Gandhi statue, Parliament Square
Like most tourist guides I adjust my commentary to the nature and nationality of the people in my group. The days when almost all your clients were Anglo-Saxon, Christian (at least nominally) and familiar with the major players in British history are long gone. We now have lots of clients from BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), emerging economies where the cultural assumptions and, crucially, the attitude to the tourist guide can be very different.
Last week I arrived at the hotel where I had been booked to meet a family group from India. We had a programme that included Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath, which is a push at the best of times, and we needed an early start. The group leader, however, had teenage daughters and they did not appear until after ten. Some adjustments obviously had to be made. I was also informed by an email from the booking agent that lunch had been organised for them in Salisbury. This, I later realised, was the the latest manifestation of a cowboy outfit I had previously worked for (and which still owes me money).
We reached Windsor, visited Queen Mary’s Doll’s House and the State Apartments, took photos of the guards and headed back towards the coach. “Oh, look French Connection!” one of the girls said as we strolled through the shopping area. Another twenty minutes were spent buying boots. Money was not an object for daddy who paid with crisp fifties. Time, however, was.
I informed him that we simply would not be able to go to the Roman Baths as they would be closed by the time we reached there. He telephoned the agent and instructed us to go there anyway, if necessary missing Stonehenge – thus provoking howls of outrage from the girls he had just booted up. In the end, I persuaded them that Stonehenge was the more practical and photogenic choice, which we managed to visit. Bath and lunch had to be skipped.
Dinner, however, had been organised back in London and we had to take them to the restaurant chosen. He wanted to check it out before taking his family in and also wanted to be taken back to the hotel afterwards. The driver, by this time, was running out of hours and I explained that his driving activity was carefully monitored by the electronic tachograph in the coach and he only had time to drop us off so they would have to return to their hotel by taxi. A culture clash had developed between an increasingly regulated and rigid host country (us) and an easy-going guest culture (them) where shops and sites stayed open for visitors and drivers were always on call. One of the women in the group expressed dismay that Bond Street’s shops would be closed the evening.
How different the attitude is in service tours (see http://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/a-good-tip.html). At Stonehenge a week earlier, I had listened as an irate passenger shouted down the phone at the company he had booked tickets with because the coach had left without him. He asked us to take him but I had to refuse because our coach was full. We normally help each other out by picking up strays but only if it is legal.
It was very different with the last Indian group I had taken on a tour of London who were at the meeting point before me and keen to see everything. We made a stop in Parliament Square so they could view the statue of Gandhi. I accurately but mistakenly referred to him as Mohandas Gandhi, the name by which he was known when he was working as a lawyer in London, and which I believe he preferred. I was politely but firmly told by this group leader that for Indians Gandhi will always be ‘Mahatma’. Point taken. Gandhi may have been a champion of non-co-operation. Tourist guides need to be more flexible.