“It’s a great time to be an American tourist.”
Such a statement would have been nonsensical a year ago, when the COVID-19 surge in the United States was so grim that Americans, who are accustomed to traveling most places without issue, were considered personae non gratae across much of the rest of the world. But Tom Jenkins, the CEO of the European Tourism Association, stands by it: When European countries reopen their borders to tourists—as they expect to do this summer—they hope Americans will be at the front of the line.
Not only is the U.S. one of the most important countries for European tourism, but it’s also now one of the most vaccinated in the world. Yet the idea that Americans would be desired, or even preferred, guests in Europe runs in stark contrast to a more long-standing stereotype—that of the “ugly American” tourist. You know the type: loud (especially on public transportation), bumbling, boorish, and often sporting the quintessential uniform of socks and sandals, a baseball cap, and a backpack worn on the front. “Our correspondents felt American tourists had few social graces,” the humorist Art Buchwald wrote in 1957 about how Americans were perceived across the Atlantic. “They objected to Americans ‘taking moving pictures of them,’ ‘throwing around money,’ ‘talking loudly,’ [and] ‘bragging about the American way of life.’”
Popular culture is awash with examples of the ugly American tourist, perhaps none more apt than Clark Griswold in the 1985 film National Lampoon’s European Vacation. In one scene, Griswold (portrayed by Chevy Chase) and his family find themselves trapped in a London roundabout, seemingly unable to navigate driving on the left side of the road. In another scene, a lederhosen-clad Griswold joins a German folk dance that, thanks to his lack of coordination, quickly descends into chaos. In true tourist fashion, the family has complaints about European food and the rudeness of Parisians. “We’re the ambassadors of America here,” Griswold tells his kids on the Paris leg of their trip, in an attempt to boost morale. “If we want to be accepted here, we’ve got to try to fit in, speak the language, wear French clothes. And that’s why I got us all berets!” The Griswolds may be the stars of the show, but they are also the butts of an international joke.
Americans have largely internalized the ugly-American caricature. Maybe that’s because, at one point or another, we’ve all been one. I am no exception: On a trip to Rome, I jokingly asked my college friends if the Colosseum was modeled after the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum back home. They laughed. A tour guide who was unfortunately within earshot (remember: American tourists are loud), however, did not. Her glare was enough to make me realize that, in that moment, I was being that American. I spent the rest of the day trying to quietly blend in.
This isn’t to say that American tourists are unwelcome in Europe. If anything, they are more important than ever. According to the European Travel Commission, the European Union received 30 million American visitors in 2019 alone—more than the number of tourists from China, Canada, and Australia combined.
When I asked people working in Europe’s tourism industry about the ugly-American cliché, they told me that Americans give it more credence than locals do. “The perception of the American tourist is a little self-made,” Ettore Bellardini, a tour guide who works with English-speaking audiences in Rome, told me, noting that apart from some lighthearted jokes about American culinary habits (the propensity for ordering cappuccinos with dinner and ketchup with pasta being among the strangest), Italians have nothing but love for their American guests. “We can’t wait for Americans to come back.”
“Only in America do you have the idea of the ugly American tourist,” said Jenkins, from the European Tourism Association. “Nobody hates tourists more than a fellow tourist. Running into a compatriot abroad is an acutely painful experience. It’s a bit like hearing your own voice.”
Real or imagined, if ever there was a time to send the ugly-American trope packing, it’s this summer. Americans already have the privilege of being more widely vaccinated than people from most other countries. Many also have unspent vacation days. And those lucky enough to have saved money during the pandemic are suddenly finding themselves with disposable income. This, at least, is what European countries are counting on. Tourism makes up 10 percent of the continent’s GDP, and significant shares of the economies of tourist destinations such as Italy, Greece, and Spain. While the sector may survive one lost summer season, the millions of people who work within it can’t afford to lose another. The return of American tourists, even if in modest numbers compared with pre-pandemic years, could play a huge role in its recovery.
But if Americans aren’t careful, they could do more harm to their reputation than good—particularly if they bring with them U.S. culture wars over the coronavirus and fail to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions in place abroad. So far, they haven’t been off to the best start: mainland American tourists in Puerto Rico have reportedly flouted many of the island’s public-health protocols, including its mask mandate and midnight curfew. Although many European countries are in the process of reopening their economies, some still have restrictions in place. And while the EU’s vaccination program has picked up speed in recent months, a European Commission spokesperson told me that the bloc isn’t projected to have enough doses to inoculate 70 percent of its adult population until July, which means that many Europeans could still be unvaccinated by the time tourists arrive.
“I’m watching the news from here, and I know there’s a pretty big anti-mask movement ... in the United States,” Sarah May Grunwald, a sommelier who leads wine tours and tastings in Rome, told me. “I just hope that people who visit don’t bring that mentality here.”