The tourist versus traveller debate

You read a bit about the distinction between a ‘tourist’ and a ‘traveler’. People who regard themselves as travelers think they’re a cut above the tourist.

They think that it is only other people who go and gawk at the sights and think destinations off a list, but not them.

No, they imagine themselves to be on a journey of exploration. They hate being called tourists.

It’s all bullshit. We are all tourists. Marco Polo was a traveler. So were the millions who emigrated to New Worlds. But anybody today who hops on a jet plane and goes somewhere for pleasure is a tourist.

The distinction between ‘traveler’ and ‘tourist’ is a fiction invented by people who want to think that they are different from – and better than – everybody else. It’s true that there is a scale, the loud and ignorant package tourist at one and Marco Polo at the other, but there are no real absolutes.

There are many people who see the sights and mentally (and sometimes physically) cross them off as if they are items on a shopping list. They say they have ‘done’ a place, rather than that they went there. They are less likely to return somewhere, because I have already ‘done’ it and there are other places to ‘do’.

These sorts of people typically take lots of photographs. You see some people, and that’s all they do, as if the image is more important than the experience.

We mention often in these pages the importance of attitude, of mindset. The difference between tourist and traveler is essentially a state of mind. Think like a tourist, and you will be a tourist. Think like a traveler, and you will be a traveler (even though you’re still really a tourist).

Type in ‘tourist vs traveler’ in Google. It’s a very interesting exercise. Here are some of the comments we found when we did this exercise recently. It’s very illuminating:

  • A tourist goes on vacation. A traveler goes on an exploration.
  • Tourists tend to travel in large groups or families. Travelers tend to travel solo or with one other person.
  • A tourist gets ripped off. A traveler negotiates a deal.
  • Tourists stay in the comfort zone. Travelers trespass beyond it.
  • Tourist hang around with other tourists. Travelers hang around with the locals
  • Tourists always look like tourists. Travelers often blend in.
  • Tourist take photos of themselves. Travelers take photos of the people they meet (and let’s not even talk about selfie sticks).
  • Tourists go to McDonald’s and other chains in foreign countries. Travelers eat local.
  • Tourists have a Singapore sling in the Long Bar at Raffles. Travelers have a beer in the hawker market.
  • Tourists think speaking English loudly will help. Travelers learn a few words of the local language.
  • Tourists are on a schedule. Travelers work on their own time.
  • Tourists have a ‘favorite place’ or a ‘favorite thing’. Travelers enjoy it all.
  • Tourist talk a lot about where they have been. Travelers keep quiet.
  • Tourists observe. Travelers experience.

… and our favorite, from the great Paul Theroux:

  • Tourists don’t know where there’ve been. Travelers don’t know where they’re going.

You get the idea. We believe the whole idea of travel is to, as the saying goes, broaden the mind. The extremes of ‘tourism’ have their place, and if we look at the above list we must admit we are often guilty of being a tourist.

Our advice is to get over it. Never say you’re a traveler rather than a tourist – it’s an affectation, a wank, big noting yourself. The distinction is useful, and serves as a warning about what not to do. But we shouldn’t be traveler snobs. Everybody should be able to travel just as they wish. We just think there is a good way and a better way.

There is a very good reason why ‘Third Age Travel’ is not called ‘Third Age Tourism’.

But we are tourists, whether we like it or not.

1 Comment

  1. Steve on March 20, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    Loved meeting you in Hà Nội tonight. From your third age Aberdeen, Scotland kindred spirits!

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