Avoid Being The “Ugly Tourist” This Travel Season
The years I spent in the Dominican Republic taught me a lot about the courtesy of travel. Because the Dominican Republic is a tourist mecca, we grew up surrounded by them, especially on weekends when my family and I ventured to the beach.
There they were, by the hundreds, red skin burning under the sun, demanding whatever their needs were in English, frustrated if someone didn’t speak English back, annoyed that the driver or server or valet would expect a tip for their services. Men and women would be fascinated by the coal black skin of the Haitian residents, who for the right amount of money, would be at their beck and call, taking them to bars or night clubs where men would offer young girls (and I was often approached) money for the night.
Nowadays most of the tourists that visit the island are by way of Europe or Canada. But back then, a lot of the tourists were American and it that is when I learned of the term “ugly American”.
At the time, my friends and I would laugh and mock these tourists. We would laugh at their ridiculous demands, and our mothers and fathers would use them as examples of everything that was wrong with parenting in other countries. But the truth is, it isn’t at all funny. There seems to be a disconnect between the traveler and the other person whom they encounter during their travels. Maybe the other person whose home they are visiting ceases to be “human” once the inability to communicate with them (because of a language barrier) is in place. Or maybe it is the overwhelming curiosity of what is different that makes it hard to realize that they are, in fact, just like you and me.
We take out cameras and flash it up on their faces. We walk up to ceremonial displays and laugh, point, stare, and talk through each second. We sneak up and video tape private moments and conversations, because they seem “so interesting”.
The correct approach is to connect with them, communicate and ask. If it’s a street or public performance, then tip them and tip them well.
As a travel writer I understand the desire to experience the true culture and people of a destination. I don’t want to hide behind the walls of a resort or be sheltered from the realities of the country or city I am in. I want to immerse myself as much as I can in the short period of time I am there.
But what we must remember is that despite it being different, new, strange, odd, interesting and rare; a lot of what we experience in our travels are the daily lives, rituals, customs, and habits of every day people there. We have no right; not for our memories, not for our scrapbooks, not for our blogs, not for our editors, to violate the privacy or space of the people whose home we are in.
We have no right to take without asking, whether it be property or images. If you cannot speak the language, and really want that photo, figure out a way to learn how to ask – the sheer effort of it is worth so much more than the violation of personal space.
We see you snapping away and we hate it. We are not “things”, we are people. We are not the odd ones, you are. You are in our home, we are not in yours. Respect that. And as you travel with your children, teach them the same. Because otherwise you risk teaching them to be “ugly tourists” too, and you risk misrepresenting not only yourself, but your country as well.
Photo taken in Mexico City during indigenous dance in public plaza. No permission needed, but tip was given as appreciation.