Americans aren't the only `ugly' tourists

Chinese, Israelis and French also seen as difficult visitors

May 27, 2007|By Paul Vitello | Paul Vitello,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Every summer, people all over the world become acquainted again with a deep truth spoken by the philosopher-tourist Steve Martin.

He was speaking for tourists everywhere, not just to France, when he said, "Boy, those French - they have a different word for everything!"

That people from different countries observe different customs - not only of speaking, but of eating, sleeping, gesturing, counting change, observing boundaries of personal space, tipping cab drivers, standing in lines, avoiding certain topics of conversation at dinnertime as unbearably disgusting - is a truism one probably can never be reminded of too often.

Especially this year, which according to statistics compiled by New York, is likely to be a very big year for foreign tourists around the city. The dollar is cheap. The shopping is endless. About 7 million foreign visitors are expected in the city - the highest number since before Sept. 11 - mainly from Britain, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and Germany.

This is good news for New York. Foreigners who vacation in the United States spend about four times as much as American tourists do.

But it is bad news only in those isolated cases (which you hear about if you talk to cabbies, tour guides and certain sarcastic individuals in sales) where the awe of Martin's revelation is supplanted by the ugly reality of a culture clash - a tip denied, a personal boundary violated or a long line at a drug store counter jumped by a some "ugly Europeans."

Let it be said that no group holds a monopoly on the title of "ugly."

Tip-stiffing, line-jumping, excessive price-haggling, sidewalk-blocking-when-stopping-suddenly -to-take-pictures-of-a-person-playing-the-steel-drums - none of these is unique to any national group.

Expedia, the online travel service, conducted a survey of tourist boards around the world that rated British tourists as the most obnoxious. Some people in the tourism world claim that the Chinese, the newest wave of world travelers, are even more so.

Is it time, then, for retiring the term "ugly American" from the dictionary of foreign phrases?

The answer, according to experts in the rarefied field of tourism anthropology, is a possible yes.

"Ugly" behavior in tourists is almost always in the eye of the people being toured, and Americans are no longer the only, or even the dominant, group of tourists out in the world. We are now as often toured as touring.

And New Yorkers, it turns out, are just as likely to be exasperated being toured by tourists unfamiliar with their local mores about tipping or standing in checkout lines, say, as the Achuar tribesmen of Ecuador are to be offended by tourists who sit on certain sacred rocks.

"The Achuars have actually developed a list of rules for tourists," said Sharon Gmelch, an anthropology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. "If you are a man, you are not to look directly at a woman, for example. You are not to sit in certain sacred places, or touch anyone's person. You're not to take pictures without asking permission. Some of these rules might work in New York, too, I would imagine."

Nelson H.H. Graburn, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said one of his graduate students recently asked tour guides in China to rate the tourists from various Western countries.

"They told her that Israeli, French and American tourists could be the most difficult," Graburn said, "but that what distinguished Americans was that they could be loud and demanding and then would invariably apologize and give them big tips."

To be an ugly tourist is to miss the fundamental truth in Martin's statement. "It is to have an overall lack of understanding that there is such a thing as cultural difference," wrote Inga Treitler of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology in an e-mail.

Valene Smith, an anthropology professor at California State University, Chico who pioneered the academic study of tourism and travel in the 1970s, said that the tourists most likely to be deplored by their hosts these days are not the euro-rich Europeans or the British or the standard ugly Americans but the Chinese.

"They have only been traveling widely in the last five years or so, but they are touring in numbers no one has seen before - by the thousands," she said. "They behave as they would at home - there is a lot of pushing and shoving. Very few speak languages other than Chinese."

Last summer, in an incident widely discussed among travel experts, she said, 40,000 Chinese tourists descended on the small German city of Trier to visit the birthplace of Karl Marx. "It was quite a mess," Smith said. "No one was prepared ahead of time. The Germans were quite upset."

And so, my fellow Americans, this summer let us host and be hosted as travelers in a world in which we are no longer alone; a world where we can venture forth with the unschooled of other nations, joining hand in hand in ignorance of all the different words the French have for everything.

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