What it means to be an ‘ugly tourist’

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 52 of the October 2017 issue.

Editor’s note: In last month’s issue, ITN printed letters from several subscribers who had strong reactions to the article about “ugly tourists” by Contributing Editor Rick Steves in his June 2017 column. Rick was invited to provide a response to be printed in conjunction with those letters, but he was not able to do so by press time. Rick has returned from his latest trip, and his response appears below.

I want to thank ITN readers for the thoughtful responses to my article “The Ugly Tourist (And How Not to Be One).”

While I generally try to stay positive in my writing, I do find that travel writers tend to sound like they are writing ad copy for tourist boards. Occasionally, I find topics that are generally negative that need to be explored (respectfully) in public, and to get some letters of disagreement doesn’t surprise me. 

There were lots of people who applauded my comments, and there were lots who felt I was wrong. Let me respond.

When I think “ugly” in terms of “ugly tourist “ or “ugly American,” I really mean “ethnocentric.” People fitting this description are not bad; they’re just in need of a broader perspective. 

To me, “ugly American travelers” only visit places in packs, don’t attempt to speak the local language (even the polite words), speak loudly and expect things to be to their comfort level, with little consideration of local norms. 

When a person in Germany hears an American complaining about having no air-conditioning in a hotel during a summer heat wave (with temperatures and humidity levels that are way above what used to be normal), the German generally thinks, “Hey, your country just pulled out of the Paris climate accord.”

As for being in a large group or on a cruise ship, I have no problem with that. I organize and sell big-bus tours (25 people on a 50-seat bus), and I love cruising (I’ll be filming a TV special on Mediterranean cruising this fall). It’s just that, in this style of travel, the threat is that people simply see clichés on a stage. They’re less likely to get out of their comfort zone and connect with the local reality… and, in my opinion, that causes the experience to suffer.

My problem with the selfie stick is not the stick but the trend for travelers to be more interested in taking photos of themselves at a great sight rather than being in the moment and thinking about that sight. 

When a selfie stick is used to shoot a group photo, to me that’s a celebration. But when people go through their trip taking solo selfies at countless sights, I just don’t get it.

About packing simply, that’s a lifestyle choice. Some people just need more stuff. We live in a material and consumerist world. I see travel as a rare opportunity to take a break from these fabricated “needs.” If you really need Handi Wipes, that’s entirely up to you. 

I just spent 60 days living out of an 18-pound rucksack, and it never occurred to me to need many clever items others find indispensable.

Most of my observations come from using myself as my own “worst example.” When I was on my first trips, I made many mistakes: I packed way too much; I spent too much time looking for America in Europe; I went to great heroics to save money, with no consideration of how that might waste precious time, and I didn’t appreciate the importance of having good information.

With experience, we can enjoy learning how to travel with a light bag, an open mind and an eager and wide-eyed enthusiasm about bringing home that best of all souvenirs: a broader perspective.

And, rather than wishing people “Safe travels,” if you have some travel experience, you’ll know the world is a friendly and safe place, and you’ll say “Bon voyage!” as we did until just recently.

RICK STEVES, Contributing Editor