Don’t be a tourist. Be a traveler.
It’s a phrase I had heard before I started traveling more frequently in recent years, but the deeper I get into the world of travel, the more important this distinction seems to be to some people.
At first I was totally on board with this idea of being a traveler and NOT a tourist. “Tourist” became a dirty, cringe-worthy word that I didn’t associate with because of the connotations that came with it. In this tourist vs traveler debate (which I now realize is absolutely ridiculous but more on that in a minute), a “tourist” is someone who:
- visits only major landmarks, museums and sites
- lounges on the beach all day
- stays at an all-inclusive resort
- doesn’t go out of their way to interact with locals
- only goes to places where everyone speaks English
- prefers to eat whatever is familiar to them instead of trying local delicacies
Now, some of these things may not seem all that bad to you, but when the traveler vs tourist distinction is made, these things sound like blasphemy to a “traveler.” In this debate, a “traveler” is someone who:
- stays in hostels, cheap hotels or on a stranger’s couch with the only exception being self-proclaimed luxury travelers, but some “real travelers” might lump them in with the “tourists”
- goes to places that are “off the beaten path”
- does everything possible to interact with locals
- tries all the local foods and stays away from anything familiar
- carries everything they own on their backs
- will take the most inconvenient form of transportation to save some money
I can see the image you’re getting in your head already. It’s the stereotype we all have. A “tourist” is starting to look like a pale, over-worked, middle-aged man or woman using their one week of paid vacation to wear a Hawaiian shirt and a fanny pack, while a “traveler” is starting to look like a suntanned, backpack-carrying, 20-something-year-old on a gap year that never ended.
Now, I totally understand why people have these ideas in their heads about what “real travelers” look like. There is some truth behind almost every stereotype, but I’m calling BS on this one. I have a lot of issues with the totally unnecessary distinction and division between “tourists” and so-called “travelers.”
1. We’re all a mix of “tourist” and “traveler.”
I don’t know what it is about humans that makes us want to label and categorize things. I guess it helps us understand the world a little more easily, but more often than not, the lines we draw are not as clear as we’d like to think they are, and this is a perfect example. By these stereotypical definitions, I have met very few “tourists” and even fewer “travelers” in my life because most people fall somewhere in the middle on that spectrum. I know I do!
I’ll visit the major landmarks and museums but also seek out the lesser known places of a city. I’ll try new foods and local dishes, but every once in a while a small budget and a bit of homesickness will lead me to a McDonald’s (on a side note I actually really like seeing how different the McDonald’s menus are in other countries. It’s interesting!) Sometimes that same small budget will have me taking trains, planes, buses and walking to get to my destination, and on other days I’ll “splurge” and take a taxi. I’ve stayed at luxurious all-inclusive resorts but made sure to venture out and explore the surrounding areas. I’ve also stayed at hostels with ten other people in the same room.
It’s all about balance, and I think that’s how a majority of people travel. In my book, you don’t have to be, act or travel in any particular way to be a “real traveler.” Experiencing a new place and enjoying your trip is all about finding where you fit on the (might as well be nonexistent) “tourist”- “traveler” spectrum.
2. Self-proclaimed “travelers” sometimes look down on “tourists,” and that’s not right.
The first time I noticed the semi-condescending tone in which some “travelers” talk about “tourists” was the first time that I really had a problem with this distinction. I get that this sense of superiority comes from the idea that “travelers” are really getting to know a new destination while “tourists” supposedly aren’t, but people who think this way honestly just need to get off their high horses. Whether it’s to a town 30 minutes away or to a country on the other side of the world, taking the leap to travel at all is something that so many people don’t do. So if someone is brave enough to take that leap, who are you to judge what they do with their money and vacation time? And who are you to judge if they are really getting to know a place? As long as they are being a responsible and respectful citizen of the Earth then I have no problem with it, and that means not doing anything that hurts the environment, people or animals. That’s why the dirty look I have on my face right now virtually goes out to all the people who travel for big game hunting. I’m not a judgmental person, but you… I judge you harshly.
So-called “travelers” (in the stereotypical sense) are supposedly sooo open-minded and accepting of other people, cultures and ways of life so why can’t they be that way when it comes to different travel styles? That being said, would I suggest traveling in a way that doesn’t allow you to immerse yourself in the heart of your destination even if it’s just a little bit? No, I absolutely would not suggest that, but I also know that it’s not for me to decide, to judge or to make someone else feel bad because of their preferred travel style. I would hate to see a would-be “tourist” be discouraged from traveling or from pushing the limits of their comfort zones because of some elitist “traveler.” I just want people to travel, period!
3. Travelers are, by definition, also tourists and vice-versa.
The worst part of all this “traveler” vs “tourist” nonsense is the fact that there is literally no difference between the two of them. NONE. To be a tourist you have to be a traveler, and being a traveler automatically makes you a tourist in the places you visit no matter how special you think you are. If you don’t live there, you’re technically a tourist! Get over it! If you Google the definitions of a tourist and a traveler (which I did), both definitions include the phrase “a person who travels.” The word tourist even comes up as a synonym for traveler and vice-versa.
Like I said, there is literally no difference between the two words, and although as a linguist I can understand the nuances of words and their connotations based on how we use them, I just think this is one distinction we can throw out the window. Everyone is entitled to their own travel styles, and if one of the points of travel is to experience the world with an open mind and heart, then this traveler vs tourist debate and the divisions it creates just does a HUGE disservice to that.
It doesn’t matter how you travel or where you travel just as long as you TRAVEL …and do it responsibly and respectfully of course! End rant.