Here in Mumbai you live by a peaceful sea. Over a thousand years ago in Britain, people who lived by the sea feared one thing above all others: an attack by the Vikings, fierce invaders from Scandinavia.
There’s a story about two Viking invaders who are trudging up the beach in the pouring rain. One looks up at the sky and says, “So this is Britain. What’s it like?” The other one says, “Well, if you like the weather, you’ll love the food.”
Today I want to tell you why those two Vikings were wrong, and why Indians are much more welcome in Britain than the Vikings were.
The UK tourism industry is great success story. We want to see more Indians coming to the UK. And they are: in 2013 the numbers of Indian tourists rose by 9%. But there are 193 countries in the world. Why should Indians choose the UK?
Here are my Top Ten reasons why Indian tourists should come to Britain. Some will be familiar to you. But not, I hope, all of them.
Reason 1: The Countryside
Indians love natural beauty. From rugged mountains, deep forests and tranquil waterways to stunning beaches, cliffs and coastal paths, the UK has something for every visitor.
If peace is what you want, you will find it the British countryside. If you prefer your heartbeat fast, you can go surfing off the Welsh coast. If you’d rather just sit on the beach and eat ice cream, Britain is the place. Our stunning coastline is longer than that of Spain and France combined.
Reason 2. The Heritage
Britain is packed with historic treasures.
Indians understand royalty, and the UK’s royal heritage is on display everywhere: the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, to name but three. It is said that tourists visiting Windsor usually ask one question: why was the castle built so close to Heathrow airport?
Like India, we have an ancient heritage too. Stonehenge is one of the most famous prehistoric monuments in the world. And for every site like Stonehenge, there is a jawdropping modern counterpoint, like the new Shard in London, now Europe’s tallest building.
Reason 3: The Culture
London’s West End has the best theatre in the world. And we have three of the five most visited museums in the world. You can spend hours in the British Museum’s collection of antiquities and mummies, before heading to the National Gallery to soak up masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, then cross the Thames to experience the Hockneys at Tate Modern.
Indians who love English literature can come and see the places which inspired our greatest works, like the Lake District where Wordsworth wrote the poem that every Indian learns at school, or the stately homes that inspired PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Or see Shakespeare’s plays at their original home, the Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames.
And if you prefer movies to books – as I suspect may be true for some of this distinguished audience - the UK is the place too. Some of the most successful Bollywood films were shot in the UK: come and see where. Madame Tussauds is home to statues of stars like Salman Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. If you like British cinema, Harry Potter fans can visit Hogwarts School (filmed in Alnwick Castle) and James Bond fans can relive Skyfall by visiting Whitehall in London or Glencoe in Scotland.
Reason 4: The Sport
English Premier League football is one of the most popular sports in the world, including here in India. Come and see the real thing live.
The Wimbledon tennis tournament is synonymous with the British summer and the social season. Come and join us for Pimms and strawberries.
We in Britain also play a game called cricket, which Indians have become rather good at. Indeed the writer Ashis Nandy has said that cricket is an Indian game which was accidentally discovered by the British. If you are a cricket fan you must visit Lord’s in London, the home of the game.
If like millions of Indians you are a golf fan, come to Gleneagles in Scotland, the home of golf, which is hosting this year’s Ryder Cup.
And if you want to find out what makes the British so eccentric, I advise you to seek out one of our less well known sporting events. These include bog-snorkelling, where you snorkel through a bog; cheese-rolling, where you roll a round cheese down a hill; and wife-carrying (work it out).
Reason 5: The Variety
The UK has something for everyone. If you liked the film of Kate Winslet and Leonardo de Caprio’s doomed romance at sea, visit the Titanic Museum in Belfast, where the ship was built. If you are a regular at the Jaipur literary festival, visit its cousin at Hay on Wye. If robbing the rich to give to the poor is your thing, you can find Robin Hood’s hiding place in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham. And if you like mysteries, come to Loch Ness in Scotland to try and spot its most famous inhabitant.
No one visiting Mumbai would doubt that Indians like shopping. And if you want to do it in style, the UK is the place. We are the home of luxury brands like Burberry, Paul Smith, Stella McCartney; of stores like Harrods, Marks and Spencers, and Boots; and we have some of the best shopping malls in the world, like Westfield in London.
Reason 7: The Food
Back to the Vikings. You may be surprised that I include this in my Top Ten list.
It is true that we British do have food with odd names: spotted dick, toad in the hole, bangers and mash. They all taste better than they sound.
It is also true that we have some odd tastes: Exhibit one - Marmite.
But British food is great. Our chefs are world class: we have around 200 Michelin starred restaurants. And our food is wonderfully varied: we produce 700 regional cheeses - more than France.
And for Indians who are homesick for their mother’s food, Britain is the place. Camellia Punjabi, who introduced regional Indian cuisine to the UK, says that the best Indian food in the world is now served in London.
Did I mention the drinks? Scotch is every Indian’s favourite tipple. Come to the Highlands and taste the real thing at its place of birth.
Reason 8: The Welcome
One of the great things about India is that Brits feel welcome here. And Indians can be sure of an equally warm welcome in the UK. The 2012 London Olympics showed the world that the British love foreign guests and treat them right. And there are 1.5 million people of Indian origin who live in the UK: that means that almost any visitor from India will have family, friends and a whole community to welcome them.
Reason 9. The Family Friendliness.
Family is at the heart of Indian culture. And visiting the UK with a family is easy. Children are welcome everywhere. The UK has some of the world’s best children’s venues, such as Alton Towers, Whipsnade Zoo, Legoland, and the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur exhibition, which no child under the age of 85 can resist.
Reason 10. The Visas
I thought this one might surprise you. There is a myth that it’s difficult to get a visa to visit Britain. Wrong: nine out of ten Indians who apply for a visa get one. We make it easy: we have the UK’s biggest visa operation in the world here, with 12 application centres, more than any other country. I launched a brand new one here in Mumbai this morning.
And the weather…
Let me end as I began, with the British weather. The Vikings were wrong about that too. British weather is a lot better than people think. Rome has more rain than London. Sydney gets more rain than Leeds. And ‘foggy London town’ actually gets less fog than San Francisco.
Ladies and gentlemen, most of you know the UK. So I won’t deny that it sometimes, just occasionally, can get very slightly damp in the UK. But in the UK there is no such thing as bad weather – just the wrong clothes. And, I submit, there is no such thing as a bad visit to the UK. We hope to see you soon.