Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Tourism, it Has its Good Points

Just now and again I quite thrill at the good side of tourism. I'll explain. 

Of course, there are negatives about tourism that can't be ignored. For example, it's probably by and large responsible for a lot of pollution in rural and wild areas. Visitors leave behind rubbish, especially plastic, they trundle heavy-footed over delicate areas of natural beauty, they cause noise which can be a huge problem for the local inhabitants. Here on Rhodes they increase the traffic to levels that make you scream on occasion (especially if you get stuck behind a dreaded 'gourouna' [quad bike]), and still ever more new hotels are being built, which will result in ever more hire cars creeping like tortoises around the island's roads.

It ought to be acknowledged, though, that the problems above are often not the fault of tourism in itself, they are more often the upshot of the thoughtless holidaymakers, which does not mean all of them. In fact, many people who travel go to great pains to show respect for the local environment and its indigenous population. So the issues can be resolved, or at least tackled, by education and, in extreme cases, the banning of certain people who consistently cause problems from travelling at all. I'm not even going to mention a certain extremely inconsiderate wedding couple from last year here on Rhodes in Lindos.

On the other side of the coin, one plus point in particular that genuinely sends shivers of happiness up my spine is the way that tourism brings people of different countries together in unexpected ways.

Excursions such as the ones I work on, are often a source of anxiety to me at 8.30 in the morning, and yet real delight when I'm bringing my guests back in the afternoon. The best way I can illustrate what I'm inadequately trying to explain is to refer to my "Rhodes By Day" excursion from last Saturday, June 9th.

I get my 'manifest', or list of guests and their hotel pick-up points, by e-mail late the previous evening. The first thing I do is scan the list for surnames that reveal that their owners perhaps aren't British, or at least, probably not from the UK. I do get surprised very often, of course. After all, Here's me, a dyed-in-the-wool born-and-bred English boy with a surname like Manuel. I can't talk now, can I?

Usually, though, my guesses are spot on and, last Saturday, among more than 40 guests, were people from six different nations. I had Germans, Finnish, Russians, French, Dutch and British. Now this is what can stress me out a little. The guests usually do know that their 'escort' on the coach is English-speaking, but occasionally they either don't, or it doesn't make much difference anyway because they can't understand much more than a few words of English. 

So, I had three German couples, who I'd estimate were in their late fifties or early sixties, a Russian family consisting of husband, wife and two-year old daughter, two ladies (mother and daughter I surmised) from Finland, a couple from Normandy in France and a couple of about my age from the Netherlands. In circumstances like this I like to announce to the guests that we're a "United Nations on wheels", or maybe a 'cocktail of countries.'

Thrusting all modesty aside here, I do like it when I get a few French, or often Belgians from the French-speaking sector of their country. I get to practice my French and to explain how, once upon a time, my French was brilliant, but now, because I've learned to speak Greek, I often end up speaking 'Freek', or perhaps 'Grench'. I come out with Greek words without realising it, so I joke to my guests that they're getting not only an excursion, but a free Greek lesson into the bargain. I have to say my guests are usually graciousness itself, and thank me profusely, when they get off the coach at the end of the day, for my efforts to at least help them as best I could. Makes you feel good when people do that. Try and put yourself in their place, which is what I do try to do. I can honestly say that one of the rewards of my job is when people getting off the coach after the excursions ends shake my hand, or even (as was the case with one Russian gentleman a year or two ago who'd been on a Greek Night with me and couldn't understand a word of English) bear-hug me, in evident gratitude for what they see as a really good day or evening out.

Anyway, returning to last Saturday's Rhodes Town trip. We set out from Kiotari at around 8.10am and I check out each stop along the way in advance, to try and be ready for what's coming. As soon as I welcome the guests at the door of the bus, I ask them what country they're from. Sometimes it looks like they don't have a clue what I'm saying, yet it's amazing how often the essentials do get through. We get into town and I lead the guests into the Top Three bar for a quick explanation of the basics that they need to know, which includes how to find a few 'attractions' and the info about how we're going to gather for our return journey.

It's at this point that I make eye contact with those who may be having difficulty understanding and I invite them to have a natter, one-to-one to be sure they've got the essentials. Now and again I have to admit, I resort to whipping out the iPad and using Google Translate! On Saturday my three German couples got on at the Lindos Princess near Lardos, and it was clear to me that some of them didn't speak English, but that one or two would do OK. In such circumstances I can only hope that, since they're on holiday and ought to be in jovial (dare I say 'forgiving?') mood, those who can understand my gibberish will translate for the rest of their party. Happily, this was the case on the day in question. They were a really happy band and were effusive in their expressions of appreciation when they got off the bus at the end.

I was actually moved to say over the mic that when you get a mixed group of holidaymakers from six different countries all together, and on the way home they're all very evidently in a happy mood, it makes you realise that grass-roots people are the same the world over. We're all there with one common purpose, to enjoy some quality down-time. We all want to get on with each other. I thrilled to see, for example, that little Russian family, with their toddler, wearing Nike trainers and polo-shirts and shorts just like ours. Propaganda is trying to colour our view of people of different nationalities all the time, and we needn't think that this isn't so as much in the 'west' as it is in the 'east'. We shouldn't think we in the 'free world' are immune.

It worked out that the Russian family were the last ones to get off the coach, and we had fifteen minutes on board after all the other guests had got off before arriving at their hotel. So I made my way back along the aisle to have a chat with them. I asked them what they do for a living, and they told me that he was a project manager in the building industry and she was an office manager. They were bringing up three kids too. The older two had chosen to remain at the hotel while mum and dad took little sister to Rhodes Town for the day. 

When I asked where they lived they told me St. Petersburg. I mentioned that I'd really love to see that city, as it looks, from all the photos and video that I've seen, to be very beautiful. 

"It is" they said, "It really is. You should come. You'd like it." I sensed something behind those words. Without further prompting, the husband told me that things weren't as normal any more in Russia as they were in the Gorbachov years. There are things happening that are not so good. But what really hit home to me was that they were very anxious to stress that the people "are warm and friendly. If you come, you will be welcome. You will have a good time, really."

Reading between the lines, it was evident that they were concerned about how they were perceived abroad these days. One reads that Vladimir Putin has a very high approval rating among the Russian people. Listening to this lovely couple talk, one could be forgiven for thinking that the statistics are being massaged somewhat. When they asked me where I was from originally, and I told them the UK, it was very clear that they wanted to stress that they have no problem with the British. As so often happens, I found us agreeing that at the 'grass roots' level, people are simply people, human beings trying to get by. It's the politicians who cause all the problems, megalomaniacs that so many of them seem to become.

By the time we arrived at their hotel, I sensed a real friendship, an affinity, with them. They got off the bus and embraced me, thanking me for a really good day out. I was almost sorry that our conversation had to be brought to an end. I patted their pretty little daughter on the head and wished them a happy remainder to their holiday.

Sometimes I love my job.

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