Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Tourist Economy

Posted on behalf of Carolyn Hsu...

When we first arrived in north India, it was easy to be impressed.  The streets between Jaipur's airport and our hotel were wide, clean boulevards, unlike anything we had seen in Tamil Nadu.  This surprised both Maureen Hays-Mitchell and myself because we both knew that, according to World Bank statistics, Tamil Nadu is actually much more economically developed than Rajasthan (the state where Jaipur is the capital).

After a few days in Jaipur and Agra (in Uttar Pradesh),  we have solved this mystery.  These are places where the economy is built on tourism, whereas southern India's wealth comes from industry.  If you look past the wide avenues, hotels, and tourist shops, poverty is hidden in rural shacks and urban alleys.  A few blocks from the lovely hotel where I type, fires burn so that homeless people can huddle around them as they sleep on the street.

Descent of the Ganges
In Tamil Nadu, we were surprised at how undeveloped the tourist industry was.  The stone carvings and shrines at Mamallapuram were some of the most breathtaking pieces of art I have every seen.  Yet many of them, including the magnificent Descent of the Ganges, are not protected in any way.  No one is selling any tickets, and anyone can walk right right up and touch the art.

After all, it is northern India that has the sites that most foreign tourists associated with exotic India: the Taj Mahal, maharajas' castles, Mughal palaces and mosques.  Here, the tourist industry is fully developed, and tourists are funneled through ticket booths, shuttle buses, guided tours, photo stops, and gift shops.  It is hard to love the tourist industry.

It's not just the touts pushing their tchotchkes into our faces, but the feeling that everyone around is trying to fleece us. The nice boy who says he wants to guide you around the fort in order to practice his English ends up demanding American dollars from you.  The tuk tuk driver tries to take you to "a very nice shop, madam" rather than to your destination.

At Colgate, I teach classical social theory to sociology and anthropology majors.  The first theory my students learn is from Karl Marx, who argued that economic relations shape every other aspect of society. I have my criticisms of Marxist theory, but I can't help think that that is applicable here in Jaipus and Agra. The tourist economy has shaped everything for the layout of the city streets to the relationships between people.  I find myself reacting totally differently to the local people here than I did in Pondicherry. I'm full of suspicion, and it's hard for me not to dehumanized them as annoyances and parasites.

View of Jaipur by JKlein
Even here, though, sometimes a human connections breaks through the cycle of cynicism. For many in the group, the trip to the Sun Temple was a beautiful moment of connection. In Jaipur, Chris, Dai, and I snuck away from the overpriced hotel restaurant the tour guide chose for our group.  We asked a shopkeeper for a recommendation for a lunch place, and he kindly directed us to a local restaurant. The working men at the other tables snuck stares at us out of the corners of their eyes, but otherwise everyone pretended we were just like everyone else.  We ate a delicious multi course lunch for $7.

We were worried that we were going to be late meeting the others on the bus, so we rushed back.  Halfway there, full of anxiety that we were holding up the whole group, we jumped into tuk tuk.  It turned out that we were less than a block from our destination.  How embarrassing! We clambered out of the vehicle and asked the driver how much we owed him.  He shook his head and waved his hands. His meaning was clear: "I may be a poor tuk tuk driver, and you may be rich foreigners.  But even I can't take money from people who are stupid enough to take a tuk tuk for half a block."

Posted on behalf of Carolyn Hsu...

1 comment:

  1. Great post about the tourist economy. I recently saw this and thought of your trip. http://youtu.be/Dk39oOxgavw.