Responsible Tourism

Ugly American vs. Thoughtful American

Americans’ trips often suffer because they are treated like Ugly Americans. Those who are treated like Ugly Americans are treated that way because they are Ugly Americans. They aren’t bad people, just ethnocentric.

Even if you believe American ways are better, your trip will go better if you don’t compare. Enjoy doing things the European way during your trip, and you’ll experience a more welcoming Europe.

Europe sees two kinds of travelers: Those who view Europe through air-conditioned bus windows, socializing with their noisy American friends, and those who are taking a vacation from America, immersing themselves in different cultures, experiencing different people and lifestyles, and broadening their perspectives.

Europeans judge you as an individual, not by your government. A German physician once told us, “For me, Trump is big problem — but I like you.” I have never been treated like the Ugly American.

You’ll see plenty of Ugly Americans slogging through a sour Europe, mired in a swamp of complaints. Ugly Americanism is a disease, but fortunately there is a cure: A change in attitude. The best over-the-counter medicine is a mirror. Here are the symptoms.

The Ugly American:

  • Criticizes “strange” customs and cultural differences. She doesn’t try to understand that only a Hindu knows the value of India’s sacred cows, and only a devout Spanish Catholic appreciates the true worth of his town’s patron saint.

  • Demands to find America in Europe. He throws a fit if the air-conditioning breaks down in a hotel. He insists on orange juice and eggs (sunny-side up) for breakfast, long beds, English menus, punctuality in Italy, and cold beer in England. He measures Europe with an American yardstick.

  • Invades a country while making no effort to communicate with the “natives.” Traveling in packs, he talks at and about Europeans in a condescending manner. He sees the world as a pyramid, with the United States on top and the “less developed” world trying to get there.

  • Thinks the rest of the world is “ganging up on us” when our country, along with Israel, is outvoted 172 to 2 in the United Nations.

  • The classic ugly American question overseas is “how much is that in real money?”

The Thoughtful American:

The Thoughtful American celebrates the similarities and differences in cultures.

  • Seeks out European styles of living. You are genuinely interested in the people and cultures you visit.

  • Wants to learn by trying things. You forget your discomfort if you’re the only one in a group who feels it.

  • Accepts and tries to understand differences. Paying for your Italian coffee at one counter, then picking it up at another may seem inefficient, until you realize it’s more sanitary: The person handling the food handles no money.

  • Is observant and sensitive. If 60 people are eating quietly with hushed conversation in a Belgian restaurant, you know it’s not the place to yuk it up.

  • Maintains humility and doesn’t flash signs of affluence. You don’t joke about the local money or overtip. Your bucks don’t talk.

  • Is positive and optimistic in the extreme. You discipline yourself to focus on the good points of each country. You don’t dwell on problems or compare things to “back home.”

  • Makes an effort to bridge that flimsy language barrier. Rudimentary communication in any language is fun and simple with a few basic words. On the train to Budapest, you might think that a debate with a Hungarian over the merits of a common European currency would be frustrating with a 20-word vocabulary, but you’ll surprise yourself at how well you communicate by just breaking the ice and trying. Don’t worry about making mistakes — communicate!

Go as a guest; act like one, and you’ll be treated like one. In travel, too, you reap what you sow.

Responsible Tourism

As we learn more about the problems that confront the earth and humankind, more and more people are recognizing the need for the world’s industries, such as tourism, to function as tools for peace. As travelers become more sophisticated and gain a global perspective, the demand for socially, environmentally, and economically responsible means of travel will grow. Peace is more than the absence of war, and if we are to enjoy the good things of life — such as travel — the serious issues that confront humankind must be addressed now.

Although the most obvious problems relate specifically to travel in the Third World, European travel also offers some exciting socially responsible opportunities. In this chapter are a few sources of information for the budding “green” traveler.

Consume responsibly in your travels — do your part to conserve energy. If your hotel overstocks your room with towels, use just one. Carry your own bar of soap and bottle of shampoo rather than rip open all those little soaps and shampoo packets. Bring a lightweight plastic cup instead of using and tossing a plastic glass at every hotel. Turn the light off when you leave your room. Limit showers to five minutes. Return unused travel information booklets or brochures to the tourist information office or pass it on to another traveler rather than toss it into a European landfill. In little ways, we can make a difference.

Understand your power to shape the marketplace by what you decide to buy, whether in the grocery store or in your choice of hotels. In our travels, whenever possible, we patronize and support small, family-run, locally owned businesses (hotels, restaurants, shops, tour guides). We choose people who invest their creativity and resources in giving us simple, friendly, sustainable, and honest travel experiences — people with ideals. Back Door places don’t rely on slick advertising and marketing gimmicks, and they don’t target the created needs of people whose values are shaped by capitalism gone wild. Consuming responsibly means buying as if your choice is a vote for the kind of world we could have.


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