Where work is worship and tourism is key

2013-04-10 00:00

SOUTH Africa could learn some valuable lessons from its Brics partner India. The ancestral homeland of many of our own citizens has turned hard work and hospitality into a multimillion-rand tourism industry. On a recent trip there, I was struck by the hunger of Indian nationals to do anything and everything to earn a rupee.

In a country where one billion people compete for meagre and shrinking resources and jobs, work is worship, akin to their collective passion for religion and cricket.

South Africans would undoubtedly benefit if they embraced the traditional tenets of Athithi Devo Bhava, a magical mantra that pushes Indians to treat visitors like royalty.

As a strategic gateway country, we can give foreigners access to the one billion people in Africa. We too can treat our guests like God, and beat joblessness and poverty in the process.

In India, service providers, including guides trained and paid by the government, ensure that the “guest is God” principle gives foreigners a truly feel-good experience as they criss-cross this colourful country.

Guides speak English, Japanese, Russian, Cantonese, German and French, and converse locally in the central language of Hindi and other dialects, to secure visitors a pleasant passage past India’s security-sensitive police, soldiers and guards.

The energy of people at the grass-roots level is an eye-opener: it’s all about the survival of the fittest. Everyone struggles to earn a living and make money out of tourists and shoppers.

This energy is found across the generations. The youth, enthusiastic and techno-savvy, are on the march, holding down key positions at front-line desks across the economy. The younger generation, vociferous in recent anti-rape and corruption campaigns, are optimistic about India’s ambition to become the world’s third-largest economy behind China by 2030.

From university graduates changing linen, to pretty sari-clad women at the front desk at five-star hotels, the young are a smart, sophisticated and economically driven generation of people pleasers.

Vasundhra Singh left no stone unturned in retrieving our missing hand luggage: “No problem, sir, the hotel has teams stationed at the airport to locate missing baggage.”

While the youth revolution sweeps the country, veterans such as 80-year-old Rama Khandewalla, our tour guide, are holding their ground. She earns a living by passionately promoting Bombay’s colonial, Unesco-endorsed buildings and train station, Gandhi’s heritage site, and showing visitors how Bollywood’s rich and famous live opulent lifestyles in Malabar Hills, India’s Beverly Hills.

“India is a welfare state and millions of people earn below the tax threshold. The rich have loopholes for tax avoidance and the poor depend on foreign tourists to provide a service, sell home-made goods or simply beg for alms. I suppose I will have to work until the day I die,” she said.

India’s service-driven culture, craftsmanship, work ethic and cottage industry were showcased at the Indian Handicrafts and Gifts Fair in Great Noida, where 2 000 men and women worked long hours marketing their catalogue of “Made in India” handicrafts to 5 000 global buyers and visitors, including South Africans.

South African businesspeople were among the crowds checking out products made in rural villages bound for faraway destinations such as Buenos Aires, Boston and Bloemfontein.

Furniture-store owner Zelda Strauss said: “The market in South Africa isn’t doing well, but Indian products sell owing to the quality and demand.”

Added wholesaler Curt Wolff: “The glassware is exceptionally beautiful. Our economy is bad but we are hopeful of getting good business from a country with an innovative range to offer. We deal in antiques with manufacturers from Jodhpur, Ahmedabad and Delhi.”

Christmas came early for Pradeep and Sujhita Setha, who export Santa’s hats, outfits, trinkets, bells and decorations to Europe and the United States: “India is a predominantly Hindu country where Diwali is the biggest cultural festivity. There is no market [for Christmas products] here,” said Setha, who made ribbons until he visited a World Christmas Expo in Frankfurt and was inspired to specialise in Christmas goodies.

Export promoter R.K. Verma said India’s handicrafts exports grew from $576 million in 1994 to $2 705 million in 2012: “The international fair is a one-stop sourcing exhibition of 950 designs and styles of handicrafts and gifts. The crafters are the ultimate beneficiary who, due to the large export orders, get more than a livelihood.”

When it comes to South Africa, India’s quest is to secure a $15 billion or R200 billion bilateral trading relationship with us (now $11,12 billion) by 2014.

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