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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaA picture tells a thousand words - and could get your teeth smacked by a large hotel rulebook. Notes on the mysterious tropics where torsos must be clad and sweat is banned.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Swiss village Bergun bans photos by tourists

There's nothing quite like loud clicking sounds in front of a sign like this. Now Swiss village Bergün goes camera-free/ illustration: Vijay Verghese

MUCH as we love breaking rules when we leave behind the straitjacket of office and home to slather dollops of artery-clogging butter on toast and down tubs-full of Belgian chocolate ice-cream, there are times we all have secretly applauded a goose-stepping maître d' who firmly put out an upturned palm to say, "Sorry, no kids."

There is something uniquely satisfying about a well executed put-down that leaves insiders smug and secure in their hoity-toity world of unique privilege whether it be, no toddlers, no shorts, or no lumpen proletariats for neighbours.

There are rules, and there are rules.

Some hotels don't allow kids under 12 while others ban old fogies. The Contiki Resort Bali, Seminyak opened with great fanfare, avowedly only for sun-burnished fun lovers between 18 and 35, but soon ran out of steam as the young and restless ran out of pocket money and ran back home to cosy up to their dads. The place became The Breezes Bali, which now welcomes everyone, from tiny tots to proud exponents of male pattern follicularly challenged capitula.

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That hasn't stopped hotels from conjuring up more exquisite restrictions for hotel guests and visitors.

I recall visiting the COMO Shambhala, a delightful luxury escape in Bali several years ago only to be told my camera had to remain holstered. No photos would be allowed. The reasoning was that the hotel needed to preserve its brand image by being the sole purveyor of quality images. Yet guests snapped away. "Well, they're staying here sir," said one polite staffer. This was in the days before the pixel outpouring on the Internet. Simply put, blurred family pics were fine but professional photography was not.

{People feel short changed if they pay a small fortune for a spa retreat and are offered a sprig of parsley for lunch – because it's 'good for you'

Currently, Thai wellness pathfinder Chiva-Som has a no-technology (read, no phones and photography) policy that flies in the face of conventional marketing wisdom, which embraces social media exposure and amplification. No snapping is allowed in public spaces. Yet cameras sprout from neighbouring mid-rise residences capturing the scene from every angle. At the end of the day, guests have been deprived of the one thing they cherish most about holidays – happy memories. And while many are unfazed and lie back for a good massage, a few have vowed never to return.

Several hotels have valid privacy concerns, and rightly, especially in swimming pool areas or to protect celebrity guests. Others may have a back-to-nature approach where distracting technology is frowned upon. Aman Resorts once offered a splendidly pristine Bali experience and shunned televisions – even WiFi – until pressure from wealthy but flabbergasted Jakarta travellers forced a change of heart. Birdsong was simply not enough.

Not just in Indonesia, Asians with fast-rising incomes equate quality with giant flat-screen TVs, de rigueur now even at the most modest establishments, and other visible signs of 'luxury' and 'brand' that they have paid for. Their alarm is understandable. Despite best intentions to have guests communing with their inner child, people feel short changed if they pay a small fortune for a spa retreat and are offered a sprig of parsley for lunch – because it's 'good for you.' Whatever happened to good old fashioned indulgence?

But how far will hotels go to protect their defined guest experience? The Mulia Resort, also in Bali, is a lavish and popular marble confection with priceless materials that can be traced back to Carrara and, if you stretch the imagination, Cleopatra perhaps. Expect immaculate detail, fine food, and coddling cotton on your bed. Here, where the spirit soars free, the hotel explains, "The Mulia exceeds expectations for style, comfort, and service."

It does this by ensuring a few ground rules are strictly followed – no wearing slippers in the lounge, no tank-tops in certain restaurants, no rearranging of chairs or tables in dining spaces (so a party of eight might be seated at two separate four-seaters), no sweating on uniforms (this of staff), and no competitors on the premises (gate security may bar entry to hotel general managers and senior marketing people who might steal ideas while on a not-so-innocent pootle around the grounds).

What on earth has happened to travel and why are neo-Luddites distressing young families trying to take pictures of their kids' birthday parties, and barring slippers at tropical beach hotels?

Travel is all about the freedom to be oneself and an absence of rules as people explore, mingle, learn, and interact. And much of this interaction these days regardless of age is on a mobile phone, at once an intimate companion, a secretary, a wife, a husband, and far better than the microwave, which I closely bonded with after my divorce.

The contagion has spread. Now say hello to Bergün, Switzerland, that in May 2017 banned all photography by tourists. Why? The town was so beautiful it would surely 'sadden others on social media' who could not be there. While this is clearly gobbledegook, it turned out to be a subtle marketing ploy.

So as the good people of Bergün pondered why they were slipping into irrelevance, for New Year's Eve The Mulia brought in Charli XCX the British rave star whose hit singles include "Break the rules."

Yes, exactly.

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