The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Thanks to GST, smog, and rude officials, who’d want to visit your country?
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi lifts the facade off the travel industry. The government of India has spent crores on ad campaigns aimed at getting more tourists to visit.vir sanghvi Updated: Nov 15, 2017 09:25 IST
On few subjects is there as much of a gap between what people say and how they behave as there is in the travel and tourism business.
Each year, governments, airlines, and destinations spend millions trying to persuade people to travel. And yet, when we do travel, the experiences can vary dramatically from the promises that were made to us.
Here are three recent instances.
An elderly British couple went to Venice. At a popular restaurant, they were conned into ordering more food and expensive wine than they wanted. They did not understand everything they were told because they spoke no Italian and the staff at the restaurant indicated that the couple’s objections, which were in English, were unintelligible, because the restaurant’s employees only spoke Italian.
When the bill came, it was over 500 Euros. The couple had no way of protesting (language issues) so they paid it. But when they got home to Britain, they told their son about their experience. He was sufficiently outraged to write a letter of protest to the Mayor of Venice. It did the city no good, he said in his letter to the Mayor, for travellers to return with stories about being ripped off.
You would expect the Mayor to respond with soothing words.
Instead, he took the line, in various public statements, that it was entirely the British couple’s fault. If people don’t want to spend money in Venice and then crib about every expense, then they might as well as stay at home. And as for all that stuff about not being listened to when they protested that they did not want the expensive food and drink, well anyone who comes to Venice should learn some Italian. Otherwise it’s their own fault.
Wow! Italian hospitality at its finest.
The government of India has spent crores on ad campaigns aimed at getting more tourists to visit. It has sent officials to every global trade fair to promote Indian tourism.
And yet, nothing has deterred tourists more than recent events. The first was the imposition of 28% GST on five star luxury rooms, the highest GST in the world, which has made India much more expensive than any competing destination.
Of course GST does not come under the Tourism Ministry so even as one arm of the government is busy encouraging high-spending upmarket tourists to visit India, another arm is actively discouraging them from coming.
And then, of course, there was the pollution. I was abroad when the smog levels in North India --- never very good at the best of times -– hit emergency levels. Every TV channel and newspaper ran a story about the poison in the air and many focussed on the health hazards to tourists. United Airlines cancelled flights to Delhi and a few minutes worth of TV footage of smog-filled streets on every news channel made a mockery of the promises of the tourism campaign.
By now, there is not much left to say about the Indigo video. We have all seen the footage of staff-members assaulting a passenger, wrestling him to the ground and throttling him. I have also read Indigo’s long defence of the actions of its employees. Essentially, Indigo’s story is that the passenger spoke rudely to staff members. (Apparently, he said “f**k you” when staff kept moving him around.) This was enough for Indigo staff to refuse to let him board the bus that took passengers from the plane to the coach. When the passenger ignored them and tried to board anyway, they physically restrained him. Once the confrontation had got physical, the passenger lost his cool and retaliated with violence at which stage two Indigo employees, one of them laughing and smirking, tackled him to the ground and throttled him. (According to Indigo, the man seen throttling the passenger in the video was actually only trying to restrain him and raise himself up by putting his hand on the passenger’s collarbone!).
All three incidents seem to me to sum up what is wrong with travel today. The Mayor of Venice is a Trump-like figure given to making outrageous statements but let’s not forget that the people of Venice chose him to be their mayor.
Let’s also not forget that Venice depends on tourism for its revenues. The residents of Venice are fortunate to live in a beautiful city built hundreds of years ago. But rather than seeing themselves as custodians of a glorious heritage, they take the line that every tourist who visits Venice is a mark, to be fleeced for whatever they can get.
I love Venice. But I know of no city where tourists get a worse deal. From the moment you arrive, there is somebody trying to rip you off. Now, the Mayor has made it official. Come to Venice, he suggests, and let us take you for everything you have.
As for Indigo, I am appalled by the footage and horrified by the official response. I am quite willing to accept that the passenger used an obscenity (though he does not use a single bad word in the recorded footage and seems a paragon of dignity compared to the goondas in Indigo uniforms) but I don’t believe that gives the staff the right to stop him from boarding the coach. In any case, even assume he had agreed not to board the bus, what would Indigo have achieved? They could not have kept him by the side of the aircraft forever.
The arrogance of the Indigo response and the smirks on the face of the guy assaulting the passenger tell us all we need to know about the culture at Indigo. This is a low-fare airline that takes the line that its passengers have no dignity and should be treated with a minimum of respect.They are just fare-fodder, the guys they stuff into their aircraft.
Say what you will about Air-India where passengers are often treated with disdain. But I have never seen Air-India staff behave like goondas, grinning as they assault passengers. And if the incident had happened on Air-India, rest assured that all hell would have broken loose.
Here, Indigo has refused to sack the guys who assaulted the passenger and is brazening it out.The official statement even suggests that the staff were acting to protect the passenger!
Where does it get the courage to treat people like dirt?
Well, from us, the passengers.
Despite brave talk on social media of a passenger boycott, there has been no drop in Indigo’s sales. Experience has shown the airline industry that no matter how badly you treat passengers they keep coming back if fares are competitive enough. So unless the government does the right thing and punishes Indigo (which may or may not happen), the management of the airline will be smirking all the way to the bank.
As for GST, smog etc., there are two lessons. The first is that no matter how hard certain civil servants may try, few governments take tourism seriously. The portfolio is routinely given to jokers who have to be accommodated somewhere in the cabinet and it has been a long time since I can remember a Tourism Minister who had the clout to stand up to the Finance Ministry or indeed, to any powerful branch of government.
The smog is a symptom of a deeper malaise. No matter how much we brag about our growth rates and our bright economic future, we care too little about the health of our people. There is poisonous smog in Delhi every autumn. But nobody bothers to anticipate it or to take measure to ensure that things will be better in the following year. As at least three states government are involved, only the Centre can lead the initiative. But it never does.
Is there any reason for hope? Well, there is a sliver of cheer. Three weeks ago when the immigration desks at Delhi Airport became so clogged that the queues snaked outside the hall, there was a minor Twitter storm.
I thought nothing would come of it. But full marks to Jayant Sinha, the junior minister at the Civil Aviation Ministry who took up the issue with the Home Ministry (which handles Immigration) and worked hard to resolve the crisis. Credit too to Rajnath Singh who took action and tweeted in response to the complaints that the ministry was on the job.
These are small things. But in a bleak travel landscape, they give us some reason for hope.