The Worst Tourists in the World (and five ways to be a good one)

Mike and I were recently discussing a South China Morning Post article about the world’s worst tourists.

He asked which groups I guessed had made the list, and my first response was, “Americans.”

Turns out that the United States was number four on this particular list, and we had a long discussion about why good travelers are quick to take the blame for imposing ourselves on the world, regardless of our homeland.

For me, it’s mental images of stereotypical American tourists acting entitled and disrespecting history and culture, much like the opening scene from Despicable Me. 

I’m not alone in jumping to quick accusations — and defense — of my fellow countrymen. Even the South China Morning Post reporter offered mea culpa and excuses for the Chinese, who were the world’s worst tourists by their own admission.

Second on the list were British travelers, followed by German tourists (here’s looking at you, butterfly killer). Israeli tourists were the fifth worst in the world according to this report, and Russian travelers held the number six honor.

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British tourists in Magaluf, Spain (photo: AFP via South China Morning Post)

While these rankings are massive generalizations, as most lists of this kind are, it begs the question: How do you travel the world as a good tourist?

After a discussion around the dinner table tonight, our family has come up with the following best practices for world travel:

  1. Be nice. You’d think this would go without saying, but some travelers act as though spending their money on a vacation means they are above the basic rules of societal decency. Consider yourself an ambassador for your own country, which you most definitely are. 
  2. Respect the culture and the heritage. Why are you visiting your destination in the first place? Is it because it’s special? Because it’s old? Because it’s treasured? Keep it that way. Even if the rules seem strange or strict to you, follow them. The people who are charged with safeguarding our world’s treasures know what they’re doing, even if that’s simply to keep the experience authentic for everyone. 
  3. Don’t knock it till you try it. Whether it’s a national delicacy or a cherished cultural experience, keep an open mind. I wasn’t necessarily keen on riding a camel across the sands of the Sahara, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Ben and Zack weren’t sure about the traditional Turkish breakfast provided for us by our Syrian hosts in Istanbul, but they loved it so much that I had to track down ground sesame powder to recreate it when we’d returned home. If we hadn’t given these experiences a shot, we would have missed so many wonderful opportunities. You won’t love everything, but you don’t know for sure unless you try.
  4. Be patient. While some countries prioritize punctuality and travel can, quite literally, run like clockwork, not every culture runs on the same schedule. You’ve heard the phrase “island time”? It’s an etymological double entendre. “On the one hand it refers to pace, a certain slack attitude towards the clock. But it also refers to time well spent, away, in a place that refreshes the spirit and cleanses the soul,” according to English Language and Usage. If you’re frustrated by things happening at a different pace while you’re traveling, then you’re missing out on one of the key benefits of vacation, which is escaping your everyday routine. And no matter how well you plan a trip, things will inevitably go wrong. Getting stressed out about it doesn’t help you or anyone else.
  5. Attempt the language. While the world increasingly speaks English, particularly in major cities that cater to tourists, it goes a long way when you give your best shot at basic phrases such as “hello,” “please,” and “thank you” in the native tongue. People all over the world appreciate the effort, and they’re also happy to help you perfect your pronunciation, which makes you more cultured as an individual.

As Mike said, where you’re from doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else. Whether you make a “best” or “worst” list is all up to you.