Stereotypes : the quintessential Indian Tourist, part I

Last week, Sidin Vadukut of Mint sent me a few questions on the “quintessential Indian tourist”, which made me think a bit – and attempt a post on it. (Incidentally, do watch out for his piece later this month on Mint Lounge)

First of all, Sidin’s questions:

Indians are obessed with a few destination nations ; US, Singapore and Hong Kong. Is this true? Why is this? Surely people are aware of more places to go to.

Beaches, amusement parks, resorts and mountains. Is that all the Indian tourist cares about? A recent Kuoni survey seemed to think so.

One of the great joys of going abroad is the food & drink. But do Indian travellers prefer to carry teplas and pickle instead? Are we greatly opposed to eating food abroad?

A recent Expedia survey indicated that Indian tourists were some of the rudest passengers abroad. Only after the French. Is this a true representation of reality? Are we really bad? Or are we just perceived to be so beacuse of language issues and an inherent fear of being ripped off?

Are we stingy travellers? Do we count every penny that leaves our pockets? Is that why some hoteliers are terrified of us?

These are some of the popular stereotypes of the Indian tourist. What is your take on them? Are we just misunderstood? Or is it the sad truth?

Since answering all the questions will result in me being awarded an M.Phil (a highly undesirable condition at my stage of life), let me try a general take on a single aspect : the Indian tourist stereotype.

So, here goes.

I actually think this is great news, Indian tourists getting stereotyped that is. For this means that we have arrived as a ‘touristy’ people. Tourism stereotypes are the ultimate accolade and are handed out only to those people who are seen in a lot of tourism destinations. Remember the western tourist stereotypes. The loud, ignorant, throwing-cash-around American. Or the French who couldn’t understand why all places don’t have French food. Or the British, or the Italian. Then came the post war boom in Japan and the subsequent rise of the Japanese tourist stereotype – orderly, giggling groups in buses, photographing themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Niagara Falls. So, if Indian tourists have got themselves a stereotype, this proves in a way no statistics ever can, that we are now sufficiently large in number ‘touristing’ across the world.

Actually, to me this represents another facet of India’s ‘soft power’, next only to India’s diaspora. Indeed, I am certain that India’s outbound tourists (along with Indian movies) will overtake our diaspora as the primary projection of India’s ‘soft power’ over the next 10 years.

Of course, stereotypes often contain a kernel of truth and the Indian tourist stereotype is probably no exception. Our stereotype suggests we are not very adventurous, prefer to eat our own food and are rude. As someone who has done a fair bit of idle wandering often observing my own countrymen, I can say with a degree of conviction that none of this is fully untrue. Obviously there are a large number of Indian travellers who don’t necessarily fit into this description, but there are enough of us who do, to justify the creation of a stereotype.

But another interesting facet that I see in the creation of our stereotype (and if this is true for us, must be true for all tourism stereotypes) is how individual character elements that we display are inferred in a very different way by people of other cultures. Let me take the example of ‘being rude’.

Many foreigners have pointed out to me that Indians never say ‘please’ and are therefore impolite. Now, here is my question to you. What is the word for ‘please’ in an Indian language? Yup, that is right By and large, there is no word for ‘please’ in most Indian languages. But as we all know, that hasn’t stopped from being polite. We use intonation, body language and a hundred other markers to ensure that others know that we are being polite. The problem is, most foreigners cannot get all of those markers. They look out for the marker they are familiar with, which is the word ‘please’ and its equivalents. And when that is absent, wrongly assume we are rude. I suspect there are many other instances of this, leading to our stereotype.

Another aspect of our stereotype is ‘sticking to Indian food’ and therefore being unadventurous. A few months ago, I happened to have a very enlightening meal with a Singaporean Chinese lady (my post on that here). The discussion turned to Chinese food vs Indian food and Carolynn made an interesting observation. She said Chinese cuisine offered so much variety that most Chinese don’t like any other food. She was offering this half-apologetically to explain why she really did not like Indian food. But, here is the point.

Indian food is among the 3 leading cuisines of the world (along with Chinese and Middle-Eastern cuisines) that have a rich repertoire of tastes, textures and dishes to be fully self-sufficient. If you like any of these three, you probably don’t need anything else. Now, before I get lynched by lovers of other cuisines, let me hasten to add that I do know there are great dishes in other cuisines, whether it is a succulent steak or foie- gras. It is just that these 3 cuisines have a huge load of extraordinary foods. Which is why, in spite of a world dominated by ‘western’ things, the leitmotifs for popular modern cuisine are the Tandoori Chicken, the Beijing Roast Duck and the Kebab. And so I humbly submit that Indians eat Indian food in other places because it is so bloody good. And that people from all other cultures too eat Indian, Chinese and Middle-eastern food, because, in general, these are vastly superior cuisines. (There, I have said it – now I shall roll myself into a ball and try to wait out the shellacking).

But of course, none of this explains why some of us pack and take our Teplas with us. That I think is because of a deep cultural insularity and a tight-assed sense of superiority, which will hopefully diminish over time as we become more confident citizens of the world. (For a related rant on being ‘non-vegetarian’, click here)

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4 thoughts on “Stereotypes : the quintessential Indian Tourist, part I

  1. I am definitely looking forward to part 2 and more 🙂
    I think you do explain part of the food mania – it is vegetarianism in most cases, and a habit to eat well-cooked food as opposed to the more natural form of food in some cases. Though I never pack with me a thepla, being a vegetarian forces me to eat some tasteless pizzas and cheesy pastas in most parts of the world. In others, I have to survive on cold cheese sandwiches – something I will never eat even in the laziest moments at home!
    But there is a stereotype – I am surprised Mr. Vadakut talked of HK, US – I would have said Europe and Thailand. There are countless Indian seeing Europe in the way it should never be seen – from monument to monument in a Cox & kings bus. But there is nothing sad about stereotypes – ask most Indians and they will describe for you the super cool stereotype of an American tourist, which is accepted the world over. No one sulks over it.

  2. Hello, Very interesting thought. I have to agree with you only on the first paragraph that Indians being a stereotype is good news because it means Indians are part of Tourists which has been far off from Indian minds for reasons cultural, economical etc. But you are only justifying the stereotypes, so even if an Indian doesn’t fit into the stereotype he/she has to bear the same treatment because there are people like you.
    I believe you totally missed the definition of tourism and so do most Indians. If you are going out of India to tour, say, Italy, what is your purpose? What exactly are you expecting to get in return for the money and time spent. If you want the exact same experience that you have traveling in India then you should stay put in India. Only if you are looking for experience other than Indian would you go out of India. If you want to behave like Indian(‘not say’ ‘please’), eat Indian food(because you think Indian food is superior- btw this is not a debate about which cuisine is superior) and etc, why go out of India. You can do that best by staying put. They say ‘When in Rome do what the Romans do’. Isnt that the experience that you expect to have when you go to Rome. If not, arn’t you essentially defeating the purpose of your own tour besides giving a wrong reputation to all other Indians who don’t. So a little bit of preparation and education about the place you are going to visit goes a long way for yourself and others in terms of stereotyping.

  3. I just want to make this particularly clear, the group of Indians that skipped the entire 1hr line at the St. Peter’s Basilica today was not a wordly apparation of a stereotype. The rest of us had slugged it out in the sun, but you lot couldn’t be bothered, with your women and truck loads of children, had to get in front. Loud outcries was ignored, the ‘father’ of the group didn’t even flinch. And I have seen this behaviour before. So yeah, you are a rude people. Full stop.

  4. People should realize that when you travel to another country, you are representing your country and your culture in that country. The people you meet during your stay will usually form an opinion about your country and culture based on how you treat them. I, as an Indian, have been to quite a few destinations, and most of the stereotypes you’ve stated come across as true to me. Non-Indians do usually assume that we’re not gonna let go of our money easily, so they don’t try selling us much.

    As I travel alone, I tend to usually go out of my way to show that not all of us are alike. This includes tipping generously (this works the best to pleasantly alter opinions!)

    Lastly, no matter what your position or financial condition, it helps to learn a bit about the culture of the country you are visiting. You can still eat your food, but there is no harm in picking up a couple of foreign phrases eh?

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