Sunday, June 01, 2008

Notes from Lanka: tourism overkill

I first became acquainted with the phenomenon of tourism overkill during a coach tour of Britain years ago, when our guides were ludicrously dramatic about every sight and anecdote, often getting hyperbolic about mundane things. (Remember, this is already a country that resembles a giant museum in places, every second house displaying a signboard that boasts its historical significance, however fleeting, e.g. “The poet Robert Burns reclined against this post for three minutes in January 1785 on his way to the house around the corner.”) At Stratford-upon-Avon, when we were shown the house Shakespeare was supposedly born in, each room was artificially made up to look like it might have looked in the 16th century, right down to the tiny water-pots used by the midwife, and the basement where wee Willy's dad, a glove-maker, plied his trade. "This is how he would fit the glove on his hand, just so," explained a guide, carefully demonstrating the procedure while we mad tourists clicked photos like we were paparazzi and the building was the Paris Hilton, so to speak.

Now Sri Lanka is a lovely country and I was happy to allow its most visitor-friendly elements – mainly the natural beauty – speak for themselves, but here too there was no escaping the tourism-overkill bug. For a visiting Indian, this can be particularly noticeable. Our two lands are separated by just 30 km of water, but the Lankan tour guides we encountered seemed to think we belonged firmly in the Western-tourist category. So we were expected to gawp at sights that most Delhiites wouldn't normally look at twice.

This became tedious, since only up to a point can one pretend to be enthralled by such observations as "Sir, look at all those buffaloes in the distance!" or "We have stray dogs walking around on these roads. No owners! Sometimes the bus drivers even hit them and kill them." I was tempted to reply that where we came from, buffaloes rule the streets, people often abandon their pets and dhabas frequently serve roadkill for dinner. Also, it's one thing going on an elephant safari as an early-morning leisure activity, but quite another to be handed a certificate informing us that we have just undertaken "a daring and adventurous tusker ride through the dark jungles of Sigiriya". (Actually, we stayed on the main road throughout, motorbikes whizzing past us, and the biggest danger was that our aging mount looked ready to doze off mid-ride.) We should have kept a pamphlet of our own handy, explaining that we in India had an ancient tradition of lopping off the heads of fierce elephants and transplanting them onto the bodies of Gods.

There was also the theme of guides producing an impressive stream of English sentences that had been learnt beforehand, but then blanking out when asked to answer a simple but impromptu question. I call this the customer-care executive syndrome – remember the Friends episode where Phoebe encounters a CC executive trained with a pamphlet of readymade answers to suit any given question, but whose wires short-circuit when an unanticipated situation arises? At a batik factory in Kandy, we were given a demonstration of a dyeing technique.

Demonstrator (in a sing-song voice, like the ones used by children while reciting answers in class, after learning them by rote from the History textbook): First we put the black-and-white sketch in boiling water with red dye so that the white parts become red and the whole becomes black and red, then we introduce the paraffin wax and dip the cloth into yellow dye and then at the next stage..."

Tourist: That's interesting! By the way, who set up this factory?

(Demonstrator's eyes dart wildly; hunted expression suggests that her favourite History textbook has been dipped in boiling dye.)

In short, though Lanka is well worth visiting, especially if you're starved for lush, verdant landscapes, I recommend that you direct your ears towards the sounds of nature and shut out all other noise, especially the guides' chatter.

[A version of this appeared in Friday's Metro Now]


  1. This is so true. This tourism overkill is another Western import - The USA is also replete with such examples. (the certificate thing was hilarious...)However I would ignore these overkills if the Eastern world also imported the way even the most trivial of historic places have been preserved with utmost care in the West. We on the other hand, use and abuse even the most significant of our monuments.
    Sri Lanka does sound like a country to visit...added to my list.

  2. Hi,
    Does it strike you that it is precisely because of tourists like you who visit places but need the comfort of familiarity and wish to downgrade everything that tou see and experience to something relatable, that causes this ?

    Even your example of the learn by rote funda is from FRIENDS--for Chrissakes !!
    -- Aggrieved Sinhalese Baby elephant

  3. Rathchakra: yes, Delhi has so many interesting monuments that could be promoted as tourist attractions, but one never sees that happening.

    Anon: my need for comfort and familiarity causes all this? Interesting. That must be why the guides - and the staff at hotel restaurants - were so bemused by our insistence on having only Sri Lankan food throughout our stay. And where did you get the "downgrade everything you see" bit? The only things I've "downgraded" are the things that are already available in plenty in my own country.

  4. Did you have kottu roti?
    My favorite Sri Lankan food.
    Mmmmm going to have one.