Stop, Look & Listen

I’ve lived in a lot of different places, some that invited tourists and others that tourists overlooked or even avoided, so I think I’m qualified to state that tourism can be a mixed blessing. Visitors can bring money, create jobs in hospitality businesses like hotels and restaurants, and foster a sense of pride of place in an area’s natives. They may also bring less desirable things, from littering to disrespect and COVID-19. A friend in Spain was dismayed this spring to learn that 800 German tourists were about to land on the island of Menorca – a boon for local businesses but a terrifying prospect in a pandemic climate. The tourists were eventually rerouted to the bigger neighboring island of Majorca, but it was a close call.

I was born in Ipswich, MA, a small seaside town with beautiful beaches, quaint Colonial architecture, and a dark history of witch-burning. When “summer people” arrived, clogging the streets and trashing the beaches, the natives sighed in resignation. When the tourists departed, the natives gave a collective sigh of relief. As an adult I lived for a time in the foothills of Massachusetts’ scenic Berkshire Mountains. I can remember standing in the picnic area of a small park there laughing at the “leaf peepers” who jammed the highway with their cars and their oohs and aahs as the deciduous trees gave one last splendid color show before snow, not cars, came to block the roads. Come warm weather, “summer people” would fill their cars with cheap (sales tax free) booze at the state-run liquor stores at New Hampshire’s southern border before heading north to mountain country. I can also remember coming home from Hong Kong to find Memphis International Airport filled with Elvis impersonators, including one fellow who was Asian (and if I were Elvis, I’d be mighty flattered by that).

Most of my travel has been for business, not pleasure (although one doesn’t necessarily exclude the other), but for now let’s lump business and pleasure together. When developing and sourcing consumer products (anything from stuffed toys to faucets to accent furniture), I spent time in “touristy” places like Lisboa (Portugal), Rio de Janeiro (Brasil) and Bangkok (Thailand) and did my fair share of shopping for souvenirs. Though I was seldom in those places during tourist season, I recognized some of the natives’ resignation when dealing with Ugly Americans. And I also got glimpses of what can only be called opportunism by natives, sometimes shaded with cunning, disdain and even deviousness. Tourist excursions I’ve taken in Beijing (China) and Honolulu (Hawaii) have landed me in some peculiar situations, coerced into paying for a meal or souvenir that I had no wish to buy. That visit to Honolulu was especially humbling because I was this sophisticated world traveler on her way home from doing business in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. I suspect God was smirking at me up in heaven. Silly girl, you’re not in charge here!

I guess this is another plea, begging you not to be the Ugly American when you travel, and encouraging you to behave with as much courtesy and respect as you can muster as you visit new places and meet new people, and to keep your mind and heart open to what you might learn.

Recently my husband and I watched a travel show on television in which the host, an older fellow I’ll call Mr. Jones, whose intentions I’m sure were good, went to poverty-stricken southern Ethiopia in the company of two Ethiopian men who are involved with the World Bank’s financial aid program using a strategy called Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction. 

The World Bank requires recipients of certain loans to use those funds for poverty reduction via sustainable economic development. In theory, developing new industries (including tourism) can help alleviate poverty by providing jobs and building the infrastructure needed for industries to function and thrive. It’s a program that’s succeeded in parts of urban Ethiopia but has been slow in the rural areas of southern Ethiopia. It sounds like a sensible approach to me, but this television host’s behavior veered off track and he ended up proving (as my mother would say) that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

During this episode, Mr. Jones quickly discovered that the tribes living in that part of the country have very mixed feelings about the advent of tourism. I can’t really speak to that without first discussing it with an Ethiopian resident, but it appeared to me that they were not interested in welcoming this visitor and his crew, did not want to be treated like animals in a zoo – inhuman objects of curiosity - and were uncomfortable being photographed. Some of them demanded payment – cash in advance (so to speak) for having a picture taken of them or their homes – and fights broke out whenever Mr. Jones tried to explain his purpose to them – No, no, I want to be your friend, I want my audience to learn about you, I want to share you, not pay you. Instead of listening to their objections respectfully, he smiled, laughed, and even put his arm around the shoulders of the protesting residents and reached out to pet the heads of their children. Needless to say that backfired, and as he led his crew away, he spoke sadly about how being so misunderstood had ruined his visit.

Mr. Jones’ failed Ethiopian expedition brought to mind Patsy Cline’s 1956 song, Stop, Look & Listen:
                    Well, I know a cool cat from way downtown
                    He's been boppin' all around
                    In this ole world he's livin' fast
                    Someday I'm afraid he's gonna run outta gas
                    So if you're travelin' that way, too
                    I tell you, friend, what you better do.
                    Ya gotta stop, look and listen
                    Hey, ya don't know what you're missin'
                    Ya gotta stop, look and listen
                     'Cause ya might be missin' kissin'
                     If you're trav'lin' slow, you'll go a long, long way.

It’s important to pay attention to other peoples’ behavior, body language, beliefs, and more under any circumstances, but especially when traveling abroad. If you don’t stop, look and listen, you’ll not only miss some interesting sights but will learn little and possibly be a poor ambassador. So as Patsy sang, travel slow. Travel – and act – slowly and you’ll have a long and wonderful journey. Bon voyage!


1 comment

  • So true

    Cindy Patrick

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