Day 533: Burning Up On Re-Entry

17.06.10:

The bus rolled into jolly old Dubai at around six in the morning.  If there is a time of day I dislike more I am yet to meet it.  The Deira district looked as wonderfully shabby and dysfunctional as ever, and I slunk into a little Indian workers café and ordered an omelette and bread breaky washed down with a nice hot cup of chai.

At 7.30am, I headed over to the Indian Consulate to get the ball rolling with my Indian visa – the idea being that the time wasted waiting for the damn thing could be constructively used attempting to get to Eritrea from Saudi.  After queuing for over an hour with all my stuff in the hot hot morning air of urban desert Dubai, I got knocked back at the front door by a friendly guard who explained I couldn’t get the visa from here, I had to go to the nearby post office.

Another taxi ride and I found myself wandering about the post office area.  After a couple of misses, I finally found the right building and the right counter.  I asked for a multiple entry application form as I’m going to need to go in and out of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan.

Sorry – you can’t get a multiple entry visa from here, only in your home country.

Damnit.

I explained my mission and the nice lady looked despondent.  You won’t be able to do that, even if you get the visa in England.

Why’s that?

Because they have changed the rules about re-entry.  If you leave the country, you can’t return for 30 days.

WHAT?  Sorry, WHAT?

Now they do this sometimes in countries that issue visas on the border to stop people doing the old Thai border hop at the end of every month and staying in the country for years on end.  But if I purchase a multiple entry visa, once it expires, it’s over – I couldn’t stay for years no matter how many times I hopped over the border to Nepal.

Now the Indian government has a reputation for pulling down it’s pants and doing a great big poo on the memory of the greatest freedom fighter of all time, Mahatma Ghandi – what with the wars with Pakistan, the fighting over Kashmir, the forced sterilisation drive of the 1970s and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (paid for, one presumes, with money with Ghandi’s face printed on it).  It’s also got a reputation for hating all of its neighbours.  The borders with Burma and China are barred, the last ferry to Sri Lanka left sometime around 1973 and the one official border it maintains with Pakistan closes every day with an ceremony of animosity between the two which is as elaborate as it is childish.

I guess it’s in this vein that the Indian government seeks to destroy the nascent tourist industry of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan as well as scalping the dreams of any backpacker wishing to head over to Kathmandu for a week before heading back into India.

You see, if you want to travel overland to any of the countries I’ve mentioned, you have to return back into India – there is simply no other way out (unless you fly).  The overland cross-India trip I took in 2002 in which I popped into Nepal and spent a few days in Bangladesh would now be impossible.

Mean?  Vindictive?  I have no doubt.

The sad thing about this is that India is one of my favourite countries in the world, so I’m not just sickened, I’m also heart-broken.  I would like to see how the Indian government justifies this unjust legislation, because it’s not only tourism in Nepal and Bangladesh that is going to suffer, India will suffer too.  Well-heeled western types don’t go on holiday in countries where over half the population are forced to go to the toilet on the street – they go somewhere nice.

India remains a destination for the adventurous: hippies, backpackers, fat chicks with too many cats.  By essentially denying these people who are prepared to put up with the heat and dust and stink the opportunity of to visit the surrounding India-encompassed nations, all the Indian government is doing is ensuring that thousands of tourists stay on the plane all the way to Thailand.

‘But the UK makes it difficult for Indians to visit’.  Yes.  Yes we do, we have no choice in the matter.  Supply and demand.  But there aren’t 1.2 billion Brits, and I can tell you now NONE of us dream of growing up to be a rickshaw walla in Calcutta.  In fact, most Brits wouldn’t go to India even if it was all expenses paid.  If we want to be stared at and hassled every waking hour of the day we’d dress up like a monkey and go sit in the zoo.

Don’t worry, I’ll find a way around these ludicrous regulations, but I’m not going to be shy calling the Indian government out on this one.

As gutted as I was disgusted, I needed to go hunting for internets so I headed over the hideously tactless Wafi Mall, a shopping mall so ridiculous it makes that tacky low-rent glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre look aesthetically pleasing.  Yup, the architects went to Egypt on holiday and thought to themselves mmm… if only the peerless pyramids, the timeless temples and colossal colossi of the Pharaohs were constructed out of concrete and glass…

Oh deary me.

But it had free internets roaming its innards, so I plunged inside.  Still, at around four quid for a cup o’ tea it all balanced itself out.  With Lorna working today, Odyssey fan and Sydneysider Alex Zelenjak stepped up to help me with the Eritrean part of my cunning plan.  While Alex researched the Red Sea options I cracked on with my pirate doco proposal for the shipping companies.  Alex got back to me with the news that there was indeed a ship that hopped back and forth between Jeddah in Saudi and Massawa in Eritrea.

With nothing yet set in stone, I resolved to head to Jeddah and scout out the shipping company.  Technically speaking, I could have continued on towards Jeddah today, but since I’d be returning to Dubai whatever happens, it would be sensible to meet with good ol’ Damo and drop off anything that might give the Saudi authorities an excuse to detain me (tapes, hard drives etc).

And a Thursday night out in Dubai wouldn’t hurt matters too much either.

So a jaunt on the brand spankingly new overhead train service down through the business district (wave to the Burj Khalifa) to The Greens delivered me into Damien’s evil clutches and after a quick face-stuffing trip to KFC we headed out into the night.  After meeting up with a couple of Damo’s chums to watch the footy, we ventured off to a club on the other side of town.  I attempted in vain to fend off the booze that kept coming my way (Damien you LEGEND!), but soon enough I was dancing the funky chicken to Three Lions.

Day 886: An Open Letter to Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson

05.06.11:

After the death threats I received for slagging off the Cape Verde police force on this very blog, I learnt a pertinent lesson: don’t say what you really think until you’ve left the damn place.  I was therefore saving my torrent of abuse concerning the Australian government’s wretched treatment of tourists until after I was well shut of the otherwise good land of Oz.

However, after finding out it’s going to cost me $255 to extend my AUSTRALIAN TOURIST VISA (which I shouldn’t need in the first place), the dam has burst.

The fury leaping out of my fingertips must be converted to 1s and 0s and plastered all over the net before I explode.

The Aussie Tourist Visa (that’ll be $29 please, thanks KA-CHING!) lasts just a paltry three months.  Then you’re supposed to fly to another country and back to renew it for another three months.  If you can’t be arsed doing that (unsurprising when the nearest OTHER COUNTRY from Melbourne is at least four hours away on a jumbo jet) you’re hit by a admin fee that is actually MORE THAN the minimum penalty for being caught drink driving.

If I’m to read between the lines here, I would have to suggest that tourists in Australia are less welcome than drink drivers.  Ygads.

First up, I want you to realise something: last year, more tourists visited Bulgaria than visited Australia.  You think that’s bad?  More people visited Syria than visited Australia.  But then you can get a visa for Syria upon arrival.  See where I’m going with this?

There are, of course, salient geographical reasons for Australia’s dismal tourist figures: Australia is, after all, miles from anywhere.  Getting to Melbourne from Europe means sitting on a minimum of two planes for a minimum of 24 hours.  Needless to say, it’s not somewhere you go for a weekend break.

Coupled with the wince-inducing strength of the Aussie dollar (take any price and double it. Then double it again.), the logic of being the ONLY WESTERNISED NATION IN THE WORLD to require TOURIST VISAS from Europeans just utterly beggars belief.  Yes, you don’t need a visa to visit Argentina, a country the UK was at war with in the 80s.  But you do need a visa for Australia… a country that puts our Queen on their banknotes and our flag in the corner of theirs.

I hate hate HATE having to apply for a visa to visit a country.  99% of the time it instantly marks a state out as being nasty, oppressive and totalitarian.  There are 142 countries out of the UN 192 that do NOT require a European tourist to purchase a pre-paid visa.  Those that do are in the minority: they include such luminary and enlightened countries as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Belarus, Angola, Libya, Turkmenistan, Guinea, Somalia… and Australia.

I can’t stress this fact enough: I have been to every westernised country that exists in the world and not one of them required me to ask permission of the government to pop in for a visit.  Except Australia.

Are Europeans likely to come here by mistake?  Might they take that ill-fated left turn at Albuquerque and end up in Alice Springs?  Maybe Australia is terrified of being swamped with the flotsam and jetsam of the richest and most powerful countries in the world [insert lame convict joke here].  Is it because Australia is so insecure, so tentative in its footsteps on the world stage that it would prefer to linger in the collective subconscious as Crocodile Dundee’s delightful Aboriginal-loving kangaroo-saving larrikin without having to suffer the indignity of people coming here finding out it’s not like that at all?

Indeed, the only logical conclusion one can sensibly reach is that Australia doesn’t want, much less need tourists.  Like the boat people (and the Aboriginals if only they weren’t – you know – here first) Aussies would much rather you buggered off back were you came from.  Which is not just sad, it’s self-sabotage on a scale that would make your average West African dictator blush.

And – dear lord – have you seen the ads?  The ‘come to Australia’ ads.  OH. MY. GOD.  They give me visions of entering the Australian Tourist Board Marketing Department to find a room filled with baboons wistfully daubing the walls with their own faeces.  See for yourself:

Let me make this quite clear: we are not talking about working visas here, we are talking tourist visas.  Australia makes around $17 BILLION a year from tourism.  I don’t know if the government is too arrogant or too incompetent to understand what a whopping great chunk of cash that is, but I can’t help but feel pretty damn unappreciated for all my hard work over the last ten years periodically dragging money from my British bank account and peppering it like candy around the dance halls, dives and brothels of ol’ Melbourne town.

Lest not forget that the Australian tax payer did not pay for my education (thanks, Blighty old chum), I cannot claim benefits, the dole, working tax credits or train to be a master of falconry while I’m here.  I cannot work, I cannot claim free medical care and if I’m hit by a car, it will cost me (or my insurance company) $779 just to be taken to the damn hospital.  No, really – the ambulances here aren’t free.

In contrast — and by ‘contrast’ I mean ‘ARE YOU FRIKKIN’ SERIOUS??’ — an Aussie tourist can pop over to the good ship UK any time they want, they don’t have to ask for prior permission(!), they can stay up to six months (visa free), can visit pretty much every other country in Europe while they are there (visa free) and get hit by cars all they like because the ambulance dragging their mangled remains back to the hospital is paid for by the Great British taxpayer.

This is because in the UK we don’t just like tourists, we LOVE tourists.  They’re like little mobile piggy banks dispensing fivers around the realm, fivers that we didn’t have to invest a packet of our tax money to generate in the first place – tourists are a net gain for my country, your country, any country.

I’m not saying this situation is unfair, the fact that UK is enjoying the fruits of a massive boom in tourism over the last fifty years is not something I’m ever going to disparage – long may it continue.  But the way the Australian government treat its tourists is stupid.  Plain and simple, totally and utterly, mindbogglingly and heartbreakingly stupid.

So, in short, Mr. Ferguson – you are a treasonous dog who is diddling the good people of Australia out of their much-needed tourist dollars.  Visa requirements for tourists from prosperous western nations should be scrapped immediately and a six month entry stamp should be the norm.

Oh, and if you want your long-suffering tourist board to produce an advert that wouldn’t make Basil Fawlty scoff at your embarrassingly barnyard attempts at advertising, put a European in charge.  Actually, put ME in charge.  With a decent budget, a small film crew and a handful of good looking actors, I could make each and every feisty travel-lovin’ European sit up and beg for buttermilk.  Australian buttermilk.

Graham
Melbourne, Australia
June 5 2011