Don't Be THAT Tourist!

Don't Be THAT Tourist!
Photo by Nqobile Vundla / Unsplash

Tourists are becoming a menace. Don’t be one of them.

Tourism brings in money, jobs, construction…good things for the life of a country or city or village, right?

Think of some of the good stuff riding on tourist coattails:

  • extra tax revenues from accommodation and restaurant taxes, airport taxes, sales taxes, park entrance fees, employee income tax etc., that help stabilize the local economy;

  • money to support community facilities and services that otherwise might not be developed;
  • facilities and infrastructure developments that can also benefit residents; and
  • cultural exchange between hosts and guests; learning of new languages and skills. 

In reality, tourism is a mixed bag of costs and benefits. There is a downside to tourism, too…and it is getting steeper. From American GIs to newly mobile Eastern Europeans and Asians, and now global pent-up post-Covid travel demand, tourism is reaching a tipping point. Consider these downsides to tourism:

  • crowding and congestion;
  • competition with residents for available services, facilities, and existing recreation opportunities;
  • threats to natural resources such as beaches and coral reefs or historical sites;
  • increased litter, noise, and pollution;
  • emissions generated by forms of transport threaten the environment; and
  • rising housing costs as more and more private residences are converted to temporary transient housing.

Tourists vs real people

The demands of servicing tourists — indeed their mere overwhelming presence, particularly in cramped city centers — are beginning to outstrip the benefits of tourism. A recent UK study of tourists in Europe shows that the charm of the Old World attracts so many visitors that this year tourists outnumbered residents by as many as 36-to-1 in Dubrovnik, 21-to-1 in Venice and Bruges, 12-to-1 in Amsterdam, and 9-to-1 in Paris.

And it’s not just Europe bearing the brunt of tourism. Take a look at statistics from this past summer in Hawaii, a popular locale for US tourists, especially from the West Coast.

In June, more than 791,000 visitors arrived in Hawaii by air, according to preliminary visitor statistics released by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism with the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Choon James, a North Shore real estate broker and candidate for Honolulu mayor in 2020, told USA Today, “It feels like there is more tourism here than pre-COVID … and that is with consideration that our Asian market has not even returned.”

He’s right. Of June’s total of 719,000 visitors, 521,796 arrived from the West Coast — 15% more than the pre-Covid June 2019 count – while 247,382 came from the East Coast, a 3% increase over June 2019.

The problem is, while the number of tourists is growing, the size of the beaches and other attractions is not.

Forgot your manners?

The issue is compounded by the fact that tourists often leave their best behavior at home. Who hasn’t been confronted with – or perhaps participated in – at least one rowdy holiday outing in which a good time turned into a lost weekend? Or decided to make headlines by pulling a stunt whose attempt at humor was overtaken by the cost of its pain?

Consider these little escapades of the summer of 2022:

  • In Venice, two tourists riding electric surfboards in the Grand Canal were filmed by locals as the pair zipped past the Rialto Bridge and Salute Basilica, narrowly missing a vaporetto and water taxi in the ribbon of water that is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but the city’s main thoroughfare. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro tweeted a video of the surfers, calling them “two overbearing idiots making a mockery of the city.” The pair were later caught (but not publicly identified), their consulates contacted, their surfboards confiscated, and were forced to pay fines of 1500-Euros each.
  • In Rome, tourists drove a car down the Spanish Steps and another set of tourists decided it would be a nice idea to tour the 2-000-year-old ruins of Pompeii by motorbike.
  • In October 2020, Matador Network reported two tourists (one Canadian, one English) were arrested after spray-painting the letter “B” and “Scouser Lee” on the wall of the 13th-century Tha Pae Gate in Chang Mai, Thailand. The pair, whose excuse was that they were “ridiculously drunk,” spent three nights in prison before making bail.

Locals fight back

As a result, tourist destinations find themselves in an awkward position. Rather than attracting tourists, the emphasis now has shifted to keeping them out; or, rather, making them pay up front for the cost of having them. Monetary weapons such as park entrance fees and tourist taxes are widely deployed as a means of containing numbers. Venice will soon institute a visitor’s fee for day-trippers not staying in city hotels.

Still, these monetary impediments are not always successful. In Amsterdam the hefty tourist tax “isn’t enough to curb the number of tourists (and) Amsterdam already has the highest tourist tax in Europe,” ABN AMRO bank economist Stef Driessen is quoted in the city’s business publication.

Tourism executives are betting that this year’s burst of travel will calm down once the pent-up demand after two years of pandemic confinement wears off. But the seismic increase in mobility, changes in the ways we live and travel, will continue, and most of us will find ourselves in the role of tourist one of these days.

Tourist etiquette check list

So here is a short list of how to do your part in maintaining healthy relations between you and your host destination.

  1. Do your research! Beyond restaurants and sites to see. What are the local customs (do you shake hands on meeting someone? Give up your seat on the bus to an older person?) When are local or national holidays that might affect opening hours? Who are all those streets named after?
  2. Learn at least a few words of greeting and gratitude if you’re heading to a foreign country.
  3. Eat and shop locally. How better to learn about a new place?
  4. Pick up after yourself. If there’s no trash receptacle in sight, carry your debris with you until you find one (reusable plastic bags anyone?).
  5. In crowded city streets (part and parcel of “quaint” locales) consider whether or not you really need to carry that (often huge) backpack. You could be taking up enough space for three people and will find yourself the target of unappreciative comments from locals trying to navigate in your wake.
  6. Dress in keeping with the locals. Wearing short shorts in the middle of Paris will elicit scorn or outright guffaws from locals. Shorts or bare shoulders in a church in Rome will get you tossed out. On the other hand, clean, pressed jeans and shirt (even a T-shirt) with a jacket or sweater is a safe uniform for all but the most formal occasions.
  7. Respect the laws. As a visitor, you are subject to them, regardless of your nationality.
  8. While you’re at it, be respectful in general — no swimming in the canals! Don’t leave your common sense at home.
  9. Make the most of your time. Being a tourist can be a wonderful experience, a chance to see, learn, and do new things, to broaden your horizons, and deepen your understanding of the world.

Finally, like it or not, as a traveler, you are a kind of ambassador for your country, your town, your family. There’s a ripple effect to that. Be noticed, but not by being THAT kind of tourist!