Arrive in India and the first person you meet is likely to be a tout – they loiter at airport exits and swarm tourist sites, poised to offer their myriad services. They are a vital if irritating cog in the mechanics of India's tourist industry, which welcomed 5.6 million foreign visitors in 2010.
The tout industry is dominated by shady operators seeking a quick rupee: The taxi driver who informs you that the hotel where you ask to go has suddenly closed, but kindly offers to book a new hotel at a higher price; or the tout on the streets who starts conversations ostensibly seeking to "practise their English" when really they are steering the unsuspecting visitor toward a commission-paying emporium. Most touts employ aggressive and hurried techniques aimed at immediate returns. But others have elevated the profession to something more intricate, and take pride in their work.
One night, over chicken tikka masala and a tower of chapattis, I got a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the trade.
To my right was Carlos, an autorickshaw driver with a greying beard and teeth stained reddish-brown from years chewing paan. He can speak a little Spanish and has adopted an unusual name for India to relate to Latin tourists. To my left sat Tahir, a young man barely in his twenties wearing a sharp pink shirt and an unshakable cheeky smile – a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to the wants and whims of tourists.
Carlos starts his day early, when the first train from Delhi chugs into the station. When tourists are spotted on the platform, he calls his friend Tahir to hurry to the station.
The touts approach a tourist casually, with a smile and a few friendly but probing questions to start a conversation. How are you, my friend? What is your country? Where are you going? What are you looking for? Sometimes a tourist bites – happy to accept a stranger's help – and is soon is being led to a commission-paying shop or hotel. But more often, Tahir walks away with nothing more than one or two tidbits of information – sometimes just a name and a country – that he commits to his remarkable memory and will use the next time he sees that tourist.
Hello Rob from Canada, yes?
This sense of familiarity, Tahir says, makes tourists more willing to open up than a furious pressure-filled pitch about an unmissable souvenir shop.
First time in India? How long have you been here? A tourist who has just stepped off the plane, eyes wide and naive, is ripe for picking. How long will you stay in India?
When a tourist says their trip is short, Tahir sees rupees. "Someone in India for two weeks [who] has $1,000 to spend is better than someone here for two months with $1,000 to spend," says Tahir, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.
For some touts, gouging a tourist on a single exaggerated fare is job done. But the pros see that as an opportunity lost, as a well-cultivated relationship lasting even for a day or two can lead to much more lucrative prospects. One rickshaw fare could net an extra 50 rupees, but dropping tourists at a shop or hotel could yield hundreds if not thousands of rupees in commissions from the owners.
Carlos, for example, uses his rickshaw to gain a tourist's trust. Instead of quoting double on first encounter, he offers a reasonable fare. "Tourists learn," says Carlos. "They will find out they paid too much and [then] I have no more business."
When trust has been earned, Carlos begins suggesting his spectrum of services that extends from camel safaris to embroidery shops, from old town tours to train tickets. The touts have contacts throughout the city, ready to fulfill – and pay commission on – every desire.
But the gig is a daily gamble. Tahir can spend a full day with tourists – showing them temples and markets, procuring deals on fruit and trinkets – with the hope of making one big commission from a shop, only to have his tourists leave uninterested. "It's a whole day wasted," he says. "But that is our job – sometimes it works, sometimes not."
Despite years of misguiding and manipulating, not one of the touts I shared dinner with ever feels bad about his line of work. Almost every visitor has left happy, they say. Ignorant, perhaps, as to how much that embroidered bedspread could have cost with a little bargaining and without a commission – but content nonetheless.
To become an official, certified tour guide requires requires a university degree or diploma and a written test.
For these men, becoming a certified tourist guide is not a worthwhile investment. Carlos earns around 8,000 rupees per month with his rickshaw, but during the tourist high season commissions from hotel and shop owners easily double his earnings. Official tour guides often must stick to a fixed fee.
Most important, being unofficial allows these touts to network well beyond their own city, multiplying the potential for commissions.
"How many fathers do you have?" Carlos asks his younger friend with a grin.
"Ten!" jokes Tahir.
Tahir's many "fathers" run hotels in other cities. When travellers hint at their next destination, he makes a call to confirm their reservation. After a few of these deals are done he makes a quick trip to collect his commissions. He receives enough business through his "fathers" to warrant a trip to major cities every couple of months.
"This is business, and this is India," says Tahir. "And this is business in India."