Ambassadors with the wrong message

Ambassadors with the wrong message

Tariq A. Al-Maeena

By Tariq A. Al-Maeena
With the reinstatement of benefits and bonuses that were recently announced by the government, many Saudi families have now revised their travel intentions and are busy gearing up for the summer holidays. Plans to visit Europe and the Americas are in the offing, now that there are a few extra riyals in the pocket. But do our intending tourists understand the responsibility they carry as they project an image of their country during their travels?

In 1958, a book titled “The Ugly American” was published. It captured the boorish attitudes of US diplomats and their families when touring abroad and their failure to understand and learn about local culture and customs. Americans were affluent and deep pocketed at the time and with that came an ill-mannered behavior as well.

One excerpt probably describes the book best. A national speaking of the American tourists that had descended upon his country says, “For some reason, the American people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.” So impressed was John F. Kennedy with the book that it is said he sent a copy to all his friends in the US Senate at the time.

In recent years, the mantle of the ugly tourist appears to have shifted. As summer holidays come to an end, reports filtering back from many Western countries do not bode well for the reputation of the Arab tourist. Fueled by a friendly euro rate of exchange, record numbers of Gulf tourists have traveled in the last few years to European cities and hotspots for sun and fun. And along the way, some have managed to raise the ire of their host countries.

Many were accustomed to vacation regionally, but with uncertainty and instability sweeping much of the Arab world that previously used to welcome Gulf tourists by the millions, they had to seek safer alternatives. And Europe seemed a good bet. The number of Gulf citizens traveling to Europe has grown tremendously in recent years, with statistics indicating that nearly 50 percent of Saudi tourists now prefer Europe as their summer holiday destination.

And so, these Gulf visitors descended by the hundreds of thousands upon countries that welcomed their spending with open arms. But in some areas the welcome soon turned into anguish as the behavior of some of these tourists left a lot to be desired. One such popular resort was the region of Zell am See regarded as one of the most picturesque and expensive of Austria’s tourist destinations that has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for those seeking a change from the stifling and suffocating weather in the Middle East.

And while the residents of Zell am See happily welcome the yearly influx of Arab travelers and their dollars and euros, there is concern from some quarters about the habits and activities of the Gulf tourist. In 2014, the tourism authorities of this province released an eight-page etiquette leaflet explaining to tourists some of their demands. The tourists were told to stop haggling over prices, cooking in their rooms and dumping litter indiscriminately. The leaflet also asked tourists to ensure that their children wore seat belts while in a vehicle, as well as not to squat on the floor for a meal or wear full flowing burkas that masked identities.

The pamphlet, in association with tourism officials, the police and the Austrian chamber of commerce, was in response to complaints from locals and companies about the behavior of some of the Gulf visitors.

A Saudi writer lamented: “They did whatever was impossible to do and recorded it modulated by sound and light. They did the camel walk along the poshest avenues of Europe. They stole ducks, slaughtered and cooked them without mercy before the eyes of the camera. They lit fires to cook along lake shores and smoked the hookah sitting on the grounds next to the Eiffel Tower.”

Will this year’s batch of tourists succeed in lifting the mantle of national pride on their journeys?

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeen