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Move over, America. The world has a new rude traveler to detest.
NEW DELHI — The instant that the fasten seat belts light went out aboard Cathay Pacific's inaugural Delhi-Bangkok flight this summer, a chorus of metallic dongs erupted like a romper roomful of Ritalin-deprived 5-year-olds turned loose on an arsenal of xylophones.
The passengers were attacking their call buttons.
In seconds, flight attendants were up and running. By the time they began dishing out the special meals, tempers were beginning to fray.
“Whiskey!” demanded an old man with a white beard when the young Chinese flight attendant tried to put a meal in front of him.
“Sir, we are not serving drinks now,” the flight attendant replied politely. (Dong! Dong-dong! Do-Dong, dongdong!)
In the next row, another man, younger but no less eloquent, reached up to press his call button, and the flustered attendant caved and uncapped the Scotch.
“Arre, such a small peg she's given you,” the old man's companion protested.
Dong! Once the world loved to hate the Ugly American — fat, loud-mouthed and blissfully superior in his utter cultural ignorance. But since the economic crisis put the kibosh on American and European travel budgets, there's a new kid in town. India's rampaging outbound travel market has thrown a much-needed lifeline to the tourism industry in Southeast Asia, Europe and farther afield.
For those schlepping bags and serving drinks, though, the Ugly Indian can be so demanding that the lifeline sometimes looks like it has a noose at the end of it.
“It's a cultural thing,” said Pankaj Gupta, part-owner of Outbound Travels, a New Delhi-based travel agency. “In India, we have servants to do everything in everybody's houses mostly, so people are just sort of used to getting stuff delivered to them.”
Culture conflict has already resulted in several public relations debacles. In May, for instance, a group of Indian passengers caused a minor sensation in the local press when they leveled allegations of racism against Air France — saying that when their flight was delayed for 28 hours in Paris other passengers were transported to hotels, but the Indians were made to wait in the lounge. (The distinction was not made based on race, but on possession of a valid Schengen visa, the airline maintains).
In a similar incident in 2006, 12 Indian passengers accused Northwest Airlines of racism when they were offloaded and detained in Amsterdam for what flight attendants called “suspicious behavior.”
“Imagine arresting 12 guys just because they were changing seats and talking on their cellphones when the plane was taking off,” wrote Indian humorist Jug Suraiya in his Times of India column. “Everyone does that in India all the time, and no one gets arrested.”