Saturday, July 5, 2008

Move Over "Ugly Americans"

Remember the tightwad tourist whose baggy shorts, frequent complaining and shouted questions about why none of the locals spoke any English made the ugly American the world's Visitor From Hell?

Well, it's time for Archie Bunker to move over and make way for Petulant Pierre.

According to a recent international survey, the French are now considered the most obnoxious tourists from European nations, and behind only Indians and the last-place Chinese as the worst among all countries worldwide. And it's not only the rest of the world that have a gripe with the Gallic attitude: the French also finished second to last among nations ranking the popularity of its own tourists who vacation at home.

But it's the unflattering image being reflected from abroad that may give pause to the millions of French travelers now heading off to summer vacation destinations across the globe. Will that move them to improve behavior the poll characterized as impolite, prone to loud carping and inattentive to local customs?

If so, that's just the start: the study also describes the voyageur français as often unwilling or unable to communicate in foreign languages, and particularly disinclined to spending money when they don't have to — including on those non compris tips. Over all, French travelers landed 19th out of 21 nations worldwide, far behind the first-place Japanese, considered most polite, quiet and tidy. Following the Japanese as most-liked tourists were the Germans, British and Canadians. Americans finished in 11th place alongside the Thais.

The survey was carried out among employees in 4,000 hotels in Germany, the U.K., Italy, France, Canada and the U.S. for the French travel website The study asked respondents to rank clients by nationality on criteria of general attitude, politeness, tendency to complain, willingness to speak local languages, interest in sampling local cuisine, readiness to spend money, generosity, cleanliness, discretion and elegance. Many replies simply conformed to long-established reputations: Italians, for example, were deemed most style-conscious, and the French the best-dressed tourists.

American tourists fared well in some surprising ways: despite being notoriously language-limited, for example, they top the list of tourists credited with trying to speak local languages the most, with the French, Chinese, Japanese, Italians and Russians coming in last in the local language rankings. Does that mean Americans are the most polyglot tourists on the planet?

Maybe not, says Expedia's marketing director for Europe, Timothée de Roux, who notes the poll's focus on hotel operators may explain the counter-intuitive outcome.

"Most hotel staffs around the world speak English, meaning they'll communicate far more easily with native English-speaking American or British clients than with French or Italians who — it's true — are pretty bad with foreign languages," de Roux says.

De Roux explains how external factors similarly account for why Americans wind up as the biggest-spending and best-tipping tourists, while Germans and the French are among the worst penny-pinchers. "Our findings show the average French employee will get 37 vacation days spread over seven trips in 2008, versus 14 for an American — who won't even take them all," de Roux believes. "That means the French tourist will more tightly budget his or her spending over more trips, while the American spends freely on the one or two vacations taken all year."

By contrast, poll finds the French and Americans similar in being perceived as critical and rude when they travel — though for different reasons. The same local attractions that make France the world's top destination for 92 million foreign visitors each year, says de Roux, also explains why over 85% of French vacation in-country — and wind up spoiled by it when they leave.

"When they go abroad, French travellers demand the same quality they'd get at home, de Roux says. "Americans, by contrast, demand the same exceptional service they are used to at home, which is why they rank as the loudest, most inclined to complain, and among the least polite."

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