason he is more respectful towards mothers in bikinis. Mostly he makes fun of the women.
He is everywhere these days in every site that the ‘Incredible India’ campaign asks foreigners to visit in the foreign media. The hysteria around the rumour that the campaign would have a new brand ambassador is fundamentally pointless because, eventually, no matter which film star endorses India, when the tourists land the true brand ambassador of the nation would be that gawking man who, like RK Laxman’s Common Man, is in every frame of India, commenting, elbowing, slowly scratching his crotch, stalking women on the beach with a bottle in his hand.
He was always around but his new financial progress, though modest, is making him move more than ever. Once, he had to wait in his hometown to see the white tourists. When he travelled at all on leisure it was usually with family on pilgrimage. God and vacation, two at the price of one. Now he and his friends hire a Sumo and go places. They live in the vehicle, they bathe and shit wherever they can. They cannot be hidden or shooed away anymore. They may not be able to encroach into the private spaces of high-end tourists but they are not afraid anymore to share public spaces with them. They are more reassured than ever of their rights.
If it were mandatory for tourism advertisements to publish risk factors, they would have been mentioned in the fine-print of all Incredible India ads. They are living reminders of the fact that high-end tourism in a poor nation is a vulgar phenomenon. There are bound to be tourist-reality conflicts.
The newly mobile lout is only a part of the problem of Indian tourism. The other problems are what we endure in daily life — the poor infrastructure, pollution and low faith in policing. There are foreign tourists who may love India as a transient adventure but high-end tourists, whose money the Incredible India campaign wishes to bag, have too many options to risk India.
India attracts about seven million foreign tourists, and this number includes an intriguingly high number of Bangladeshi tourists. India is a tourism midget compared to Thailand and Malaysia, and even Singapore. India attracts less than 1% of global foreign tourists and extracts less than 2% of the global foreign tourist expenditure.
Over the years, Goa and Agra have seen a sharp fall in the number of high-end foreign tourists. The tourism industry tends to give exalted reasons like global recession, terror advisories and turmoil of currencies. These reasons are, of course, contributing factors but they do not fully explain why India has fared poorly compared to other nations. India does not officially accept that the adversary of Indian tourism is India itself. Over a decade ago, a former tourism secretary did say, “It’s easy to tell people about the sights and sounds of India, but how do you tell them about the smells of India?” But such pronouncements from bureaucrats are rare now. Tour operators point to reasons like filth in public spaces, crime and the perception that India is unsafe for women that render the Incredible India campaign almost worthless.
Last year I went to meet the tourism minister of Goa, Dilip Parulekar, who must be a progressive politician as he was offended by bikinis only when women wore them in supermarkets as opposed to other BJP politicians who thought bikinis even on beaches were “against Indian culture”. When I asked him what he proposed to do to attract foreign tourists, he mentioned a few things that included “signboards” so that tourists can find their way to the beaches.
In theory, he knew that he needed foreign tourists for revenue, but in spirit he resented the fact that he must reach out to them. Also, as a politician he did not want to admit that poor Indian men were a problem. The managing director of the Goa Tourism Development Corporation, however, found it easy to make that admission. As a strategy to discourage poor tourists from visiting Goa, he said, “We have ensured that they don’t cook their meals on the beaches anymore.”
Even as high-end foreign tourists are abandoning Goa, affluent Indians, with whom the Sumo Indian in underwear never wants to take a selfie, have taken over. That appears to be the future of Goa — as a seaside resort saved by middle class Indians. When this phenomenon began a few years ago, I spoke to a number of executives in Goa’s hospitality industry, and I could sense some resentment. They loathed the Indian who would be rude to the hotel staff, who bargained hard for almost everything, and who consumed so much of the breakfast buffet that he was clearly not as profitable as the white guest. Several people mentioned women in saris in the pool.
But now there is a new respect for the high-end Indian tourist in Goa. The affluent Indian, too, has matured as a tourist. Maybe the Incredible India campaign should turn its attention from wealthy foreigners to wealthy Indians. After all, the fortunate Indian, too, is a foreigner in his own nation.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. The views expressed are personal.