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It’s time to enforce an international code of conduct for tourists

As tales of travel misbehavior increase, cities are stepping up laws and regulations. And this travel writer is all for it.

Anti-tourism graffiti at Park Güell in Barcelona.James Reed for The Boston Globe/file

Roberto Payer, general manager of the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam, has seen the number of tourists in his city skyrocket by several million in less than a decade. Amsterdam has 873,000 residents. This year it’s projected to have nearly 20 million visitors.

Amsterdam is grappling with how to deal with those numbers, but Payer thinks the influx of tourists isn’t the only problem, it’s the way those visitors behave. And he’s not happy about it.

“Yes, the volume of business has been incredible. The city wasn’t prepared for this change,” he said at last summer’s Virtuoso Travel Week conference in Las Vegas. “But what we need is a tourism code of conduct. We need to educate Americans who are traveling abroad on how we live and on our culture. We get irritated.”


He cited multiple examples of people eating on the steps of historic buildings and leaving their trash behind, scantily clad tourists displaying copious amounts of skin in churches and holy places, and tourists strolling in designated bike lanes as if they were pedestrian foot paths. Payer made it clear he wasn’t trying to dissuade people from coming to the Netherlands, but he also sounded thoroughly fed up with the uneducated and sometimes buffoonish and drunken behavior he’s observed.

“The population gets annoyed when their culture, their city, isn’t respected,” he said. “It’s our culture, and our past, and nobody has the right to touch our past.”

As European cities grapple with overtourism prompted by cheap international airfares and a rise in lodging options thanks to Airbnb, the number of incidents involving unacceptable behavior have also grown. As a result, there are people stomping on tulips in Holland while trying to take selfies in fields, obnoxious travelers ruining priceless statues by high-fiving them, and phone-wielding dolts chasing geishas in Japan to get a photo. Sadly those are all true stories.


“We have the same issues, I completely agree,” said Mercedes Garcia, deputy director of Barcelona Tourism. “We need a guide of good practices.”

Garcia said even small steps, such as no longer having tour guides lead groups of tourists through markets as Spaniards attempt to do their daily shopping, could go a long way toward keeping antitourism sentiment among residents from flaring. Barcelona was been rife with protests against tourism.

The idea of guidelines for travelers is nothing new, but as tales of travel misbehavior increase, cities are stepping up laws and regulations. In 2018, Rome passed a law banning people from swimming in fountains and sitting on the staircases of historic monuments. What’s unfortunate is that travelers need to be told not to treat the Trevi Fountain like a kiddie pool. In Croatia, a code of conduct for dressing at historic sites was introduced. It also bans public drinking. Amsterdam is also cracking down on public drinking as it tries to cut down on rowdy behavior.

It’s not just Europe facing issues. In 2018, New Zealand introduced its own tourism code of conduct. Upon entering the country, visitors are required to sign the Tiaki Promise, which asks for a commitment to care for New Zealand “for now, and for future generations.” But even with the Tiaki Promise, an English family visiting New Zealand last year made international headlines when they stole a Christmas tree from a gas station, refused to pick up their garbage, and caused a disturbance at a Burger King. They were eventually issued deportation notices.


But while individual cities and countries have been pasting together their own rules and laws for tourist behavior, there has already been an international ethics code in place for the past decade. The problem is that without a way to enforce it, it has mostly gone ignored.

In 2010, the World Committee on Tourism Ethics — part of the United Nations World Tourism Organization — published a code of conduct for responsible travel, which asks travelers to value local traditions and customs, support the local economy, respect the environment, be careful when visiting wilderness areas, heritage, or archeological sites, and be an informed and respectful traveler. It is all common sense, but clearly some tourists forget common sense when they board a plane.

The WCTE code is thorough, practical, and makes sense, but it’s lacking teeth. Payer of the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam suggested that tourists be required to read and sign a code of conduct before they agree to enter a country. I agree, but I also think it should go a step further. Make it required reading for people traveling anywhere in the world, with fines imposed when travelers don’t respect that code. Think of it as a contract. Break the contract, pay the price.

“For instance, when you arrive in Singapore, they tell you exactly the things that you are not supposed to do,” said Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. “You cannot chew gum, right? They give you a list of all the things that are not allowed in the country. If you do any of those things, you get fined. Everyone respects that.”


Guevara isn’t in favor of an international code of conduct as strict as Singapore’s, but she does think it’s important that countries communicate clearly with visitors to ensure that incidents such as one involving five Australian men who ran naked through the streets of Bali, and then urinated at a public event, do not become a common occurrence. That’s also a true story.

Those who represent the tourism industry are caught between the need for visitor dollars and the strain being placed on popular destinations by overtoursim. Currently there is a movement afoot in the industry to reroute visitors away from over-touristed areas to smaller cities and attractions that receive less traffic. Tourism contributed $1.7 trillion to the world’s economy in 2018 according to the United Nations, so dissuading tourism simply because a few knuckleheads carved their names into the Coliseum with a selfie stick or strutted au natural at Machu Picchu is not a smart idea. This is where we come back to the need for a universal tourism code of ethics, with clear ramifications for poor behavior and questionable decision-making skills.

Despite the frustration over bad tourists, it’s important to remember that it truly is a small number of vacationers causing problems. We just hear about them more than well-behaved tourists because their stories go viral.


Andrea Grisdale, a travel adviser who founded the Italian-based company IC Bellagio (not related to the hotel in Las Vegas) said she often fields questions from travelers about how to fit in with the locals. She said the majority of people she works with travel to destinations to enjoy new cultures.

“They truly want to understand how to dress, what to eat, when to eat, and what the local customs are,” she said in an e-mail. “I genuinely believe that people want to do the right thing and that the onus is on the destinations themselves and the travel companies to educate in a very warm, welcoming way.”

So that the rest of us may continue to travel and enjoy new cultures, it’s officially time to put all selfie stick abusing, historic fountain walking, rowdy sidewalk vomiters on notice, and an enforceable code of conduct might just do the trick. It’s time to stop making tourism a dirty word.

Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.