Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Double-Edged Sword of Tourism

The idea for this blog post came after a heated conversation my Romanian friends and I had over a beer (ahem, many beers, actually) in Bucharest last night. Romanians are always obsessed with their image abroad. "Obsessed" is probably not the most accurate choice of words - it should rather be interpreted as: "self-conscious about their already tarnished image in the eyes of Western Europe." Sometimes even to the point of over-compensating, sadly and unnecessarily.

Often, countries that feel self-conscious about their potential, try (too) hard to show off their goods, promote their great touristic and human assets, boast about their great history and achievements. Marketing programs for tourism often succeed to create that "desirable" image of a place you really want to go to. Whether it's in the great photography employed (often from a certain and only angle that shows the goods in the right light,) or in well-written copy, these ads succeed in luring the tourist into visiting the next hot destination. Once they get there, the situation may be completely different and off-putting. Here's why...

Vicky, a sweet young boy from Varanasi, India, who helped Anne buy, transport and ship a sitar.
We were in a hotel somewhere in India and met two Italian boys. They seemed nice, and we were craving for conversation with like-minded people, in a country where all men stare at you like you're some porn-star.We invited them into our room, where the 5 of us hung out and talked for a few hours over big bottles of water (alcohol is not quite legal in certain parts of India, so many hotels don't serve it.)

We talked and talked until one of the Italian guys asked us what our next travel destinations are. We said London, Zurich and Bucharest, Romania. When the Italian guy heard the word ROMANIA, his face made a grimace of disgust mixed with disbelief. "Romania?!?! Why in the world would you go there? That place is horrible! I've been there last year and hated it. It was horrible!!" said the handsome and well-dressed Italian young man. He didn't know I was from Romania.

I think I blushed a little. I admit I felt a little as if someone stabbed me in the heart. But I wanted to be neutral, rational and objective and find out why he felt this way. After all, even I had uttered the same words many times before. I kind of knew what he felt, but wanted to hear it from his own mouth. He explained that the people in Romania suck. He mentioned rude people he met, unhelpful, unfriendly, with blank or mean stares on their faces.

It happened that we had this conversation in a hotel in India, where the Internet wasn't working, the hot water wasn't working and all the people at the reception, like at any other hotel we stayed at, tried to rip us off, by offering over-priced drivers, over-priced (but always negotiable) rates for Internet access, etc. We were constantly complaining about the exhausting hassles and negotiations we had to carry out with shady people working in the tourism industry. And then I thought... maybe this Italian dude, in his interactions with people in Romania, met mostly shady people: cab drivers trying to rip him off, sour hotel and restaurant staff, arrogant immigration officials or policemen.

As a tourist, you have the huge disadvantage of interacting almost exclusively with people employed in the tourism industry. You rarely ever meet the normal folk who live in a country, the honest, helpful, hospitable, hard-working people that really represent the spirit of a place. The kind of people you interact with in a country can have a big impact on your final opinion of the country you visited. You will say: "It sucked" because you had bad interactions with shady people, or you can say: "I had a blast" just because you had a local friend, who took you into his/her family and protected you from the greediness and "phony-ness" of the tourism industry. This seems to be particularly valid for 3rd world (and maybe Eastern European) countries, where the Western tourist is seen as a cash cow.

The people in the tourism industry, who interact first-hand with foreigners, have the capacity to make or destroy the good image of their own country. Their attitude alone is responsible for the satisfaction or disgust of a person with a country, for the final, overall opinion a tourist has at the end of a trip. It's really up to them to make or break an image so carefully planned out by advertising agencies hired for big money by governmental agencies or tourism offices. No matter how shiny your ad in a magazine, it is the people hired to serve and aid tourists that fuck it up. Unless they are trained properly, supervised or fired for giving shitty customer service, no matter how beautiful your mountains and palaces are, how tasty your food can be - the tourist will leave with the bitter taste of his own personal experience. Human interaction is the core of life, the real cause of happiness.

Going back to India, I admit I have some really bad impressions and opinions about my stay there. Perhaps just as bad as the Italian guy had about his stay in Romania. But deep down I know India has its beauty, its intoxicating spirituality, happy and optimistic people, good people... we just had the misfortune to be constantly surrounded by the greedy sharks of tourism, and not by real people. Their shitty attitude towards us deeply influenced our overall opinion of India. But we met some good people too, and their kindness was so powerful, that it redeemed their kind.

We met Vicky, a 21 year old boy, on the streets of Varanasi. Anne asked him for directions to a shop selling musical instruments and he offered to take us there. He accompanied Anne during her shopping spree, helped her carry her sitar to the post office, helped her manage through the bureaucracy there. We had dinner with Vicky that night and he brought us Indian desserts. He kindness, in the ocean of greedy sharks we've been used to, was mind-blowing. Later on, in the New Delhi airport, we met an old woman who was flying to see her son in Vancouver. She was wrapped in the most beautiful wool shawl we've ever seen. Both Anne and I were drooling over it. We complimented the lady on the shawl and at the end, right before boarding, she offered it to us. We knew it was an old, expensive, hand-made shawl and we couldn't take it away from her, but her gesture was of incredible kindness.

These are the real, good Indian people. Not the tourism sharks. It would be a mistake to generalize and assert that an entire population or country sucks, just because one has had the misfortune to meet its low-lives. In conclusion: be travelers, not tourists. Meet strangers, talk to people on the street. Travel to a place where you have a friend who lives there. Be patient, non-judgmental, and give people (or countries) second chances. I had a bad time in India, but I have a 5 year visa and I'd like to go back. I'd like to give it a second chance and hopefully meet more of its good people. The people are a country's most beautiful and valuable asset. That's why, tourism programs should stream their efforts and budgets into educating and enlightening people, rather than over-priced and over-the-top ads. Word up!