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 and with that they brought along ill-mannered behaviour.

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 the 1970s, a new face of pushy and boisterous tourists invaded the West. It was the Japanese with cameras slung around their necks who went about clicking everything they came across — much to the annoyance of the local residents who did not appreciate this strange practice and felt that their privacy was being invaded.

Over the following decades, other nationalities assumed the mantle of the ‘ugly tourists’. The British, the Germans and some other tourists were not spared for their lack of respect towards local customs and traditions. Altercations between the natives and the visitors often led to fist fights and jail sentences for the offenders.

But in recent years, the mantle of the ‘ugly tourist’ appears to have moved. 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. Fuelled by a friendly euro rate of exchange, record numbers of Gulf tourists travelled to European cities and hotspots this summer for sun and fun. And along the way, some managed to raise the ire of their host countries.

For many, accustomed to vacation regionally, this was a first time. 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 travelling to Europe has grown tremendously in recent years, with statistics indicating that nearly 50 per cent of Saudi tourists now prefer Europe as their summer holiday destination.

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

And while the residents of Zell am See happily welcome the yearly influx of Arab travellers and their dollars and euros, there is concern in some quarters about the habits and activities of the visitors. In 2014, the authorities released an eight-page etiquette leaflet explaining to the tourists the rules. They were told to stop haggling over prices, cooking in their rooms and dumping litter indiscriminately. The leaflet also asked the tourists to ensure that their children wore seatbelts while in a vehicle and not to squat on the floor for a meal or wear full-flowing burqas that masked identities.

Boorish behaviour

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 behaviour of some Gulf visitors. The officials were shrewd enough not to enforce an outright ban and give up the revenue from these tourists, which in the past decade had increased manifold and contributed enormously to the region’s development.

This year, there have been stories of more boorish behaviour by Saudi and Kuwaiti tourists in Europe. According to a newspaper report, the parliament of Salzburg requested the central government in Vienna to reduce the number of entry visas to visitors coming from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after complaints from residents. The embassies in Riyadh and Kuwait had also been asked to provide booklets to all visa applicants about the cultural environment and laws of Austria related to environmental protection and animal rights. This was in response to cooking practices, littering and smoking shisha in public parks by some Gulf visitors.

A Saudi writer lamented that “they did whatever was impossible to do ... They did the camel walk along the poshest avenues of Europe. They stole ducks, slaughtered and cooked them without mercy before the camera. They lit fires to cook along lake shores and smoked the hookkah, sitting on the grounds next to the Eiffel Tower”.

Has this become the era of the ugly Arab tourist?

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.