Tourist vs Traveler? Stop the Debate!

I’m going to preface this entry by saying that it’s not your typical article on such a hot topic. In fact, I’m going to pose a question: why be one or the other?

Examining the infographic above (borrowed from landoftravel), you’ll see a definite line between tourist and traveler. A quick Google search will yield some very strong feelings on the subject, in the same vein. It seems that being a traveler is more desirable than being a tourist. In fact, being a tourist is rather disparaged.

I’ve been going places all my life, mostly for leisure, sometimes for work. I have a bucket list of places that I want to see. David and I go on two big trips a year, each of which is a visit to a new country, sometimes two or three. We have our reasons for choosing where we go; for instance, Egypt and Greece are at the top of my list but the timing just hasn’t worked out. Conversely, I don’t much care about Belgium, but it’s in between the Netherlands (which is at the top of David’s list) and France (one of those places you generally want to get to at some point) and I have a dear friend I’ve been missing who happens to be living in Brussels right now, so we’re making our way there next year.

I’m sure everyone has lists and reasons like we do. And honestly, before you get to a place, what do you really know about it? Sometimes you know a lot: when I take David to the Philippines in January, he’ll be as prepared as I can get him, because he’s heard a lot about my culture and my country just from association. But sometimes you know very little. As I said in this post, before I went to Zurich, all I knew about Switzerland was chocolate and the Alps. Sometimes, the very little that you know is enough to get you to a place, which then begins an adventure. let’s discuss that infographic a bit more. A tourist is there just for the “must-sees”, it claims, whereas a traveler immerses himself in the culture. I don’t know about you, but I usually go to a place because of something I want to see: the Louvre, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal. And these must-sees, I would argue, are a huge part of the culture. Even if you go and see them on a guided tour (as much as I hate tours), you learn about them, their history, the reason they are there. Also sometimes, going to see one particular thing can lead to more. For instance, I went to Turkey and did the whole Ayasofya – Blue Mosque – Grand Bazaar thing. But I had a little extra time and ended up in Cappadocia, a beautiful, rather remote location in central Anatolia. To date, it is still the best trip I’ve ever had.

Let me pose another question. If you only have two or three days in one place (since most Americans only get two weeks of time off a year and want to maximize it), how much immersion can you really be expected to do? David and I consider our trips as scouting missions. We spend a few days in a city and see all the big ticket items, throw in a few that are off-the-beaten-path if we can manage it. Then we decide if and when we want to go back… after we’ve gone everywhere else on our list, of course.

Tourists separate themselves where travelers make friends and connections. This is making a huge assumption: how do you define a connection? Exchanging a smile or having a simple conversation can be a connection, and I’m sure most people end up doing this no matter what. As an introvert, I find it difficult to put myself forward. I prefer to be left alone. I’m sure most people are kind and nice and only want to help, but as a woman in a foreign place, I tend to be a little more guarded as well.

Tourists complain and compare; travelers are curious and have open minds. There’s something to this, because for all that I seem to be defending the “tourists,” I definitely have very little patience for people who complain a lot. Do your research before you go, so that you know what to expect. If you don’t want to be somewhere, then leave. However, I can understand when expectations aren’t met, or when things don’t work despite preparations. For example, one of my biggest peeves about Jamaica was how much all the hassling ruined my experience. I knew going in that the touts were widespread, but not being able to walk down the lovely beach for five minutes without someone trying to get me to buy something — it was a bit much. There was even a guy who tried to sell us weed and wouldn’t go away even as we politely said “no thanks”. It was definitely a frightening experience. Jamaica is a lovely country and we had some wonderful food and even jumped into a waterfall, yet I would hesitate to recommend it without some very clear warnings.

Tourists are oblivious; travelers are sensitive to cultural norms. Again, good point here. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” I am reminded of this every time we go to a temple or church that requires people to dress a certain way… and then you see all these people with tiny skirts, or bare knees, or flipflops. I can understand wanting to be comfortable, but that comfort should not come at the expense of respecting someone’s home. Nevertheless, categorizing as one or the other makes no real difference to the people whose culture you (possibly inadvertently) disrespect. Again, it could all just be due to a lack of preparation.

I guess my point here is that we need to stop making these arbitrary judgments. Merriam-Webster defines the words as such:


noun \ˈtr-ist\

: a person who travels to a place for pleasure


noun \ˈtra-və-lər, ˈtrav-lər\

: someone who is traveling or who travels often

: a person who moves around from place to place instead of living in one place for a long time

In short: we are all tourists, and we are all travelers. We all journey for our own reasons. Sometimes we go to a place only to see the major attractions, but we remain courteous and sensitive to the local customs. Sometimes we have a terrible experience in a place that only serves to make us homesick, but end up making friends with a local who can turn it all around.

And sure, sometimes people fit into the “tourist” description as discussed above. Why is that so bad? The most harm they do is to themselves for missing out on better experiences, but if they are happy traveling that way, who are we to tell them to stop? Of course if they start to do something truly damaging, then I am all for discouraging such behavior, but otherwise… the more that they stick to the beaten path, the less they can “ruin” other unique experiences for the more intrepid.

One thing we can all agree on is that travel is healthy. It’s a wonderful thing, to go and see new places, have new experiences, make discoveries. Sometimes you learn things about where you go and always you learn about yourself. Pronouncing judgement on people can only be divisive. So let people be. Let them be tourists. Let them be travelers. Let them go, and let them come home having made memories for themselves, in the ways that make them happy.


3 thoughts on “Tourist vs Traveler? Stop the Debate!

  1. Pingback: Planning Your Trip: Choosing a Destination | World and Time Enough

  2. I can definitely relate to this one! When I first started traveling, I was initially a tourist, then evolved into “trying” to become a traveler but because work gets in the way, traveling slow for long periods really isn’t achievable. Then somehow along the way, reading more and more travel blogs, I grew up and realized that I can be both. Happy travels!


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