Living in a destination city like Seville, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe tourists behaving badly. And before I go any further, let me just say that most visitors are perfectly delightful guests – energetic, cheerful, and appreciative, contributing to the city’s bonhomie as well as its bottom line. Some, however, seem to take their social cues from the drunken sailor/stoned frat boy school of social behavior. I’ve watched, aghast, as American girls loudly demanded drugs from a middle-aged Spanish barman, as Australian futboll fans blocked a city thoroughfare to sing rowdy songs off-key, and as three teens jumped off a high bridge into the river, risking their own lives and scaring the hell out of the fish.
Alcohol has long been the inspiration for such excesses, but today, there’s a new motivator: the selfie or video that captures the moment for social media. “From posing naked at Machu Picchu to filming their dives from hotel balconies into courtyard swimming pools,” writes the New York Times, “travelers across the world have been indulging in what officials and travel experts describe as an epidemic of narcissism and recklessness, as they try to turn vacation hubs and historic sites into their personal video and photography props.”
We’ve all seen the headlines:
French tourists arrested for nude photos at Angkor Wat
US Tourists Vandalized Rome’s Colosseum, Took Selfe
Selfie Snappers Smash Baroque Sculpture in Herculean Feat of Stupidity
Naked Tourists Caused Deadly Earthquake in Borneo; Tribal Leader Demands Fine of 10 Buffalo
A “Balconing” Tourist Throws Himself Off Roof Into a Pool in Ibiza (Spain)
Yes, they’ve had to invent a new term, “balconing,” to describe the now-common phenomena of someone jumping off a balcony or rooftop into a swimming pool while their friends film the event on their phones. Predictably, not all jumps are successful, as the sad fate of 23-year-old Dane Searls can attest. Such cautionary tales about the consequences of reckless behavior should give pause to even the wildest revelers, but of course, after the fifth Mai Tai, no one believes it could possibly happen to them.
With 1.13 billion international tourist visits last year, it’s getting harder and harder to come up with a truly original selfie. You standing in front of the Sphinx just isn’t going to cause a flutter. Many photos and videos that do go viral involve appalling misbehavior, as China’s beleaguered public relations department has discovered lately (see Flight Diverted after Passenger Reportedly Threw Hot Water at Crew Member). Embarrassing incidents have become so common that the Chinese government has begun blacklisting its worst offenders. For those still allowed out of the country, officials have issued The Guide to Civilized Tourism and Travel with such essential tips as “Don’t spit phlegm or gum, throw litter, urinate or defecate wherever you feel like it,” and “Don’t leave footprints on the toilet seat.”
Sadly, there is no English-language equivalent. So here’s my advice to visitors abroad. Remember that you are a guest in another country, and like all guests, your job is not simply to refrain from offensive behavior but to be a congenial companion. Don’t criticize a foreign place for being different; that’s why you traveled all that way to get there. Avoid behavior that endangers yourself or others, damages objects older than your great-grandmother, or frightens the fish. And always remember that you should never do anything you wouldn’t be willing to see on the front page of the New York Times. Because these days, it easily could wind up there – and on the screens of 3.17 billion electronic devices as well.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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