Pamela Wade reflects on having been herself an 'unruly tourist'

It seemed the whole country took a self-righteous pleasure in condemning the Unruly Tourists, who found themselves inadvertently filling in the January news gap. Apart from the sheer entertainment value of following their moderately outrageous exploits, they did make us all feel so superior, didn't they?

I, though, have a confession. More than one, in fact— a veritable clutch of confessions, and they're all connected with my own less than admirable behaviour while travelling. I'm coming clean because I suspect that few of us who've been fortunate to visit foreign countries can claim to be entirely guilt-free when looking back on our behaviour there, especially if we're no longer in the first flush of youth.

So, at some point or other in the following, you're probably going to shift a little uncomfortably in your seat and think back to that time you did something similar.
My sins have no connection with the Unruly Tourists' littering, stealing and giving people the finger; and let me hasten to clarify, before you rush to turn the page,that neither do they involve Oktoberfest, back-street bars in Thailand or full-moon parties. No, they are, or anyway were then, considered, perfectly innocent tourist activities that you probably have photos of yourself doing, in your yellowing albums.

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Uluru: I was vaguely aware that some people were disapproving. Photo / John van Hasselt, Getty Images
Uluru: I was vaguely aware that some people were disapproving. Photo / John van Hasselt, Getty Images

Climbing Uluru/Ayers Rock is the first, for me. Even back when I had both the fitness to haul myself up the terrifyingly smooth, sheer track to the top, and the brazenness to wear short shorts while doing it, I was vaguely aware that some people were disapproving.
The rock has always been a place of great spiritual significance to the indigenous Anangu people, and its desecration by a constant trail of tourists over it chattering, relieving themselves and occasionally falling to their deaths has been the very opposite of respectful.

But back in the 1970s, Aboriginal people had only recently been included in the national census, and they still counted as little more than local colour.

The good news is that, after half a century of trying to prevent or at least limit this behaviour, the Anangu people have finally been heard, and from October this year all climbing will be prohibited.

You can still ride elephants, however.

I've done that, in Thailand and India, and delighted in swaying along on top of these astonishingly huge animals. But I didn't know then how cruelly they were treated to break their spirit when they were young, and how unnatural this work is for them. Now I do, and I'm sorry I supported such an unkind industry.

Unruly: The tourist who were a source of self-righteous indignation last month.
Unruly: The tourist who were a source of self-righteous indignation last month.

I've petted a tiger cub, too, in Malaysia. I vaguely wondered at the time how it was that this beautiful animal was so quiet and amenable. Of course it was drugged.
I was stupid not to realise that, too caught up in marvelling at being so close to such a magnificent creature and posing for the photo.

I feel very guilty about being complicit in something so appalling.

Animals have suffered so much for tourism, and unthinking people like me have encouraged this ugly side of the industry for many years, mainly for the pathetic triviality of an animal-selfie.

Who hasn't posed with a snake draped around them, held up a baby crocodile or alligator with its mouth taped shut, or cuddled a koala? I've done all of that. Have you ridden a donkey up a steep hill? I did, in Santorini, along with lots of cruelly fat tourists who would have one better to climb those 587 steps themselves.

Years ago I felt miserable about the polar bear they used to have at Auckland Zoo, endlessly pacing in his concrete enclosure, his fur green with algae; and later I did refuse to go and see others battling with the heat at the Gold Coast's SeaWorld. But I'm still guilty of having in the past watched orca, dolphins, seals and even beluga whales "perform" at various aquariums around the world, from Napier to Vancouver. And I call myself an animal lover. Not that I've treated people all that well, either.

I've triumphantly bargained hard in markets throughout Asia, beating stall-holders down by the equivalent of a couple of dollars— nothing to me, but a significant sum for those so much less fortunate. I've sneaked photos of people going about their everyday business without asking their permission. I've gate-crashed church services, carelessly wandered into Danish bike lanes (where I almost caused a crash), and I've not always bothered practising basic greetings in the local language.

Amenable elephants: Animals are drugged and maltreated at tourist rides. Photo / Getty Images
Amenable elephants: Animals are drugged and maltreated at tourist rides. Photo / Getty Images

But I'm learning. These are all things I won't do again, and I'll try to look out for new hazards next time I travel. It should be enough just to be in another country, seeing new sights and exploring a different culture. Nobody, human or animal, should be the worse off for my being there.