Readers discuss what it means to be an ‘ugly tourist’

This article appears on page 42 of the September 2017 issue.

A number of readers had strong reactions — some positive and some negative — to the article “The Ugly Tourist (And How Not to Be One)” by ITN Contributing Editor Rick Steves (June ’17, pg. 53)

In his article, Rick wrote, “Europe sees two kinds of American travelers: those who view Europe through air-conditioned bus windows, socializing with their noisy American friends, and those who are taking a vacation from the US, immersing themselves in different cultures, experiencing different people and lifestyles, and broadening their perspectives…. 

“The ugly tourist measures Europe with an American yardstick. They throw a fit if the hotel air-conditioning breaks down. They insist on orange juice and eggs (sunny-side up) for breakfast, long beds, English menus, punctuality in Italy and cold beer in England.” 

Rick added, “Enjoy doing things the European way during your trip and you’ll experience a more welcoming Europe.” He then offered suggestions on how to be a better prepared, and better, traveler.

His commentary drew the following responses.

I was impressed with how frankly Rick Steves criticized “ugly tourists” in his column.

I recently reread the 1958 best-selling novel “The Ugly American,” by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, and was reminded that the phrase originally was positive. 

It referred to an unattractive American engineer who learned the Vietnamese language, lived in a small village in Vietnam and developed a pump made with bicycle parts that could cheaply supply water to agricultural fields. This was in contrast to the often-unsuccessful, multimillion-dollar projects usually suggested by officials in that country’s capital and in the US. 

Only later did “ugly American” come to refer to bad behavior on the part of American tourists.

In 1967, as a euphoric first-timer floating through Europe with Arthur Frommer’s book “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day” clutched tightly in hand, I met a few “ugly” Americans. 

In Rome, my friend and I stayed at a pension with no hot water and no English spoken. That evening, we spotted a fancy hotel and wandered in to look at their brochures. As the concierge chatted with us, he said, “Come back tomorrow before 9 o’clock. I’ll put you on our bus tour for free, since there are a couple of extra seats.” (This sort of thing used to happen to me far more often at age 22 than it does now at 72!) 

The tour was good, but one lady repeatedly complained that the driver did not speak English and the guide was hard to understand. 

By 12:30 we were back at the fancy, American-style hotel, where the majority planned to eat lunch. As we exited the bus, a woman announced, “I’m going to eat quickly and go shopping.” 

When the guide noted that many shops would be closed in the early afternoon, the woman became furious. 

“That’s ridiculous! I can’t believe it,” she screamed. “We’re flying out at 5! What am I supposed to do?”

Do? Maybe just stay home.  

Donna Judd, Fullerton, CA



Rick Steves wrote, “Ditch the selfie stick to better enjoy the place you came to see.” Well, Rick has a crew taking his images; who poked him in the backside with a selfie stick? 

His article on “The Ugly Tourist” was offensive to many of us who have traveled for decades. At home and abroad, we all encounter self-centered individuals.

As for those air-conditioned buses full of tourists, they’re welcome dollars at most destinations. My husband and I often travel by cruise ship, but after I fractured my pelvis my mobility was limited, so taking a bus tour was easier. On that trip, our tour group consisted of polite Brits, Canadians, Aussies, Germans and Americans plus a couple from India.

In our travels, my husband and I always engage with residents about their city. 

In restaurants, we do ask if an English menu is available instead of holding up the wait staff while we attempt to decipher or translate their list of choices. 

We love photography but have never used a selfie stick. Seriously, though, what’s the big deal if others use them? Snap your shot and move on. 

In fact, social media is a fun way to keep friends and family updated on one’s schedule. Rick utilizes Facebook daily, with videos and locations of his associates, thus promoting his guidebooks and travel business, right?

For the record, there has been a substantial reduction in fanny packs (thank goodness for smaller day packs). But I disagree with Rick Steves about not packing “everything.” On a May 2017 trip in Rouen, France, my husband had sinus discomfort. It would have been easier to have taken an over-the-counter medicine with us instead of trudging about the city trying to find one.

Rick wrote, “People complicate their trips with inflatable hangers, instant coffee, special tickets for free entry to all the sights they won’t see, and 65 Handi Wipes.” We always pack inflatable hangars to do laundry or spritz out wrinkles the night before. Never far away is a package of Handi Wipes for those picnic lunches Rick inspires us to enjoy.

We have visited 90-plus countries on six continents in 20 years. My souvenirs — usually a T-shirt from a favorite city or country — keep me smiling. They get neighbors asking about Petra, Montevideo, Istanbul, Auckland and the Great Wall, allowing me to encourage them to travel and experience the curiosities of each culture.    

Pamela Turner, Lake Wales, FL



Regarding Rick Steves’ comments on “ugly tourists,” I suppose that all Americans, including myself, have to say mea culpa at least once in a while.

I have never purchased — nor do I have any desire to use — a selfie stick. If you would like a picture of yourself, merely ask someone to take it, after which saying “Thank you” in his or her language would help in eliminating any negative view of tourists.

Rick wrote, “The ugly tourist invades a country while making no effort to communicate with the ‘natives’.”

Indeed, residents of other countries are more likely to learn to speak English than Americans are to attempt even the most basic phrases in other languages. This is unfortunate, since individuals who do not want to develop any sort of rapport with the local citizenry are indeed ugly tourists.

Though it is difficult to become a temporary local when you have only a short stay in a given city, obtaining a guidebook that shows certain phrases in the language of your host nation may be the first positive step made by someone who is a representative of a country containing “ugly people.”

Once, while in Germany, I ventured on my own to a jewelry store and attempted to speak in my faltering German. The shopkeeper then informed me that she spoke English, but at least I had tried to communicate in the local language.

I admit that attempting to speak in a foreign language may have its drawbacks. I learned this years ago in Madrid when using my guidebook to order a bottle of water. When the waiter asked me “Con gas?,” I assumed that he was inquiring whether I needed a glass or not and ended up with carbonated water.

I make it a point to shun the usual fast-food restaurants which have inundated Europe and other regions of the world. My goal is to patronize establishments that feature local favorites on their menus. 

During a trip to China many years ago, I probably was the only occidental in our group to exercise an option to partake in an authentic Chinese breakfast. 

While in Japan during a previous decade, I found a restaurant in my hotel serving a Japanese breakfast, and although I had no idea what I was eating, it was a pleasant departure from typical scrambled eggs.

While in Singapore in early 2017, I declined some well-known brands of beer in favor of Tiger, after being informed that it was brewed locally. It also cost a little less than other brews, but saving a couple of Singaporean dollars certainly was not my primary objective.

According to charts on, while almost all people love certain sights, there always are a few who will rate them in the “terrible” category. One such reviewer gave the lowest score to the Vatican because visitors wearing shorts are not permitted into the church.

I make it a point, especially in religious countries such as Italy and Spain, to avoid wearing shorts on days when houses of worship are to be entered as well as when visiting any worldwide major city. The customs of your host nation must be respected, whether regarding manner of dress or adhering to other restrictions.

Rick Steves acknowledges that “shopping is an important part of many people’s trips” but notes that “The ugly tourist lets shopping trump nonmaterial experiences.”

It has been quite some time since my acquisition of a souvenir. Too often, an organized trip will contain a scheduled stop at a so-called “factory,” but it has none of the trappings of an actual factory and you find only tour buses in the parking lot. You may consider me as being a bit cynical, but over the years I have come to equate the term “factory” with “souvenir trap.” On a tour of Ireland, I decided against following my group to the crystal shop in Waterford, instead interacting with the local clientele at one of the city’s pubs.

I’ve encountered some Americans who were extremely arrogant. Although I do not believe that Rick Steves used this particular word in his article, arrogance is an attitude, as well as a disease, which should be cured or eliminated.

Many years ago, during the Johnson administration, while attending a Peace Corps representative’s presentation to a small group, I commented that they were attempting to force Americanism down people’s throats. Instead of recognizing that people’s likes and dislikes in other nations may simply be different from our own, his arrogant response was, ”We know what’s best for them.”

Robert A. Siebert, Jamaica, NY 



I’m going to be very frank. I found Rick Steves’ descriptions offensive and naïve. I also found it hard to believe that Mr. Steves had the same “travel awareness” on his very first trip abroad as he has now. His article was beyond harsh.

Learning anything new is a process, not an event. Yes, first-time travelers will, no doubt, be on an air-conditioned bus, look out windows and converse with fellow travelers. What’s wrong with that? I still do that, and I’ve been to 185 destinations. I also chat with locals, engage with waiters and shop owners and people-watch.

As for how “good” travelers pack, I consider myself a good traveler and I always take a BIG suitcase and a FULL carry-on. 

It was my duct tape that fixed a broken jeep window in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, saving us two days because we didn’t have to return to the capital, Addis Ababa, for repairs. It was my “medicine bag” that allowed three travelers in Africa to remain on the trip; I had antibiotics and over-the-counter drugs for each of them. When we were traveling in the tundra of Canada and another traveler’s suitcase never showed up, it was my extra-warm clothes that allowed her to remain on that trip.

My fellow travelers have been so grateful for my BIG SUITCASE.

I love to shop. I bring home jewelry, clothes, bowls, cups, fabrics and so much more. I love engaging with shop owners in bazaars and open-air street markets. Some of my best memories come from meeting them and their families (who often live in the back of the shop). I was offered coffee in Istanbul and tea in Togo!

Upon returning home, I am constantly engaged in conversations regarding the items I have brought back. These elicit questions about my travel experiences and encourage others to travel and explore new horizons, themselves.

Finally, first-time travelers are entitled to have their personal first-time experiences. That’s part of any first-time endeavor. I’m not the same traveler at 75 years of age as I was at 19, when I worked in Germany one summer and traveled all over Europe. We learn from experience.

Linda Garbett, Los Angeles, CA



Rick Steves’ article really struck a chord with me. 

My husband and I traveled to Ethiopia in January-February 2017 on a group tour. Our primary goal was to observe the remarkable Timket Festival, as celebrated by Orthodox Christians in the northern part of the country. Despite civil unrest necessitating a last-minute change of plans, we did get to Lalibela to witness this colorful ceremony, which we greatly enjoyed. 

From there, however, things seemed to go downhill for our group. Flexibility, friendliness and tolerance evaporated to be replaced by frequent frowns and loud complaints. A bad case of culture shock seemed to grip the group, which got worse as we headed south. Obtaining “basic necessities” like hot water for showers and electricity for recharging phones began to dominate conversation. 

Travel in Ethiopia can present challenges under the best of circumstances, and by the time we reached the far south — which entailed long, bumpy drives by 4x4 to reach remote tribal communities — the taste for cultural novelty was clearly gone. Fatigue, stress and a case of “tourista” can shut down the best of explorers.

With the tribal visits, one specific problem arose.

We had been advised ahead that, during the visits, we would need to pay to take pictures of the locals. Our guide attempted to negotiate a group price for photography, but this didn’t work well. For one thing, it seemed that with many of the tribes, no one person spoke for everyone, especially when it came to naming a price for taking someone’s picture. Individuals felt they deserved more, etc.

The locals watched closely, and if you took a photo that included a person, you were expected to pay for it on the spot. You handed the money to the individual (a mother and child counted as two), and if you didn’t promptly pay, things could get nasty. 

These people have been irrevocably changed by past encounters with camera-toting tourists. These are not Stone Age people or anything like that; many of them have cell phones. They are well aware their photos are all over the Internet, with people making money off them, and they expect payment. Several of the villages we visited appeared to genuinely need the income, so who can blame them? Tour members who took photos did pay for them.

The whole experience was a real head-shaker for me and made me feel like an “ugly tourist.” 

At a Mursi village, the ladies took their lip disks out and just stood there looking at us. I didn’t want to tip them to put the disks back in. All I could do was retreat to the vehicle.

People like the Ethiopians we met are in the unenviable position of trying to maintain some balance between traditional ways of life and dealing with travelers and all the things and attitudes we bring with us.

For my fellow adventure travelers who are considering a trip focused on cultural photography, such as one to the Omo Valley, I would enjoin them to think it through and ask lots of questions of their tour provider before traveling in order to know, ahead of time, what to expect from these visits.

To close with something positive, please let me recount a visit to Namibia in 2013 that seemed to go better for us and for the people. We visited the Living Museum of the San in the Erongo Mountains area, where there was a group of San people (Bushmen) temporarily living at a site provided for them by local farmers to encourage tourism. 

We drove up, parked and were met by a San Bushman in a loincloth who spoke some English. He provided us with a picture book with captions in English, and we were asked to choose the experience we wanted. We selected the domestic tour and paid a predetermined price. 

The Bushmen then showed us how they started a cooking fire, how they made ostrich-eggshell beads, clothing, snares, rattles, brush shelters, etc., and how they hunted. Then they danced for us. We were free to take all the photos we wanted, and we were offered bead bracelets for purchase. I bought four.

We then returned to the nearby farm where we were staying. Around dusk, unexpectedly, the San Bushmen from the Living Museum arrived, just as a large gemsbok was being butchered. Much of the meat was given to them as part of their arrangement with the farmer. 

The San were dressed in jeans and T-shirts, and they had cell phones. They bought phone cards and cigarettes from the farmer. 

I had the chance to ask about their lives. They told me they ordinarily live on the edge of the Kalahari and, so, going to the Living Museum site in the Erongo Mountains is a treat, like a holiday for them. They stay only a few months before another group rotates in. 

They said they like practicing and showing their traditional life ways so that they can teach the young ones and keep their skills and stories alive. 

But, unquestionably, they are 21st-century people. 

I was thrilled with BOTH encounters with the San, and they seemed to enjoy it too. 

In comparing the experiences our groups had in Ethiopia and Namibia, the visit to the Living Museum site in Namibia was a more pleasant, educational and interactive experience with the tribal people. 

Of course, the tribal people — in both countries — have the right to be paid by tourists taking pictures of them, if they choose, and we don’t object to paying. We just want the experience to be honest and mutually respectful.

With the San, the locals, themselves, designed their tourist program in an effort to explain and preserve their former life ways. We were told this by the people in advance, that they would show us how they used to live. The authenticity, or lack thereof, was determined entirely by them, and who better to decide what represents the San (or, in Ethiopia, the Mursi) life, past or present, than the people, themselves? 

Considering that we are just passing through an area, without the time or resources to be able to delve more deeply into people’s daily lives (assuming they would welcome such an intrusion), how else can this be fairly done?

I do not think it is “ugly” to pay to take photos. I do not think it is ugly to pay people to show you how they live (or used to live). But I do feel the experience could be and should be managed in a more educational and more respectful way than was done for us in Ethiopia.

Anne Stoll, Claremont, CA

Rick Steves was not able to provide a response to the above letters by press time, so it will be printed in the next issue. — Editor