Our Reputation as Tourists Was Ruined Even Before the Bali Family Came Along

Social Commentary

Our Reputation as Tourists Was Ruined Even Before the Bali Family Came Along

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

An Indian family on holiday in Bali discovered that going viral on the internet isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be. There’s good viral, like the announcement of PM Modi’s Man vs Wild episode where he and Bear Grylls go on a jaunt in the jungles of Jim Corbett National Park. And then, as the holidaymakers in Bali learnt to their dismay, there is bad viral. The family committed what they probably thought was a victimless crime, packing soap dispensers, ceramics, and whichever other items in their hotel room caught their fancy into their suitcases and attempted to check out with their haul. However, the hotel staff was wise to their tricks, stopping them before they made their getaway, and going through their luggage to retrieve the stolen objects. The video of this stop-and-search went viral, and yes, it was very much the bad kind.

Instantaneously, the family went from anonymous people on holiday to mascots for everything that is wrong with Indian tourists. They were attacked on social media, with people piling on to them for being bad ambassadors for the country while abroad. Actress Mini Mathur called them “a disgrace to the image of the country” on Twitter. Other commenters began calling for the cancellation of the family’s passports, making this one of the rare occasions where online cancel culture can in fact literally cause something to be cancelled. This, to me, was an overreaction no matter how crass the family’s sticky-fingered ways might have come across.

We were too quick to make a scapegoat out of the wrongdoers, and in our haste we might have bypassed an opportunity for self-reflection. The Bali family is not the first group of Indian tourists to embarrass themselves while on holiday, and they certainly won’t be the last. The reaction to the story might be even more surprising than the actual article. It’s easy to take the moral high ground when presented with damning video evidence and denounce the culprits, but why try and blame them for a problem they did not create? When the family in Bali tried to sneak a few “complementary items” past checkout, they weren’t being extraordinarily poor representatives of Indian travellers; on the contrary, they were living up to the widely known and unflattering stereotypes about Indian travellers.

We were too quick to make a scapegoat out of the wrongdoers, and in our haste we might have bypassed an opportunity for self-reflection.

Our reputation seems to precede us. This might be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but Indian travellers rarely feature in the lists of best-behaved tourists. A few days before the incident at the Bali hotel, industrialist Harsh Goenka shared a photo of a circular addressing “Dear guests from India” he received while staying at a hotel in Switzerland. The hotel establishment had to go to the length of printing out a special notice for Indian visitors, after they had been observed sneaking away free food from the breakfast buffet, bringing their own cutlery, and causing disturbances in the corridors. Goenka, to his credit, didn’t whine about how a few bad apples were spoiling his good name. Instead, he asked Indian tourists to work on changing their image as “loud, rude, and culturally not sensitive” travellers.

Goenka’s attitude toward the circular was a good example of how to react to the Bali video with a degree of self-awareness. Rather than getting up on a high horse, it’s better to try and understand why Indian travellers are getting such a bad rap. In the Bali video, the hotel staff continually reiterate to the family that simply paying for the stolen items would not provide coverage to the disrespect they had shown the hotel. Meanwhile, one of the family’s men continued to speak over him, insisting that he could pay, and pay extra.

It’s this disregard for servers coupled with a feeling of impunity that shows Indian travellers in a bad light. And this is a problem that starts not overseas, but domestically. We are all too used to lording over waiters in restaurants and coolies at railway stations. Even the ease with which we dodge misdemeanour offenses with a simple bribe plays a role in our thinking that problems are solved just as easily abroad. This is why the Bali video evoked such a strong response – it showed how far we’ve normalised what so many other countries view as dysfunctional behaviours.

At the root of all these shameful episodes is an ingrained disrespectfulness to our surroundings.

What begins with a lack of accountability and consequences for bad behaviour in India grows into a misplaced sense of confidence eventually. Conditioning takes over, and suddenly there is nothing wrong with leaving no tip for your server, pocketing a few items that probably won’t be missed, or being loud and unruly without a care for how it may affect others.

In the last few months, there have been two more incidents where Indians have shown their worst side to the world, not counting what happened in Bali this week. In October 2018, it was reported that 1,300 Indian men, who were employees of a gutka company on an official trip, caused havoc on an Australian cruise liner. Other guests reportedly shut themselves in their cabins as the merrymakers cavorted with female entertainers in skimpy bunny outfits, helped themselves to their own packed food in lieu of the fare from the ship’s galley, and caused a general drunken nuisance. A few months later, CCTV cameras captured footage of senior Indian journalists stealing fancy silverware at formal dinners while accompanying Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee on an official visit to the United Kingdom. These are just examples from recent memory, so why were we so outraged when we saw the footage from Bali?

The number of Indian tourists heading off to see distant lands is higher than it has ever been. A Business Standard report predicts that by 2020, India will have 50 million outbound tourists. Will they be on their best behaviour, or are Indians in danger of seeing their reputation dragged even further through the muck? At the root of all these shameful episodes is an ingrained disrespectfulness to our surroundings. Abroad, we may not spit gutka on the street or litter as freely as we do at home, but we still don’t respect where we are, or we wouldn’t be seeing videos like the one from Bali. Perhaps if we started exercising more civic responsibility in India, we wouldn’t look so bad when we leave her borders. Until then, we have to make peace with the fact that you can take the Indians out of India, but you can’t take the India out of the Indians.