Over the past few decades, the tourism industry has grown enormously. More people have been visiting countries outside of their continents and venturing into places with completely different cultures. Locals get to interact with tourists from all over the world too. This means that the East and West have come together, but Asians in Western countries have been branded with a certain image, as have Westerners in Asian countries.
I’m a Singaporean living in the UK. A white man once came up to me and my Malaysian friend to ask us if Asia was dangerous. There was so much awe and fascination in the tone of his voice that it was clear to us how genuinely ignorant he was. However, it does reflect some of the attitudes that white people have towards travelling in Asia. To the West it is seen as “exotic” – it’s somewhere you go for a daring “adventure” into the unknown. Countless gap year students have gone to India for a “spiritual” experience, claiming that they have undergone some kind of existential change as if they now understand the “exotic”.
“Many of these tourists go to Asia with the mindset that Europe is somehow superior to these Asian countries”
When white tourists go on their gap years to do voluntary work, their social media captions are often some version of “they taught me more than I could ever have taught them”, as if it was surprising that a Westerner should learn so much in an Asian country. White backpackers who travel to places like Thailand and the Philippines are often seen as some sort of brave and adventurous person, as if Asia is somehow less civilised than Europe. I’m not saying that white people shouldn’t be able to enjoy visiting Asian countries – in fact, going to Asia is an eye-opening experience and I think more people need to visit the continent. My point is that many of these tourists go to Asia with the mindset that Europe is somehow superior to these Asian countries, and their fascination is tinged with condescension.
These attitudes have their roots in colonial history, when Europeans used to travel the world in hopes to discover “native” populations and “barbarous” societies. Colonialists saw Asia and Africa as exotic places with unknown dangers, a perception which is evident in the travel literature at the time. You just need to look at Robinson Crusoe, an English literature canon, to see my point. The superiority of the West has been a myth that has pervaded the idea of travel for centuries.
“I’ve noticed whilst being in the UK that locals can be extremely condescending when they start talking to me”
Westerners who go to Asian countries are often viewed positively in the eyes of the locals, but the same can’t be said for Asians who visit the West. Obviously, racism still exists in the West, and Asian tourists are often treated differently from white tourists. I’ve noticed whilst being in the UK that locals can be extremely condescending when they start talking to me, as if they have already decided that I am incapable of engaging in proper conversation. For me, tour guides are generally more eager to talk to white people, even in Asia – and they don’t bother to try and hide it. However, this issue of racism against Asians can’t be addressed without acknowledging the detrimental stereotype of the Chinese tourist that has been circulated through the media. This damaging stereotype lumps all Asian people into the same category in the eyes of the West.
Westerners aren’t always the most well-behaved tourists in Asia. Sometimes they don’t understand or acknowledge the customs and traditions of the countries they are visiting, and even show blatant disrespect for them. The YouTuber Logan Paul’s appalling behaviour in Japan’s suicide forest is a perfect example of this. But many Westerners show disrespect to Asian cultures in more subtle ways. One of the things that bothers me the most is attempts at bargaining for goods, and expecting to be sold everything at a much cheaper price than in Europe.
“Just because a Buddhist temple is not a 12th century Catholic Church does not mean you can take bare-bottomed photos of yourself there”
A good example of this was when white tourists in Nepal refused to pay the full price for a cup of tea (which was already relatively cheap) and got chased away by a Nepalese cashier over it. Often, white tourists expect goods to be ridiculously cheap prices, and will bargain with shopkeepers until they are satisfied with the price, even if they would pay double that amount in a European country. Religious sites should also be treated with the utmost respect; just because a Buddhist temple is not a 12th century Catholic Church does not mean you can take bare-bottomed photos of yourself there, like two Americans recently tried to do in Thailand.
However, bad tourist behaviour is just that – tourists being terrible people. How disrespectful they are is not always about race. That being said, there does need to be a change in the way Asian travellers and Asian countries are stereotyped. Travel has the potential to bring people of different cultures together in a beautiful space for growth; hopefully, both Eastern and Western countries use tourism above all as a means for the promotion of peace and understanding.