Americans are the worst tourists because we try too hard not to be.

Few years ago, an ecommerce site LivingSocial conducted a survey to see who are the worst tourists in the world. Americans as well as Chinese and French (the title holder of previous years) have topped the list. Over the years, I have encountered quite a lot of tourists from all over the world as a fellow traveler and as someone who had lived in (many) cities that served as popular tourist destinations: NYC, Paris, Berlin and now, San Francisco, and from my experiences, I can’t say that I agree with the outcome of the survey.

Nevertheless, I can understand what might have prompted such outcome, as most American tourists I have encountered over the years tend to be quite ethnocentric in their thinking and in their behavior, as well as being (almost always) monolingual.

However, in my opinion, what makes Americans the worst travelers is that we try too hard not be the worst tourists in the world, not to be the dreaded “Ugly Americans”.

We try to prove that we are savvy travelers by looking through tons of guidebooks and travel magazines, not to mention combing gazillion travel forums to find the “best”. We search endlessly for the latest, the hottest and whatever Anthony Bourdain has on his blog. We spend exorbitant hours getting tips on the “must-sees” and the “not-to-be-missed”, which usually turn out to be regular tourists sights; then, we waste all our energy trying to avoid the touristy places and fit in, even though it’s clear to everyone else that we don’t.

And it gets even worse, when it comes to the so-called the savvy travelers, who are adamantly opposed to being referred to as “tourists”, preferring to be called “travelers” instead – a discussion, which in itself is ridiculous. Although these individuals consider themselves to be seeking an off-the-beaten path, what they really mean and ultimate find is a beaten path that thousands of others carrying backpacks have gone before them. It’s just that these paths don’t cross anywhere near a McDonalds or Starbucks.

I remember while working in Paris, the irony of seeking an “authentic French” restaurant when most of my colleagues told me that their preferred place to dejeuner was McDonalds or Quick, the French equivalent of Mac Do; or few years ago, when a friend of mine told me that we should meet in Thailand or Cambodia as they were the new travel “hot spots” (and she wasn’t talking about free WiFi), not knowing that these countries have been well-known and sought-out destinations for most Europeans and Asians, as Mexico was for Americans.

We all seek experiences that we feel are unique or authentic, but the truth of the matter is that no matter how off the beaten the path may be, someone has already been there, and being listed in Lonely Planet instead of Frommers doesn’t make it more authentic.

After traveling to over 250 cities in 25 countries, 4 continents, I still get excited about being a tourist – and yes, I don’t mind being called a tourist. I love the exhilaration of arriving in a place I’ve never been before, being in the midst of different cultures and languages, and time to time, getting to know the people who started off as strangers. I so enjoy arriving at a place that is complete unfamiliar to me; then, within a matter of days or weeks, leaving with a better knowledge, not only geographically or language wise, but having a better insight and understanding into a culture and its people. More importantly, gaining a different perspective that I would or could not have obtained otherwise.

And I’ve always been able to gain such insight and perspective when I remained open to new and different experiences, leaving prejudices and stereotypes behind, and most often, after having learned to communicate in their language. Ultimately, I was able to have an authentic French experience, after learning the French language and history, and after getting to know the people and their point of view, not because I’d dined at a restaurant recommended in New York Times.


About S. In

a cultural critic, an avid traveler and a purveyor of social justice and education equity View all posts by S. In

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