By The Nation
When in Rome, do as the Romans do” used to be the advice for anyone visiting another country, but times have changed. More and more travellers are ignoring the admonishment to fit in and instead enjoying the freedom to “be themselves”. The outrage expressed by tourists over a ban on beach chairs in Phuket recently showed that visitors are less willing to compromise. Local police have faced resistance from tourists since the rule came into effect on February 12. Some visitors even said they would never visit the resort again in protest against the removal of their favourite beach perches.
Chinese tourists have also had well-publicised run-ins with Thai authorities. This month they were briefly banned from Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun (“the White Temple”) after members of a visiting group left the toilets in a mess. Meanwhile a photo of a Chinese tourist airing out her bra and panties on a chair at Chiang Mai Airport caused a fuss on the social media. In both cases, authorities responded by asking the tour operators to rein in their customers’ inappropriate behaviour.
They will also hand out manuals on local etiquette to the estimated 90,000 Chinese tourists expected to arrive in Chiang Mai over the Lunar New Year holiday.
No one can deny that tourism makes a huge contribution to the economies of countries like Thailand, which do their best to draw as many visitors as they can. However, each country has its own unique rules and customs, some of which seem alien to foreigners. A lack of respect for the local culture, or perhaps merely ignorance of local ways, can lead to misunderstandings or worse. And, under the magnifying gaze of the social media, these often get blown up into international incidents.
Thai tourists have not escaped censure. A group in Japan was lambasted for jumping a queue and failing to mute their mobile phones in the “quiet carriage” of a train. The Thai Embassy in Tokyo responded to the spat by issuing guidelines for Thai visitors.
Though tourists might spend plenty of money, that doesn’t give them unlimited freedom to do as they like in the places they visit. Every society has its own set of rules and visitors must comply with them. For example, visitors to Bali must respect the fact that beaches are off-limits on New Year’s Day. Tourists in Islamic countries have the alcohol ban to contend with.
Every country wants to earn revenue from tourism. It is up to the authorities, travel agents, nations of origin and social-media users to help promote appropriate behaviour among tourists.
Every visitor is entitled to enjoy the freedom to explore another country, but that right carries responsibilities.
To cite US Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”