Travel tip: Beware of bad tourists this summer! 

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By Christopher Elliott

My son sat next to the world’s worst tourist on a flight from Sydney to Denpasar, Indonesia. His seatmate nursed a bottle of sizzurp — a potent mix of codeine and Sprite — and the man twitched uncontrollably for the seven-hour flight to Bali.

When the intoxicated tourist disembarked on the conservative Hindu island, he collapsed on the terminal floor. The last time I saw him, customs officials were trying in vain to revive him from an opiate-induced stupor.

Interestingly, Bali has been attracting a lot of bad tourists lately. Last year, a German visitor defiled a temple by roaming through it without a stitch of clothes and a Russian tourist took pictures of himself seminude on a sacred mountaintop.

This summer, the tourists are at it again, including a man who went on a joyride in a stolen truck at the airport. (Related: American tourists are being profiled. Here’s how to avoid it.)

It’s not just happening in Indonesia. Terrible tourists are everywhere. They’re carving their initials into the Colosseum in Rome. A few months ago, when I visited Angkor Wat, I saw graffiti on the ancient walls. I couldn’t believe it!

Tourists are leaving their manners at home

What’s going on? People are making up for lost time after the pandemic, experts say. They’re flooding popular destinations but leaving their manners at home.

“And that’s resulting in disruptive or disrespectful tourist behaviors,” says Carla Bevins, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Wait, hasn’t this always been a problem? Yes, but not to this extent.

“It’s gotten worse since the pandemic,” says Joel Wesseldyke, a travel advisor with JJ Travel Associates. “I think people became more entitled because the expectations changed so drastically, people felt comfortable making demands, and getting exactly what they wanted, without regard for other people.”

What’s a bad tourist?

You’d think most parents would have taught their children about good behavior, but some tourists evidently missed that class. Here’s a refresher.

They’re disruptive

Many tourists do not respect the customs of the place they are visiting, and they are not mindful of the environment. “They’re loud in public areas and leave trash behind,” says Pradeep Guragain, who co-founded a travel planning site about Nepal. I see it every evening in Canggu, Indonesia, as tourists trample on the incense and offerings left at the many temples. (Related: Warning: American tourists are being profiled. Don’t be one of them!)

They’re entitled

Jodi RR Smith, an etiquette consultant, says people feel “more entitled” to the vacation they want, no matter the consequences or the cost. They make outrageous demands and they ignore local customs and norms. And they also don’t seem to care how their actions affect those around them.

They disrespect their hosts

The worst tourist behavior Laura Lynch ever witnessed was a tourist carving his initials into Cambodia’s historic Angkor Wat temples. (There’s a theme here — bad tourists like to carve their names on national treasures.) “It was an appalling sight, underlining a careless approach toward the travel destination,” says Lynch, who edits a site about traveling in California. Thumbing your nose at your hosts isn’t just bad manners. It can get you arrested, imprisoned and expelled.

News flash: You may be a bad tourist

If you think you might be a bad tourist, you probably are. And yes, I’m including myself. I’ve been traveling full-time since 2017, and the more I consider these behaviors, the more I realize I’m part of the problem.

I’m not carving my initials into the side of monuments or pushing fellow tourists off cliffs, but I’m also not being respectful of local customs.

For example, I didn’t research Indonesia sufficiently before I got there. I didn’t know the first thing about Balinese customs, and I may have even tripped over one of the temple offerings on my way to the beach. 

By the way, I asked a Balinese hotelier what happened to tourists who step on the temple offerings. She said it depends on your intention. If you meant to crush the incense underfoot, bad karma. If you don’t, you are forgiven.

Still, I didn’t even learn the two most important words in Balinese — please and thank you.

How to be a better tourist

Can you improve your tourism etiquette? You bet.

Do your homework. Learn about your destination and its norms and customs before you visit. Also, learn some basic phrases in the local language. At a bare minimum, learn how to say “thank you.” Even if locals know your native language, saying “thank you “ in their language is a sign of respect. “Take the time to learn about local customs and environmental practices before you embark on your journey,” says Michael Donovan, who edits a site about travel to New England.

Remember that you’re a guest. Whether you’re visiting a state park or flying halfway around the world, don’t forget that you are a visitor. Be respectful of local values and customs. And please leave the caps and T-shirts with political slogans at home. “Religious or provocative imagery, curse words, profanity, sports teams, political brands and national flags are all potentially offensive,” says Harding Bush, a senior manager for security operations at Global Rescue.  

Listen, don’t speak. Travel is a terrific opportunity to learn about a new place. Don’t blow it by talking about yourself. And really, no one is interested in how a place you’re visiting compares to where you’re from. “If you constantly compare your host country to home, forgetting to savor the unique beauty and customs of where you are, that’s a big red flag,” says Mal Hellyer, a photographer and travel blogger.

Reality check: The bad tourists don’t care

It’s a safe bet that only the good tourists — or the ones who want to be better tourists — have made it this far in this story. The others stopped scrolling after the story about the comatose passenger. 

So I can confidently make this prediction: The future will be filled with more incidents of reckless tourists defacing national treasures, passing out on terminal floors and even pushing each other off cliffs.

And to you, bad tourists, I have only one thing to say: Thank you. You’ve given this travel columnist so much material for future stories. But you have also inspired me to become a better tourist. Actually, you’ve inspired all of us. 

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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