Tourists-are they really “ugly human beings?”

“The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: a tourist is an ugly human being”

Caribbean novelist Jamaica Kincaid writes this in her work A Small Place, which is a scathing missive to the traveler. Although she has spent the majority of her life in the United States, she grew up in Antigua, a tiny Caribbean island whose circumference is roughly 54 miles and its area 108 square miles, and many of her novels and short stories are set there. Kincaid hates tourists to her native Antigua who she feels are “ugly human beings.” She herself is the descendant of slaves, men and women who were taken from their homes in Africa to work at the many sugar plantations found throughout the Caribbean. Kincaid hates the British for all the things they did and did not do for their subjects in Antigua, before it achieved its independence. She hates the Americans who come to Antigua, who to Kincaid are the “modern day British,” the “new imperialists” with their overreaching of borders.

To call all tourists “ugly human beings” is a pretty broad generalization since ugly human beings are everywhere and not just of the tourist demographic. I grew up in Philadelphia, a city beset with tourists in its historic colonial district, especially during the warmer months. The tourist invasion never seemed bad simply because Philadelphia is large enough in size that if you were to walk 10 blocks away from such iconic sites as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, you would be among locals and not tour groups. I guess in Kincaid’s view, since Antigua is so small, there’s not many places natives can go to escape from the tourists except those sites that have no interest for the tourists to see and experience-the homes of the hospitality industry’s workers, the dilapidated schools- it’s not much of an escape. I’ve encountered many ugly tourists-those that don’t make an effort to try the local food, who look down upon the people of the country they’re visiting, and who constantly make unflattering comparisons between the country they’re traveling in and their native country. But then I have also come across tourists like myself, open-minded and ready to embrace the unfamiliar.

“It will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness.”

Whenever I travel, I meet many different people. Some interactions may just be a polite hello while others consist of asking me where I’m from, if I’ve been enjoying my visit and, if it’s in a Spanish speaking country where I’m conversing in Spanish with locals, questions regarding how long I’ve been studying the language and if I’ve traveled to any other Spanish speaking countries. I’m not naive to think people are never gossiped about behind closed doors. Rather, I feel that the individuals that the natives cannot stand are the true “ugly human beings,” the tourist who was too rude to say thank you after a local had done him a kindness or one who became exasperated when no one spoke his native tongue even though he was in a country where his native tongue is not spoken. My red hair is often a topic of conversation in countries in which red hair is an anomaly or nothing more than a hair dye number on a kit gotten at the local supermarket, so I wouldn’t be surprised if my hair was discussed by some locals. It always caused extreme staring fits by people in Mexico and especially South Korea.

 Most natives in the world cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go-so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you.”


While I feel much of Kincaid’s writing in A Small Place is much too cutting, the above statement is entirely true. I have traveled to enough developing countries and indulged in first world luxuries to have contemplated the living situation of the workers at the resorts where I’m staying or the servers at the high-end restaurants where I’m eating. For people from the United States like myself, Cancun is an idyllic tropical paradise-glorious white sand beaches, crystal clear blue waters. But for the natives of Cancun, who live in abysmal conditions in comparison to the visiting tourist, I suppose they are indeed “too poor to live properly in the place where they live” in the place we tourists flock to visit. While I certainly met Mexicans who were well-off-my host family in Queretaro, co-workers at the orphanage in Cuernavaca where I volunteered-I encountered many more who weren’t. Their country, a gem to foreign tourists, is just their native country and nothing more.

Getting away from the everyday life is one of the things that will cheer me up the most-new sights, new scenery, new people, new food. And yet, I know it is not so easy for many people in the world who may go their entire lives never seeing anywhere new. A tourist need only read A Small Place to see how incredibly lucky we are to do the traveling that we do, year after year.


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  • Reply
    JoAnn M.
    July 10, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Another great post! You have chosen an interesting subject.

    Jamaica Kincaid seems like a bitter woman. Although I can understand a certain dislike of tourists I think her anger is misdirected. It isn’t the tourist, but the government of Antigua that is responsible for its poverty.

    The tourists are not responsible for the slave trade that took place in the past or for the way the British treated her country and its people.

    I agree with you, it is “ a pretty broad generalization” to call all tourists “ugly human beings”, especially since tourism probably contributes much to the economy of Antigua. What would they do without the money tourism brings into their country year after year?

    Personally, I like to stay away from touristy places because you don’t get the chance to really experience the place you are visiting. I often wondered why anyone would want to go on a vacation only to end up being around other tourists.

    “It will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness.”

    This sounds like Kincaid isn’t much different than the “ugly human beings” she talks about. Her attitude would prevent her from meeting decent tourists like you. I haven’t read “A Small Place”, but it sounds like Kincaid prejudged every tourist that visited the island. Did she ever bother to really meet them or did she only judge them from afar?

    I am sure the people working in the service industry right here in the United States feel the same way about the rich and famous people they serve here in this country.

    People who are rude on vacation are probably rude during the course of their every day lives. I don’t think it has anything to do with being a tourist.

    This envy and anger she talks about isn’t limited to places like Antigua. You can even find it in poor areas of the United States where people cannot escape their surroundings and have little chance of bettering themselves.

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    July 11, 2012 at 1:52 am

    Seriously thank you as always although I think this post wasn’t very “fun” to some 🙂 Extremely insightful comments yourself and I couldn’t agree more with them! As you said, tourism contributes the most revenue into Antigua’s economy as is the case with other developing nations who greatly depend on their tourist infrastructure.

    I’ve read a lot of Kincaid’s works (back in college though so a bit ago) but I don’t think she ever made “friends” with any tourists to Antigua to see their perspective. I think she judged tourists to her country as the non-other judges the other (a minority person).

    And you could not be more spot on about people who are rude on vacation are most likely rude in every facet of their lives 🙂

  • Reply
    July 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    I’m not sure I would enjoy Kincaid’s work. Tourism can do so much to local economies. I don’t think you should look at a tourist and say they are ugly. Sure there are ugly people in this world. Look at them for people, not in one grouping of tourists. I can see why her words would be too cutting.

    • Reply
      Julie Tulba
      April 28, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      Kincaid doesn’t mince words. A Small Place was something I’m glad I read, but is not one of my favorites.

      And yes, I agree all “tourists” shouldn’t be labeled as ugly since that is a blatant form of generalization. But then I know it’s hard for me to truly understand Kincaid’s words since my homeland was never a “modern day” colony where the colonizers were replaced by tourists.

  • Reply
    March 13, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I think money can make someone ugly, and to those ugly people, the ones doing their laundry, cleaning up their hotel rooms, etc. are invisible. And to get some of that power back the people in the service industry probably do laugh at these strange rich people. I was “poor” *by American standards growing up and rich people were the subject of my vitriol. I don’t think all tourists are “ugly” human beings, some of them just want to see the world or have a nice vacation with their family and forget about those who will never have that. They just don’t know. It is complicated.
    Like the post! Lots to think about. Need to read the book before I form an opinion.

    • Reply
      Julie Tulba
      April 28, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      Thanks for commenting Amanda! Yes, I definitely agree with your assessment! There is ugly in a lot of people, but this form of ugly can be found in both rich and poor people.

      And yes, I’d like to think that the majority of tourists traveling the world today are not ugly but as you said, they’re simply wanting to see the world or go on a nice vacation.

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