I’ve been a tourist for the last few weeks. I was a tourist in my own home of Raleigh, NC because I was living in a hotel and on a mission to enjoy the city’s quintessential restaurants and then I was a tourist in my new home of Hawaii because I was (and am) living in a hotel and tasting as much of Oahu as possible. I’m blessed because I’ve been a tourist so many times in my life. My childhood, schooling and professional lives have all afforded me so many opportunities to travel so I have often been the person who stands out with a grating accent, glaring clothes and awful manners.
And while I know that on most of my trips – in spite of my best efforts - I’ve been the “rude American”, I also feel that I have a carefully honed sense of how to not be THAT annoying tourist. You know the one. You might BE the one.
Here’s what THAT annoying tourist looks like:
- Total inability to say “yes”, “no”, “thank you” and “please” in the native tongue;
- A tendency to demand assistance from locals who work in the service industry;
- Utter disregard for the local style of dress including but not limited to ratty sneakers, jorts and/or fanny packs;
- Overuse of photography, particularly at sites of religious or patriotic significance
- Speaking volume that exceeds that of anyone who actually lives in the locality.
- Public, verbal claims that the city or country wouldn’t exist without your tourist dollars or your country’s military assistance.
More importantly, here are a few tips for being a truly gracious tourist!
- Learn at least a few important phrases in the local language. This employs the concept of “try”: Most of the time, if you just try, people will appreciate the effort. Interestingly, there’s subset of the American population that gripes against the Spanish language signage in our cities. That same subset cannot begin to speak French, Spanish, Japanese or any other language when traveling abroad. The irony is lost on no one.
- Observe local fashions and behaviors and adjust yours accordingly. For example, in Paris when you have dinner in a mid-range café you stand out – in a bad way - if you’re wearing your Teva sandals, a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. The French are typically less casual than Americans so do your best to fit in and dress it up a little.
- Practice humility. When you visit a foreign land you are just that – a visitor. Your job is to observe, to show respect and to acknowledge that the customs of that land are both appropriate and unknown to you. If you find yourself thinking “they’d never do that in America”, don’t complain. Count yourself lucky that you’ve experienced real foreign culture. And for heaven’s sake don’t insinuate that the people you are visiting couldn’t exist without you!
- Use your memory-cam. I will always remember my first visit to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. I was about 10 years old. Pearl Harbor is a sacred place to Americans – it is like the site of the World Trade Center – a place where we mark being attacked. My memories are mostly filled with the images of non-American tourists taking jovial photographs and laughing loudly while walking through a memorial for lost American lives. When in a foreign memorial or sacred place, think of how you’d feel if people took gleeful pictures in Arlington National Cemetery or Pearl Harbor where we honor those who sacrificed their lives. Your memory-cam is probably better than your actual camera in such settings.
What are some other ways to be a gracious tourist?