Normal or Western? That was the standard question at touristy places then. Normal stood for poor quality, non-AC rooms, no cutlery, squatting toilet, food with a lot of curry stuff and so on. Abnormal or Western meant an up-grade. Generally, anything local fell into the category of normal. I discovered that even the humble cup of tea had a class distinction.
“If the beverage is referred to in English it meant milk added on! There is this uncomfortable feeling here that these services are provided by a people looking out at the world with a scarred mentality.”
Gertrude was describing her experiences as a foreign tour guide working in Sri Lanka. She had studied philosophy at the Henrich Heine University near Dusseldorf before packing her bags to explore the mystic East. Gertrude never really went back. Touring the island with just a backpack and no particular destination or time table, she gradually evolved into a kind of reference point on the intricacies of budget travelling for visiting compatriots.
“In the late 1970s Hikkaduwa used to be the favourite meeting place for budget travelers. The beaches in that area were pristine. Lodging generally was Spartan but adequate. There were a few locals who had picked up Western ways or rather understood their preferences in such things like food, accommodation, cleanliness, privacy etc., and set up small guest houses and restaurants. A few dollars took us a long way. Around this time some big companies in Colombo which were mainly in commodity brokering started moving into tourism and began putting up big hotels. This gradually transformed the Southern coast.”
The astuteness of her observations was impressive. In her culture a tour guide was a serious occupation which called for more than a superficial knowledge of the subjects which interested the tourists. In the UK, a visit to the Westminster Abbey or Stratford-upon –Avon with a guide-led group is an excellent introduction to the significance of these places. In Germany, where Gertrude hailed from, they do a marvelous job; notwithstanding that English is a second language there. The tourist guides in these places introduce their subjects with a refreshing objectivity.
“I grabbed all the literature I could find on Sri Lanka before formally applying to be a tour guide. We get tourists who are well travelled and are quite educated on these things. If they get the impression you don’t really know the subject, it will not be very good. Unfortunately the common attitude here is that the tourist is like a fish out of water and could be told any old story, an attitude which I find appalling.”
Gertrude is sun burnt in the manner typical of those Europeans who have lived in the tropics for long periods of time. Unlike the fashionable tan of the short–stay tourist who has spent a few hours soaking in the sun, her colour has a permanency, almost like there has been a character transformation. Now she reacts to the political events around her in that personalized sort of way, a characteristic of most Sri Lankans, looking for the “connections” between the parties. This attitude doesn’t credit the protagonists with any ideology or principle but looks at him as a person reacting to only personal pressures and needs. When a big government project takes place she will name the relatives and associates the Ministers said to be benefitting from it. At a big restaurant her eyes will instinctively search for the known faces, letting out juicy tit bits about their private lives. Gertrude sometimes says she is afraid to express her opinions too openly in case it is reported. I asked her whether she has such fears in Europe.
“No, those are free societies. There is nothing to fear when expressing one’s opinion in European society. Just because a person criticizes the government he will not face problems with the tax department or the police. The State structure cannot be manipulated by politicians.”
On the question of tourism, her passion has not been dimmed by heat of the hot sun.
“In the Asian region we maybe the lowest earner from tourism, both in volume as well as per capita. I don’t consider Pakistan or Bangladesh tourist destinations. India is a different kind of market. We have to compare ourselves to countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Maldives. Considering our size and potential we have failed to make an impact.”
I asked her what systemic or structural problems held us back.
“It is not easy to put your finger on one or two issues. Tourism is a price sensitive industry. Travelling is not an essential activity. A person planning a trip to Asia, unless he has a special interest, will work out the best possible deal. In relation to our competitors we may be over-priced. For tourism to work it is not enough to just have comfortable rooms. What about the rest of the package? Form the air-port to a walk on the beach, what is the experience like? A wide smile cannot substitute poor service.”
“But what could be done?”
“Like everything else in life, there are no easy fixes. A lot of planning and hard work has to go in before we declare ourselves open for business in a serious sense. Until then we can dream about the big money that tourism can bring.”
She reached for her cup of tea, no milk, no sugar.