Tourists Gone Wild

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Tourists Gone Wild

Hudson Christie

To judge from recent reports, Chinese tourists are running amok — brawling in airplane aisles, storming hotel buffets, carving their names on ancient monuments and leaving a trail of trash at beloved scenic spots and sacred Buddhist temples. Last year, the Chinese government became so embarrassed by the crass behavior that its tourism authority published a “black list” to shame offenders.

State newspapers even offered tips in etiquette — “Cutting in line is not cool” — but their valiant efforts are failing. During the National Day holiday week in October, when all China is on the move, one tourist was expelled from Vietnam for mockingly burning local currency in a bar, while in Yunnan Province a woman assaulted her tour guide, then bit someone who tried to intervene.

The Chinese are now the world’s most numerous tourists — in that one week alone, they took a mind-boggling 593 million domestic trips and six million trips abroad. With this as the future of travel, the outlook is disconcerting. Take a world attraction like Venice: As I discovered on a recent trip to record a film about the life of Casanova, shooting in St. Mark’s Square had to stop every day at precisely 10 a.m. This was the hour when the Chinese tour groups arrived, outdoing all the other national groups shouting at the tops of their voices, stepping on toes and wielding selfie sticks like rapiers.

But unruly behavior is hardly exclusive to the 21st-century Chinese. In fact, it may be an inescapable part of tourism itself. Freedom from constraint is at the core of travel’s appeal; no wonder it’s always getting out of hand.

When, in 2013, a teenager from Nanjing carved a message — “Ding Jinhao was here,” in Mandarin — on Egypt’s 3,500-year-old Temple of Luxor, it caused a minor scandal. Yet he was part of a great tradition: Two millenniums ago, tourists from ancient Rome were so graffiti-mad that they hired stonemasons to chisel their words on monuments up and down the Nile.

The more erudite visitors regarded this not as vandalism but as a literary exercise, composing poems that would link them to eternity. Some of this verse survives today: “The Sphinx is a wonder, a heavenly vision. Gaze upon her shape, this sacred apparition!” is etched upon a paw.

The limestone of the Great Pyramid was once so covered in tourist scribble that one Arab traveler guessed the words would fill 10,000 pages. On the plaster walls of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a favorite Roman remark was “Miravi” (“I was amazed!”). A cheeky one-upper declared, “I was more than amazed!” The Greco-Roman writer Plutarch disapproved of such “nonsense.”

“Rarely is there anything constructive or charming in their scribbling,” he sniffed.

The Greeks felt particularly victimized by boorish Romans who came to “see the sights.” In 66 A.D., the emperor Nero took a yearlong holiday in Greece, debauching himself at every stop and ordering snow to be brought from Mount Parnassus to chill his wine. At the Olympic Games, he annoyed the locals by adding epic poetry and harp playing to the schedule of athletic events — his own songs provoking, one Greek spectator complained, “whole ‘Iliads’ of woe.”

Perhaps nothing is truly sacred to the tourist. In the Holy Land, medieval pilgrims got drunk, sang loudly and scrawled their family coats of arms on the flanks of Mount Sinai. Back in Europe, churches like Durham Cathedral in England were forced to hire toughs to work as bouncers and eject the worst offenders.

The modern era of travel began with the rise of the Grand Tour in the 18th century. Young British gentlemen set off across France and Italy, ostensibly to improve their educations by contemplating antiquities. Instead, they turned the tour into a perpetual bachelor party, guzzling wine, gambling in taverns and chasing the local filles de joie. The loutishness and philistinism of these young aristocrats led Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to call them “the greatest bunch of blockheads in nature.” The Scottish writer Tobias Smollett denounced them as “ignorant, petulant, rash and profligate.”

The French could be just as rude. The Marquis de Sade, who knew a thing or two about misbehavior, was appalled by the rudeness of his compatriots when he toured Italy in 1775. They were a national embarrassment, and the French government, he argued, should refuse them exit visas. (A measure, incidentally, that the Chinese Tourism Authority is reportedly considering.) In his novel “Aline et Valcour,” the marquis described Italian innkeepers as so wary that French visitors had to pretend to be English to get a bed for the night.

Beyond the carousing, the sheer wealth of this tourist class was provoking — and their souvenir-hunting amounted to looting. One of the more avid exemplars was Lord Elgin, the British diplomat who in 1803 removed the statues from the Parthenon to ship home from Athens to decorate his mansion (he nearly lost the lot in a shipwreck en route). By the late 19th century, America’s robber barons were soon living up to their name by stripping Europe of its treasures.

Gilded Age Americans did not even have to go to Europe to behave badly: They had the West for that. In the newly established Yellowstone National Park, the city slickers of the 1870s washed their socks in hot springs, carved their names on fragile volcanic rocks and chipped off fragments for their mantelpieces. And they gunned down any wildlife they could find.

“Andy’s rifle was always ready, and he blazed away at everything,” reported one satisfied visitor.

In today’s era of mass travel, the mantle of “worst tourist nation” has been passed around the globe with increasing speed. As the middle classes achieve the means to travel, they are denounced (by other countries) as disrespectful hicks, arriviste provincials unfit for polite society.

In the 1960s, the Ugly American became a mythic figure in Europe as loud Midwesterners who wore shorts and Hawaiian shirts disturbed the serenity of the Louvre and were thrown out of Parisian restaurants for asking for Coca-Cola instead of ordering wine. By the 1970s, Germans flush with marks became figures of fun, on British TV at least, for their humorless, entitled demeanor. A decade later, it was the Japanese who were mocked for photographing everything from stray cats to street signs.

The good news is that tourist habits evolve. Over time, as travelers gain experience, manners tend to improve. On my last visit to China, the manager of the Aman at Summer Palace, one of the most upscale hotels in Beijing, pointed out to me that the Chinese nouveaux riches — until recently renowned for their awkward manners — already qualify as “old money”; they’re now comfortable in French restaurants, fluent in English and expert in vintage Chiantis. The same, he suggested, would soon happen with the new middle-class tourists.

Americans, too, still have room for improvement. Last year, two sisters from Arizona were arrested for taking risqué photos at Angkor Wat, a temple complex considered sacred in Cambodia. (“They lowered their pants to their knees and took pictures of their buttocks,” an official quoted in The Guardian helpfully explained for those unfamiliar with mooning.)

It seems to be human nature to poke fun at other tourists’ misdemeanors and not recognize our own. As Evelyn Waugh observed, “The tourist is the other fellow.” Perhaps the Marquis de Sade was right and none of us should be allowed to travel. Then we can all just misbehave at home.

Tony Perrottet is a contributing writer for Smithsonian magazine and the author of “The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.”

One Response to “Tourists Gone Wild”

  1. Good article

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