Tourist or travelers?

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of France  , Île-de-France,
Monday, March 23, 2009 recently asked readers to define what is a tourist and what is a traveler. I guess it comes down to your own self-perception, but let's face it, who these days wants to say 'I am a tourist'? It has so many bad connotations.

Traveler sounds more deep. And it tries to ignore the fact that you are an outsider, and you are in search of Other.

So what did the punters come up with?

"It is a distinction used by pretentious people to make themselves feel superior to others."

It's one of those quintessential questions among travellers (or should I say tourists?), popping up like a stubborn weed on forums and blogs. But is there even a difference, or are tourists and travellers one and the same?

Here's how 21 travel bloggers see it.

Craig Heimburger from TravelVice:

Tourists expect toilet paper - travelers carry their own (with the carton roll removed and pressed flat).

Ant Stone from Trail of Ants:

If you gave a tourist 500, they will visit one place, for one week while trying to emulate the insight of the traveller. If you gave a traveller 500, they will visit five places over five weeks while trying to avoid the habits of a tourist. When they return home, the traveller will say "the tourist blew their money" while the tourist will claim "the traveller blew their time".

Personally, I think travellers who snub their noses at tourists are short-sighted. I've met hundreds of so-called travellers over the past nineteen months who say such things as "I'm not going there, it's so touristy!" I wait five minutes and then ask them what they've done with their day. Museum. Monument. Market. McDonalds. There was me thinking they'd been laying grain out to dry after digging a new rice paddy. For the record, I'm a travelling tourist, or is it a touristy traveller?

Gary Arndt from Everything Everywhere:

There is no difference. It is a distinction used by pretentious people to make themselves feel superior to others. To the locals, no matter how long you've been traveling or whatever your mindset is, you are still a tourist. After two years on the road, I'm still a tourist when I show up somewhere new.

A better distinction is between traveling and vacation, which is a distinction between what you are doing, not who you are.
Tourists expect toilet paper - travelers carry their own (with the carton roll removed and pressed flat).

Melanie McMinn from Intrepid 101:

A traveller enters a new place with an open mind and a hunger to experience.

I know when I say this my geek will be showing, but nothing says it better than the Monty Python Tourist Sketch:

What's the point of going abroad if you're just another tourist carted around in buses surrounded by sweaty mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry... complaining about the tea - "Oh they don't make it properly here, do they, not like at home"... squirting Timothy White's suncream all over their puffy raw swollen purulent flesh 'cos they "overdid it on the first day"...

And sending tinted postcards of places they don't realise they haven't even visited to "All at number 22, weather wonderful, our room is marked with an 'X'. Food very greasy but we've found a charming little local place hidden away in the back streets...where they serve Watney's Red Barrel and cheese and onion..."

Pam Mandel from Nerd's Eye View:

In a semantic dispute, one could argue that a traveler is anyone engaged in the act of travel. I traveled to the post office yesterday, downtown to dine with friends. More semantics: A tourist is anyone who is not a local or, alternatively, one who is in a location to tour, to see the sites. The underpinnings of this question are clear, though, to anyone who reads about travel. My take: This question must die. There's no difference. None.

Jacquie Ross from Travelling Right, Travelling Light:

Oh, the aura, the romance, the mystique of the 'traveller'. It just sounds more adventurous, more gritty, more authentic than the 'tourist'. I can scarcely spit out the confession, so painful is the suspicion that my own travels were really more 'tourist' than 'traveller'. But maybe it's unavoidable. As a thirty-something, mid-career 'tourist', I had a very strong sense of what I wanted to achieve from my travels and it didn't include finding - or, for that matter, losing - myself. With time far more limited than budget, I moved more quickly and - on occasion - more luxuriously than the 'traveller', deliberate trade-offs that inevitably (for the 'traveller') draw into question the authenticity of my experiences. And yet, at heart, there can be no difference at all between us. The thirst to grow through travel compels only some of us to action. What each of us gains from the adventure is of our own making, and the means - whether as a 'tourist' or as a 'traveller'- mere semantics.

Aaron Joel Santos from From Swerve of Shore:

The differences may look large and wide and all, but in the end they are as fickle and frail as anything else. The definition-type traveler or tourist does not care to be anything else. But we're hardly ever as easy to peg down as a dictionary definition. I've toured and traveled. I'm guessing you have too. A real experience in an unknown place is a very subjective experience, so who is the traveler to say that the tourist does not experience anything real, or vice-versa? We all want to think of ourselves as travelers, but staying in a cheap dorm with other westerners or drinking on the roof of our hostel does not make us one. It's being open and accepting of new cultures, of different ways of living. The goal of traveling is to learn about yourself and about the world, and anyone can do that if they try. Even tourists.
The goal of traveling is to learn about yourself and about the world, and anyone can do that if they try. Even tourists.

Shelly Rivoli from Travels with Baby:

A tourist visits a destination and accepts the visit as an end in itself, happy to have seen and conquered the place, then he moves on. A traveler, on the other hand, is a traveler wherever he roams. He sees every destination-even the post office and the corner grocery store in his own hometown-as a point of departure. His world is one of infinite possibilities and endless stories, and it is no wonder that so many great writers have been travelers at heart.

Greg Wesson from Greg Wesson's Esoteric Globe:

A tourist is the idiot I curse at because they have stopped in the middle of the sidewalk during a busy rush hour RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME to take a picture of some obscure feature on a building that no one who is a local notices or cares about. A traveller, which is what I am, is someone who gets off the beaten tourist path and to see and experience that which others miss, for example, a unique and architecturally significant feature on a building in the heart of the city. I always stop and take a picture, even though sometimes the locals curse at me for stopping right in front of them.

Yup, travellers... We are so different than tourists. I'm also smarter, a better driver and frankly I am more above average than even those kids in Lake Wobegon.

Dave from The Longest Way Home:

I think there is a politically correct difference, and then a difference that both a traveller and tourist will conjure up in their own minds about one another. Much like a 'backpacker' or 'expat may wish to separate themselves from the two classes as well. It is relative to the individual and to a large extent the person looking at them trying to figure it all out. With the PC version out of the way, let me give my own personal view as I travel.

I consider myself a traveller, but am of course looked upon as a tourist when travelling. I class short termers, weekenders, short hop family vacationers who stay in one country and so on; more as tourists than travellers. Backpackers, long-termers and so forth over multi regions; I look more on as travellers. Travellers and tourists: one and the same, albeit depending on who's looking at who.

Brooke from Brooke vs. the World:

Literally, a tourist is "a person who travels for pleasure", while a traveler is "a person who changes location". (WordNet) Perhaps this means that a tourist is just a person looking for a vacation, while a traveler is a person always looking for new scenery and adventure. Perhaps this means a tourist is someone taking the safe route, sticking to the city walls and dragging a suitcase, while a traveler is fearlessly trekking mountain paths after downsizing their lives to a single backpack. Perhaps I should try to further compare and define these two debatable terms, or maybe I should just save us all time by letting you infer what you wish from the two definitions above. ;)

Tammie Dooley from Solo Road Trip:

There isn't any. Being a tourist has been spoiled by a few bad apples, while travelers have been over-romanticized. There's the occasional overbearing, insensitive boars, clutching their entitlements like carry-on luggage. Then there are travelers waxing poetically about the lack of an itinerary, mingling with the locals, eating from street stalls, tipping our noses at those staying in 5 star hotels, riding around in cushy buses, being led around like lambs with meals and breaks mandated. Two weeks into a four week backpacking trip in China, I wanted to sell my son to be one of them. We travelers are a snobbish lot. I'm also a flyfisherman. I know about snobbery. It's ugly; I'm guilty. The world deserves to see the world - tourist or traveler. Curiosity should be encouraged. The experience of sating it is an individual choice. Besides, without tourists to make fun of, we'd founder on our arrogance.

Lauren O'Farrell from Purl Interrupted:

A tourist is someone who travels to get to a certain place, their destination is their aim. For a tourist the travelling part is a means to an end, a series of connections and seats on transport. The adventure doesn't start till the 'getting there' ends.

A traveller is someone who travels to travel. That twelve hour train journey drinking neat vodka with a giant beard of a Russian man while he tells you stories of his wild youth and slaps you on the back in an almost-painful gesture of fast friendship; the eight thigh-scraping hours you spend on lurching camel back to get to the desert sand dunes and sleep under the stars; the monkey who stole your cheese sandwich while you were waiting for your 'luxury' Indian bus to be repaired for the third time. All just as important as where you end up.

Lara Dunston from Cool Travel Guide:

I don't buy into the 'tourist vs traveller' argument. I have too many bad memories of interminable discussions between backpackers when I was travelling around South America a decade ago. I couldn't understand why my fellow 'travellers' weren't more interested in discussing the place they were in and people they were meeting. As it turned out, it was because many weren't even bothering to meet locals and weren't really interested in getting beneath the skin of the places. They spent more time socialising at the hostel than they did out of it and appeared more consumed with the notion of being a 'traveller' and idea of 'travelling' than the actual reality. While they were all too ready to criticise 'tourists', i.e. those who travelled in big tour groups or individuals on arranged packages, from my own observations those 'tourists' were seeing more than their hotel room and were getting out and about and talking to locals, albeit local guides on organized excursions. For me the distinctions are superficial. The 'grand tourists' after all were the greatest travellers, spending years on the road, often months in a place, learning languages or the local art forms and traditions of different cultures. Yet to be a 'tourist' now is seen by those who identify themselves as 'travellers' as a negative label - to be a 'sightseer', 'holidaymaker' or day-tripper, someone who merely 'passes through' a place and gets a superficial experience of it - yet I don't always think that's true. I'm the last person to recommend an organized tour, but at the same time I don't see 'travellers' as always travelling more authentically or more meaningfully than 'tourists'. Whatever we want to call ourselves - or others - what's more important than what we call ourselves is how we travel, how we experience a place and its people, how much we get out of that experience, and how much we give back. I see more value in focusing less on ourselves and our own identities and more on the world and the culture and people around us.

Debby from Tea, Sugar, a Dream:
The tourist might get the basics down, see some sights, take a few pictures, and go home, experiencing only the surface of a country. A traveler goes deeper.

A tourist, via definition, is somewhat similar to a traveler. But the connotation of a traveler, to me, implies a deeper intent than a tourist. Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian t-shirts, and white socks with sandals personifies a tourist. The tourist might get the basics down, see some sights, take a few pictures, and go home, experiencing only the surface of a country. A traveler goes deeper. A traveler explores the culture, the people, the traditions, the food, the lifestyles and inner workings of a country. A traveler gets more involved.

This is not to suggest that being a traveler is better than being a tourist, as there are some amazing sights to be seen, and I'm sure that many tourists appreciate where they are. But being a traveler demonstrates an understanding of this world that we all live in together.

Cate Dowman from Caffeinated Traveller:

The ongoing question and debate. Difficult to define as both share a common love for discovery but both are polar in thinking and style.

From my experience I think the difference has to do with awareness: The tourist is very much aware of who they are, what they are doing and why they are there.They know their role and don't try to redfine it.

The traveller unfortunately, hasn't reached that level of awareness yet. Too many people are stuck in this traveller mode.They are busy judging others travel style, but at the same time hanging around backpacker ghettos.Personally I wouldn't put myself in either category and I'm sure many others wouldn't as well. I would consider myself a hybrid - a cross between a tourist and a traveller, keeping all the good points. Perhaps we should coin a new word: travelist.

Nora Dunn from The Professional Hobo:

Being travel bloggers, I think we have all considered this dichotomy before. Rolf Potts writes somewhat indignantly about it in his most recent book, Marco Polo Didn't Go There, suggesting that it is a pointless debate. And I can't say I blame him; as much as people who believe they are "travelers" are staunchly against being "tourists", the reality is that once we are on foreign ground, we may try to get off the beaten path or blend in, but we ultimately (usually) follow a well-trodden trail at some time. 

To me, the difference between a tourist and a traveler has become more about how long you stay somewhere, get to know the locals, and integrate into the community (if even for a short time), than it is about seeing the sights versus finding a dodgy place that tourists don't go for the sake of being off the beaten path.

Anja Mutic from Ever the Nomad:

A traveler engages with the destination through interacting with people and respectfully exploring new landscapes. On the journey, a traveler seeks to capture the essence of the place and leaves with a deeper understanding of it. A tourist visits the destination for the pleasure and fun of a holiday. On the trip, a tourist seeks an intermission from everyday life and returns home with snapshots and souvenirs.

Thomas Stanley from America in 100 Days:

Today's travelers are very fortunate to have the wealth of readily available information that they do - from expert tourism books to online reviews and laptops to GPS technology. All of these things, however, offer the easy way through the expedition at hand. Sure, a preplanned itinerary may be tried and true, and you probably won't find many gifts from Dionysus at just any random sandwich shop. But it's making that judgment for yourself that separates the traveler from the tourist. The tourist is just that, in town for a tour and a taste of the local specialty. The traveler is out to blaze a trail, to savor every bite of whatever the waitress brings, and to reflect without anyone else's noise to distract.

Derek Turner from The World by Sea:

Tourist or traveler. At first glance, I thought it was nothing more than playful semantics. Yet as the terms have wrestled through my mind, I am convinced the difference is significant.

A tourist is a person whose motivation for travel is often to escape. Your aim: to find a beachside resort, or country cottage where for a moment in time you can forget about work and day-to-day stress... just relax. Someone else can cook, clean, and guide you to your daily destinations.

But a traveler is different. When you are a sailor, you are a person who sails. When a painter, a person who paints. The term, whether by passion or profession, defines the individual. A traveler is a person who travels, but it is much more than vacation-it is necessity. When you are a traveler, you are blessed... or cursed with a drive to discover.

Kerrin Rousset from MyKugelhopf:

Tourists are not looking for discovery; they are looking for the already discovered, and want to see it with their own eyes. The traveler, on the other hand, gets a thrill of discovering something on his or her own, knowing that far fewer people have seen it - or perhaps even no one else knows about it. He uses all of his senses in doing so, and makes the experience his own.
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