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Tourists behaving badly: how culture shapes conduct when we’re on holiday

Bobby Yip/Reuters

Tourists behaving badly: how culture shapes conduct when we’re on holiday

There appears to be increasing tension between tourists and residents around the world, with the former often blamed for behaving inappropriately and disturbing locals. Protests against tourist behaviour have erupted in Barcelona, Venice and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, tourists are blamed for being noisy, inconsiderate, urinating in public, buying up necessities such as baby milk powder, and generally not following local customs. Chinese tourists, in particular, face harsh criticism in Hong Kong as well as in Thailand.

In Spain, British tourists are often blamed for poor behaviour.

But tourists’ ethics are rarely studied, and many questions about their behaviour remain unanswered. These include whether tourists have different moral values than local residents; if visitors from different parts of the world have different moral values; and whether people are more likely to participate in morally dubious activities while on holidays than where they live.

Chinese tourists, in particular, face harsh criticism in Hong Kong. Bobby Yip/Reuters

What we did

In a recently published study, we suggest that, at least in Hong Kong, there may indeed be differences between ethical judgements of tourists from different regions and local residents.

We undertook a survey of mainland Chinese tourists, Western tourists and Hong Kong residents, and asked to identify how morally acceptable five different scenarios were.

Our scenarios were: purchasing counterfeit products, disorderly behaviour in public due to drunkenness, jumping queues, lying about a child’s age (to get discounts) and using the services of a prostitute.

We then applied a Multidimensional Ethics Scale to find out more precisely how acceptable these scenarios were to respondents. This widely-used scale uses several normative ethics theories to understand ethical judgements.

We then asked the respondents whether they were likely to engage in these activities at home and on holidays.

Fish out of water

The case of tourist behaviour is especially interesting for debates about ethical decision-making. At home, we may be bound to behave in a certain manner due to societal pressures. We may feel judged by relatives, friends or colleagues. And we may think that somebody who knows us will easily find out about our misbehaviour. Our actions may have long-lasting consequences.

But these pressures are removed when we travel overseas to places where no one knows us and where we don’t stay for long. Tourism, then, may be thought of as an egoistic and indulgent activity.

At least, that’s the theory.

Mean scores on seven-point scale of how ethically acceptable the five scenarios are. Authors

Overall, engaging the services of a prostitute and jumping queues were the least acceptable to all respondents, while purchasing counterfeit products was the most acceptable.

We found it surprising that two such different activities as jumping queues and engaging the services of a prostitute were rated similarly. One possible explanation is that most people have faced queue jumpers and remember the immediate and definitive negative consequence for them (a few minutes’ extra wait).

People feel jumping queues isn’t fair, not morally right and breaches established social norms.

Immanuel Kant’s deontology provides a suitable explanation for the case of prostitution. Prostitution reduces a human being to an instrument for achieving sexual climax with another person. It violates the principle of treating every person as an end in themselves rather than the means for achieving one’s objectives.

Interestingly, selling counterfeit products is illegal in many countries, including Hong Kong, but purchasing them was considered the most acceptable. There are positive consequences of purchasing counterfeit products for the purchasers (lower cost) and also for the producers and sellers (profit).

It also appears acceptable in Hong Kong as the practice is widespread. Those who purchase counterfeit goods are unlikely to feel guilty about the lost profits of luxury brands.

Purchasers of counterfeit goods are unlikely to feel guilty about the lost profits of the luxury brands. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Cultural influences

Our findings also support the idea that morality varies from culture to culture. There are differences between the two groups of visitors we surveyed and the Hong Kong residents.

In comparison to Western tourists, mainland Chinese tourists think it’s more acceptable to purchase counterfeit products in Hong Kong, jump queues and lie about a child’s age to get discounts. Western tourists, on the other hand, find it relatively more acceptable to engage the services of a prostitute.

Both groups think public misbehaviour due to drunkenness is more acceptable than the Hong Kongers do. Overall, Hong Kong residents appear stricter in their morals than either group of tourists.

Western tourists were more likely to participate in all the scenarios on holidays than at home, except for drunken misbehaviour; they do that at home as well. Hong Kong residents are also more likely to engage in all activities on holidays than at home.

Engaging the services of a prostitute was rated similarly to queue jumping. Kin Cheung/Reuters

On the contrary, mainland Chinese visitors are more likely to engage in most of the scenarios at home than on holidays, engaging the services of a prostitute being the exception. It appears that Chinese tourists are aware of the bad publicity they have been getting recently, especially in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government has been distributing educational information and started to blacklist “uncivilised” tourists since 2015. Its aim is to minimise inappropriate behaviour overseas.

Chinese tourists are now more likely to behave more ethically to avoid being blacklisted and ensure their personal safety.

Moral of the story

What action we think is ethical appears to largely depend on the culture we are brought up in and live in. In other words, we do what we think is acceptable to people we know and in the place where we are.

Individual principles, inherent morality and perception of fairness may appear as stricter guides for what is morally acceptable. But appealing to the consequences and the risk of punishment seems more likely to deter people from engaging in morally dubious activities.

The idea that people are more likely to behave badly on holidays than at home, as some societal pressures are removed, appears plausible. But the case of Chinese tourists demonstrates that’s not always true.

Both punishing and educating tourists may be the best strategies for reducing unethical behaviour.