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Why were tourists so unhinged this summer?
Photograph: Time Out/Shutterstock

Why were tourists so unhinged this summer?

Vandalising landmarks, smashing statues, naked gatecrashing… why are tourists behaving so badly this year? And is this the new normal?

Written by
Henrietta Taylor

Nothing fuels the fires of our imagination quite like envisioning an upcoming trip. Scrolling through thousands of utterly gorgeous, totally unreliable TikToks, you imagine yourself there: gliding through those sparkling turquoise waters, breathing in the stunning hilltop view, traipsing down slim stairwells flaunting a glorious golden tan! But rarely in our wildest daydreams do we account for the fellow travellers thrashing in the sea alongside us, sprinkling the hillside with trash or clumsily stepping on our shoe as we filter through crowded streets like sunburnt snails.

The problem with getting away from it all is that other people tend to have the same idea. And when other people go on holiday, they do terrible, terrible things – worse, even, than blocking your view of the Mona Lisa while scratching their butt.

This summer in particular, tales of tourists causing all manner of havoc hit headlines for months on end, sparking Twitter discourse and palpable outrage among really lovely, well-behaved people like you and me.

There were the tourists who opted for casual vandalism while on their travels, defacing protected sites including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Toshodaiji Temple in Japan and Rome’s Colosseum and Spanish Steps.

Meanwhile, others took a more madcap approach to upsetting locals, like the woman who breezed past a series of ‘no trespassing’ signs and clambered into Rome's centuries-old Trevi fountain in order to fill up her water bottle, along with another lady who stripped naked and gatecrashed a sacred temple ceremony during her holiday in Bali.

Then there are those who made the honest mistake of doing it for the ’gram, like the group of young tourists who sent a statue crashing to the floor in an Italian villa after hugging it and… right, okay, prodding it with a stick.

This is the kind of behaviour that has got some destinations so cheesed off with tourists that they’re beginning to fight back. But this summer especially, it feels as if the world’s holiday antics have reached new lows. Is it simply a case of the same old bad behaviour coming back, now that travel has fully ramped up again? Or, after being starved of travel during the pandemic, has our hunger for adventure, life-affirming experiences and a carefully curated grid led us down a dark and selfish path of degeneracy?

Blame it on the Brits?

One group in particular has always had a bad rap when it comes to travel, especially in Europe: the British.

Amsterdam, for example, this year launched a controversial ‘stay away’ campaign targeting young British men looking to get messy on big nights filled with binge-drinking, drugs and brothels. And Lanzarote indicated that they were keen to ‘reduce dependence on the British market’ and to instead try to attract more well-heeled holidaymakers, ostensibly with deeper pockets and better manners, from countries like Germany, the Netherlands and France.

It’s well known that us binge-drinking, balcony-jumping Brits are the actual worst when it comes to behaviour abroad. What you might not know is that this has a long history.

Brits (particularly the privileged ones) have always acted like dickheads on their holidays

‘The Brits have never been great ambassadors of our nation when on holiday,’ historian Jem Duducu says. During the eighteenth century, he explains, it was typical for young ruling-class men between the ages of 18 and 25 to take the Grand Tour: a kind of uppity, extended gap year. Aristocratic men (and a very small number of women) would venture to places like Italy, France, Greece, Constantinople and Austria to be educated in the finer things. But, much like the British lads who have been all but cancelled by Amsterdam today, these men were often drawn into far scuzzier pursuits.

‘While mummy and daddy were hoping their little duke would be writing great prose in fields of Tuscan wheat, marvelling at the excavations at Pompeii, and wondering at the architecture of Florence, it usually descended into gambling away their fortunes in the bordellos of Venice,’ Duducu explains. ‘This was a time when many statues, art and items of antiquity were bought – or failing that, ripped off walls and smuggled away in the night – and taken back to the stately home in England.’ So yes, Brits (particularly the privileged, male ones, I might add) have always acted like dickheads on their holidays.

Bigger problems

But (perhaps surprisingly) the reports of bad behaviour this summer have not been limited to tourists from the UK. Culprits have also emerged from the USA, Canada, Germany, France and beyond. It seems that tourists from all over Europe and North America are contributing to cringeworthy criminal damage.

It’s easy to blame this on a few barbaric individuals. But that ignores a much bigger factor: the systemic failings of mass tourism that have been causing problems for years. At the heart of many of these reported instances of bad behaviour is the issue of overtourism.

Caused by throngs of tourists heading to popular destinations and overwhelming them, it was being discussed well before 2020 – but feels distinctly current in the wake of tourism’s vengeful, post-pandemic return.

Kostas Sakavaras has operated private tours in Santorini for 25 years, and hasn’t failed to notice the negative impact that ballooning visitor numbers have had on his island: things like litter-filled streets, damage to the island’s ecosystem and priced-out residents. ‘The surge of visitors has outpaced the island’s infrastructure capacity, hampering the overall visitor experience due to sheer volume,’ he says. ‘The situation is worsened by the environmental impact and overdevelopment.’

‘Disneyfication’ makes it easy to forget that people live there

And although it might not seem obvious, this kind of mass tourism is also closely linked to individuals behaving badly. Responsible travel expert Siobhán Daly has some insight on how we can progress towards a better balance. ‘There was a really interesting study released in 2021,’ she says, ‘that stated that the reason that tourists behaved differently abroad was that they were disconnected from the residents. Because they didn't feel connected, they felt that there was a lower likelihood that they’d be judged for bad behaviour.’

Part of the reason that we remain so disconnected is ‘Disneyfication’, says Nikki Padilla Rivera, the co-founder of the Global Guide Alliance. The term refers to the phenomenon where the travel industry makes accommodations in order for tourists to feel like a place exists solely for them, as a vacation spot.

She adds: ‘It makes it easy to forget people live there.’ This, she says, when mixed with the powerful influence of, well, influencers, and rose-tinted ‘travel aesthetic’ content shared with little context can lead to ‘an ignorance around any local sensitivities,’ blinding us to our surroundings and encouraging us to prioritise our own interests – often to the detriment of destination residents.

So that could well be a major part of the reason for people behaving badly while they’re travelling: because they don’t really think they’re in a real place, filled with real people, who might prefer it if tourists didn’t carve their name into their historic buildings or stagger around the streets causing a nuisance. It’s main-character energy, on tour.

How to fix travel

It may be obvious to most travellers that we shouldn’t be destroying treasured cultural artefacts or roaming naked in religious buildings just because we’re on holiday. But when the industry is set up to pander to travellers and disregard the wellbeing of local residents and their environment, it’s hardly a surprise that ignorant and entitled behaviour is so commonplace.

It may seem like a huge task to totally overhaul modern tourism’s sticky issues, but it’s vitally important – and not just to try and curb random acts of violence against heritage sites.

‘We must question the lengths we’d go for profit’s sake’

Daly, the responsible travel expert, says that the tourism industry must find ways for residents to connect with tourists – working to make travel a regenerative two-way street of give and take‘The industry needs to ask: are we being responsible in our marketing and in the development of the destination?’ In other words, holiday providers need to make tangible moves to ensure that travel locations are represented accurately, that what they sell is ethical and sustainable, and that they enact practices that help residents to flourish alongside travellers.

Speaking from his home on the Greek island hotspot of Santorini, Sakavaras agrees that tourists need to be responsible for respecting local communities, customs and the environment. But he adds that, in order for things to improve, there first needs to be a shared vision and cohesion between visitors, local tourism providers and authorities. ‘Expecting respect from others requires us to first respect ourselves and the island sustaining us,’ he says. ‘Looking in the mirror, we must question the lengths we’d go for profit’s sake.’

And the tourism industry has plenty of skin in the game, too. ‘If residents continue to get really annoyed and frustrated by tourism, that might result in tourism-phobia, which will in turn affect the tourist experience,’ Daly says. This has already started happening in some destinations – it’s not unusual in some European cities to read graffiti screaming ‘TOURISTS GO HOME’ and worse. And that antagonistic situation isn’t good for anyone.

We need to remember the bright side, says Padilla Rivera: ‘Tourism can do a lot of good. It can bring in money, provide local jobs and empower locals to control the narrative of their destination.’ However, she adds, ‘everyone needs to work together.’

We all have individual responsibility to not act like dicks when we travel – that’s a given. But if we want to see fewer headlines detailing travellers’ bad behaviour, it’s crucial that the travel industry changes its ways too.

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