On my trip to Europe this past summer, I was repeatedly appalled at the behavior of tourists. I know I sound like an asshole saying that, being a "tourist" myself, but I was aghast at how people, especially older ones, behaved in a foreign place, often finding myself shoved out of the way, cut in line, and generally mortified by the complete disregard many of these large groups had for other human beings as well as the society which they were invading.
And thus I was compelled to notice the difference in how people travel, and make the distinction between "tourists" and "travelers".
Which would you rather be?
• Makes no effort to assimilate into the place/culture they are visiting
• Often does not respect locals and their daily lives
• Treats a place as though it exists simply for their enjoyment
• Moves in large, unwieldy groups with lots of "stuff"
• Lives by guide books and itineraries
• Fears going outside their comfort zone
• Can be spotted from a mile away
• Researches native customs and language before arriving at a destination
• Tries to blend in and remain inconspicuous
• Talks with locals to learn more about their daily lives
• Travels alone or in a small group, packs light
• Isn't afraid to wander or explore
• Above all, respects the place they're visiting and the people who live there
Something I noticed immediately and was confused by, was how many of these poorly behaved people were of a grandparent's age. Sure, retirement is when lots of people finally have the time and money to travel, but one would imagine that if you've come to be 50, 60 years old, you've had plenty of time to learn and master basic manners when it comes to existing in a public space, never mind representing your country while on vacation. I had to wonder... what's their excuse?? Is it the group mentality? The idea that "I paid to be here, so I can act however I want"? Or, "I'm old, I've earned this, I don't have to respect others"?
I remember being in elementary school and preparing to go on a field trip, the teacher reminding us that in a public space we were all ambassadors for our school, and it was up to us to behave well and thus leave a positive impression of our community at large. This is obviously a lesson that stuck with me, and it's an important one! The tourists that visit a place, regardless of their age, leave impressions on the people who live there, and are incredibly instrumental in how those people perceive an entire nation's populous.
If you only ever met one French person in your whole life, and they were a real dickhead, you'd be compelled to think all French people were dickheads. You'd be wrong of course (or would you?), but that doesn't mean you wouldn't make a negative judgement based on that interaction.
Not to get on a high horse here, but when I'm somewhere new, I really make it a priority to be as good and conscientious a tourist as I can (or rather, "traveler" for the sake of the semantics argument), and be as "out of the way" as possible. Maybe this is the result of living in a tourist-heavy place myself (shoutout Midtown NYC) and knowing what it's like to have your daily life stymied by people taking photos with iPads and meandering around in circles and clotheslining you with selfie sticks as you're trying to get to work or make it to your waxing appointment on time (seriously, move it guys).
Maybe it's because I'm naturally kind of shy and prefer to observe a situation quite thoroughly before stepping into the middle of it and potentially* making an ass of myself. Or maybe I have been so brainwashed by the patriarchy that as a woman I have absolutely no problem blending into the background and am completely consumed by what others think of me thus too paralyzed by insecurity to play a leading role in my own life!! (Hint: it's not that.)
Of course when you get to a new place, it is exciting, and confusing, and overwhelming. We all want to go see the Little Mermaid or the geyser or the world's biggest canapé or whatever it is, and that's totally understandable, and you have every right to take a million photos and selfie it up, but at the same time, observing basic courtesy is just so, so critical.
Certainly nobody's perfect (not even me, shockingly), but effort counts for a lot, and I can't understate the importance of being a responsible and kind visitor anywhere you go.
So when you go to a new place, whether it's Colorado or Cancun or Croatia, as an American you represent your nation and everyone who lives there, whether you like it or not. And you can be a tremendous asshole and confirm what everyone thinks about us, or you can be a kind, interested, courteous human being who leaves a positive impression on the people you encounter.