ANGRY fists pummeled the car. Our driver was shrieking in Hindi as one, then four, then five men leaned into his window refusing to take the 500 rupee note he was proffering.
A queue stretched behind us at the toll both and I scratched around desperately in my bag for spare coins. For the first time in India, I was frightened.
This was four days after the Indian government decided to abruptly withdraw its common 500 and 1,000 bank notes from circulation.
It was a bold move, designed to combat the country’s “black economy” and, at least ideologically, supported by most of the Indians I have spoken to. However, others are doing it tough, and those dependent on the tourist dollar especially so.
Whilst large hotel chains and paid-up tourist groups have been protected by credit card payments, small operators and independent travelers have been hit the hardest as the plea “no money” echoes in markets and guesthouses.
I spoke to travelers and traders in Fort Cochin in Kerala about how they were coping as old currency dwindled to a trickle and new notes were seemingly impossible to come by.
One frustrated souvenir vendor down at the now deserted beach front, said, “You can see no one is buying. People have run out of the old money.They are shopping in the big hotels. I can’t see a way out of this and I can’t feed my family. My brother owns a guesthouse and people are calling and calling to cancel from overseas.”
At a local seafood restaurant, his sentiments were echoed by the owner: “I agree that this was necessary to fight the black market but where is the new currency? Tourists can’t get money and they are running out of Euros and US dollars. I am telling people they can eat tonight and pay me tomorrow but days go by and the situation gets no better. What else can I do?”
I spoke to a tour group from Germany and they had felt largely unaffected apart from the odd situation when their generous guides had stepped in to pay for a cup of coffee or a small entrance fee.
A different story, though, for independent travelers. One Japanese couple shared their experience: “We tried to pay by credit card at our hotel but there are so many transactions the lines are crashing.
We missed our train because we couldn’t leave without paying. None of the ATMs have money. We queued at a bank for four hours yesterday. We have none of the old money left and they refused to exchange our dollars. We are supposed to be in India for another two months but we might have to change our plans now.”
Despite what the government is saying, the reality is that the new currency is not getting through and the impact on India’s tourism industry may be felt for some time to come.
To add salt to the wound, Delhi is currently battling a severe case of smog, its worst in 17 years. Delhi tourism minister Kapil Mishra deemed air quality as the “worst ever setback” for tourism and added that a major image makeover campaign will be implemented after finding a solution to the smog.