Tourists forgot how to behave themselves in 2023

Tourists in Amsterdam
Dickinson: 'In some circumstances, like at stag parties, rowdiness has always been an element – particularly in hedonistic destinations like Amsterdam' - Bloomberg

A gondola crashed in Venice. Bodily fluids on budget flights. Heritage sites destroyed. Fully released from pandemic restrictions, the world travelled en masse this year, and did so with fervour. Most destinations reported visitor numbers on a par with 2019 levels; the Middle East surpassed pre-pandemic numbers by 20 per cent. And yet this excitement for travel was not met with the deference one might expect.

In fact, manners were notably absent. Videos taken by airline passengers showed bad behaviour far beyond the usual gripes – extreme seat reclining was a comparatively minor infraction. It gets worse.

There was the raunchy – like the pair caught in a mid-air tryst by easyJet staff (they were met with laughter from fellow passengers and a police escort upon landing). There was the dangerous – on a Ryanair flight heading to Manchester, one man was arrested for smoking a cigarette in the toilet.

Then there was the disgusting. We were told – if you’re eating, skip to the next paragraph – faeces were found on the floor of the toilet on another easyJet flight, which resulted in it being cancelled. Passengers on a Delta flight were met with something more horrendous, as their plane was forced to land early after a “messy trail of diarrhoea” was left through the cabin.

You might wonder if once tourists landed, their behaviour improved. Not so. The general giddiness continued: an English tourist was caught carving his name into a wall of the Colosseum in Rome, arguing that he was unaware of its historical status.

The video, and the subsequent outrage, led to an apology, but clearly this wasn’t a deterrent, as just weeks later a Swiss teen did the same. Italy seemed to suffer more than most – a 16-century statue of Neptune was damaged by a tourist in Florence. A group of German travellers knocked over a €200,000 (£170,000) sculpture while apparently posing for photographs. Seemingly, statues were collateral for the good-times-at-all-costs holidaymaker.

All this was well-documented, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones. And it has resulted in some destinations actively discouraging tourists from visiting. Local umbrage has morphed into grassroots campaigns. In the Faroe Islands, farmers have started charging non-locals “visit fees” on their land. But even official tourist boards have had enough: a missive from the Japanese tourism ministry reported post-pandemic crowding despite, not a year earlier, imploring international visitors to return.

Dr Lauren Seigel, a researcher at Greenwich University who specialises in tourist behaviour, thinks that our overseas etiquette has rapidly degraded. “This summer it really reached a fever pitch,” she says. In some circumstances, like at stag parties, rowdiness has always been an element – particularly in hedonistic destinations like Prague and Amsterdam. “But now it’s exponentially worse.”

While the post-Covid hysteria has led to a sense of all-or-nothing travel, Dr Seigel doesn’t think it’s the main reason we’ve seen such bad behaviour. “There’s a lot more to it. Social media and globalisation are the true causes.”

She points to the fact that people are travelling further than ever. “Cultures are quite different to what they are used to at home. And I think people are doing a lot less research for their travel – they rely on their phones, and the convenience that brings. They don’t have to look up things in advance in the same way.”

Still, one would like to hope that people wouldn’t, for example, deface temple walls at home, or spend a drunken night at their country’s most famous landmark. It is borne out in statistics that people feel liberated on their travels, and so indulge in ways they might not in “ordinary” life. That used to mean eating an extra slice of dessert, or taking a longer shower. Now, though, it seems to extend to a lack of etiquette, too.

“You don’t really have a connection to the local culture or local people,” she says. “So your actions seemingly have no consequences – you’re in vacation-land, where you can be whoever you want. Now, it seems to be impacting behaviour, and it’s just a natural iteration of this urge.”

This seems to chime with other moments of impropriety we witnessed this year. There was the brief, strange craze of fans throwing objects at singers during concert performances, which reached its zenith when popstar Pink was handed a carrier bag of ashes at a show in London. And then there was the seemingly endless scourge of people playing music out of their phones on public transport – without an earphone in sight. Could this be explained away as some post-pandemic liberation?

Studies do show that incivility has risen in recent years – but they also show that travellers are booking trips on the basis of experiences, rather than destination. That means an Instagram-worthy night out is more important than, say, a peaceful afternoon at the beach. It’s not new, but the prospect of virality means that travellers are going to extreme lengths to “prove” they are having a good time.

There’s a sense that this is self-perpetuating. It could be the case that we are seeing this behaviour more often, as the ability for distribution rises. While this year felt particularly bad, the chaos isn’t entirely new. In 2022, a Saudi engineer was charged after driving his Maserati down the Spanish Steps in Rome. Three years earlier, there was uproar as a group of Australians ran naked down a street in Bali. All this seems to demonstrate is that the pandemic paused our slide into impoliteness, rather than created it.

Destinations are, naturally, having to respond. Photography has been banned in the geisha district of Kyoto, because, as Dr Seigel says, “property was getting destroyed as people were just chasing down geishas to take photos with them.” There’s now a ¥10,000 (£55) fine for anyone taking photos without a permit.

“This sort of thing is a start,” says Dr Seigel. “It might be the case where it does sort of need to get worse before it can get better.” Initiatives that encourage people to behave respectfully – posters on the walls of temples; stricter booking criteria – will hopefully encourage people to reflect on their behaviour. For historic sites and natural landscapes, it seems like a logical, if infantilising, way to encourage respect. How airlines prevent all the bodily fluids, though, remains to be seen.