The Ugly Tourist in Italy

Monday Author:  Susanne Skinner

The minute you decide to visit another country you become a tourist. Whether you become an ugly tourist or not is up to you.

Tourist with Camera, Italy, ugly touristI am a seasoned traveler, blessed with two well-educated and well-traveled parents who infused me with a love for other cultures. My Dad was relentless in reminding us “when you are not in the United States, you are the foreigner.”

I travel extensively in my global marketing role and married a man who shares my love of adventure and the exploration of histories larger and deeper than our own. Last month we headed for the trifecta of Italian tourism: Rome, Florence and Venice, with intermediate stops in Naples, Pompeii, Tuscany and Pisa.

For the record, there no photos of either of us holding up the Leaning Tower.

Ambassadors Abroad

As a business traveler, I rarely have time for tourism, but I am always conscious of my foreign status in someone else’s country. For international business etiquette there is no better resource than Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, a book that navigates the practices, customs, and philosophies of other countries with information you must know if you are conducting your business outside the United States.

As a tourist, I did the same research; studying the customs of the places we planned to visit.  We did not pack shorts, we don’t own selfie sticks and we installed currency and translation apps on the phone.

We knew the churches that did not allow women to enter with bare arms and noted places where backpacks and cameras were not allowed.  My husband pointed out the signature steak dish of Florence, Bistecca alla Fioretina, was only prepared rare; ordering it any other way is an insult. You also eat your entire pizza with a knife and fork.

Yet for some travelers, a foreign country is an escape from their known reality and comfort zone; an invitation to be rude, disrespectful and offensive. The term “Ugly American” has become the standard label for any tourist that misbehaves abroad. The rules don’t apply and the ugly tourists flaunt their disrespect. It never occurs to these people their attitudes and behavior label them as unwelcome visitors.

The Camera and the Selfie Stick

Selfie-stick mania may have dialed back, but they are alive and well in Italy. Rick Steves refers to them as “narcissi-sticks.”

selfie stick, tourists with selfie sticks, ugly touristThe biggest offenders are Asian tourists. Signs warning against their use do not deter them.  Asian tour groups crowd historic locations with nearly everyone attempting to selfie themselves into the photo foreground. They are not paying attention to the guide or the historic significance—they simply want their face in front of whatever they are photographing.

Milan has banned the use of selfie sticks entirely and other cities are following their lead. Historic sites also forbid them and tour guides reinforce this as their business is affected by rogue behavior of tour-group members.

During a tour of St. Mark’s Basilica (no cameras allowed) in Venice I kept hearing a clicking sound behind me. I turned around to see an American woman, covering her digital camera with her hat, shamelessly taking photos of the mosaic floor.

The Sistine Chapel is a small church; visitors are only allowed 10 minutes inside. It is heavily guarded and you stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd trying to look at the ceiling.

Despite warnings against photos one gentleman decided it was ok.  An armed policeman warned him but he continued to take pictures until the policeman stood directly in front of him.    

The Currency of Tourism

Tourists mean money.  When countries rely on the tourist industry, fools are suffered gladly and locals look the other way. In the height of the season, St. Mark’s Square is like this every day. Add some rain, and hundreds of umbrellas become injury-producing visual blockers. If you don’t have an umbrella, a street vendor will be happy to sell you one.

Piazza San Marco, Venice, crowds, touristsThen there are the public restrooms. There are very few of them in cities that literally see hundreds of thousands of visitors and they range from ok to disgusting. Always carry hand sanitizer as there is a 50-50 chance on the soap and the lines are always long.

Public restrooms are usually in the city center, and you pay to use them. They are a business, with a pre-payment (1.50 €/$1.75) turnstile entrance. You may not use a shop or restaurant bathroom unless you are a patron. If you think buying a bottle of water works, you’d be right. The water is usually $2 and your receipt has a bar or numeric code that allows a one -time bathroom visit.

Worth a mention—many of the toilets do not have seats—not even those in the Vatican.

Spotting an Ugly Tourist

The ugly tourist measures their experience with their own cultural yardstick. They complain about differences instead of embracing them and forget that most Europeans understand and speak English. They look for an American Way in a European country.

American tourists come in two flavors: those traveling with other Americans who are viewing the scenery through bus windows and those who put on a pair of walking shoes and immerse themselves in the culture of the people they are visiting.

American tourists are easy to spot:

  • The Water Bottle:    We’re big on hydration and Nalgene bottles give us away
  • The Cell Phone:       Put it away—nobody else has the fixation Americans do
  • The Backpack:        It’s how we roll.  It’s convenient and frees your hands
  • Half Pants:               European for shorts.  Europeans don’t own or wear them
  • In a Rush:                We have not learned the fine art of taking our time
  • Shopping:                Addicted to souvenirs rather than experiences

The best things to travel with can’t be packed—an open mind, an attitude of wonder and a sense of adventure. Adapt and connect with the culture and your experience will live on long after your souvenirs are forgotten.