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.”
But just as the American tourist's penchant for plaid never stopped France from chasing his dollars, the Indian tourist's insatiable thirst for Scotch hasn't made his rupees any less attractive. Tourism boards from a laundry list of countries have flooded Indian cities with delegations — or simply set up shop here. Airlines and hotels abroad have wooed Indian travel companies with bargain basement rates, and pulled out all stops to compete — throwing open their kitchens to traveling Indian chefs, topping up their in-flight entertainment libraries with Bollywood movies, and fighting tooth and nail for the right to host stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan for the Indian International Film Awards.
The reason is simple. Despite the downturn, India's travel market is still growing. According to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, more than 800,000 Indians are expected to visit Singapore this year, more than 669,000 Indians are expected to visit the U.S. and more than 625,000 are expected to visit Malaysia. Moreover, PATA expects the number of Indian visitors to Singapore, Malaysia and the U.S. to continue to grow rapidly through 2011. “Since the economic crisis began, there has been a reduction in travel, but the reduction in travel by Indians has been very low compared to any other country,” said Gupta. “Indians are still traveling a lot. Maybe some people have downgraded, by say, instead of going to the U.S. traveling closer to home, but they're still traveling abroad.”
Many of these Indian travelers, of course, are erudite, suave, charming, or simply humble and polite — it's just that nobody remembers them. For every passenger aboard Cathay's Delhi-Bangkok run with his finger on the call button, there were three or four who were fast asleep, mummified in blankets, or peacefully guffawing at the mindless in-flight movies.
Most problems result from simple misunderstandings, explained Thomas Thottathil, spokesman for Cox & Kings, one of India's largest tour companies. “We sensitize our customers, our tour guides, and we also explain to our suppliers overseas — the hotels or whatever — that Indian travelers have their own needs, their own particular habits.” Because of that effort, Thottathil said his firm has not faced anything more serious than the occasional complaint that a hotel didn't provide dinner after 9:30 p.m.
Thottathil may well be onto something. A quick lesson about Indians' love of thrift, for instance, might ease international tensions in the air. What's the multicultural secret to a tranquil flight, you ask?
Five dollar whiskeys.