I still remember a conversation I had with my brother about 6 years ago, just after he’d gotten back from living in Chile and traveling around South America for a while. We were talking about traveling and he called me a tourist. I vehemently denied that there was a difference between a traveler and a tourist and said that it was just a matter of semantics: we were all tourists, or we were all travelers, but there wasn’t a difference in who we were or how we traveled.
But now, 6 years later, I completely understand where he was coming from. And I agree with him. I definitely wasn’t a traveler, I was a tourist. And I do agree that there is a difference. But what makes the difference? In my opinion it’s the points below.
Tourists head somewhere for a few weeks and then head home. They aren’t the ones who spend months slowly exploring a place. They run to all the typical touristy spots to get their Instagram-y selfies. Tourists are often the ones you see buying all the cheap magnets and mugs that are imported from China. They usually don’t immerse themselves in the local culture. They stay at big chain hotels or resorts and rarely venture into the “real” parts of the area. Tourists seek out familiar chain restaurants and all things comfortable. Tourists are the ones that travel companies make the big bucks off of.
The average tourist would read the above and say “so? what’s wrong with that?” Well, nothing is wrong with it, per se. But it just highlights the difference between tourists and travelers. Tourists and travelers do travel differently.
Travelers often seek out experiences and local activities over cheap trinkets and souvenirs that aren’t even locally made. They dive into the culture and eat the traditional cuisine. They wander off the beaten path to explore everything. Travelers want to get away from the crowds and the tourist traps. They don’t mind missing the big famous landmarks if it means getting to spend a day living like a local. They dress to blend in and they try to learn some of the local language. Travelers use public transportation and are often trying to stretch their money so that they can travel longer. They prefer to travel farther over traveling more extravagantly. For travelers it’s more about the experience and what you can learn than just getting Instagram-worthy pictures to post.
Is there a right way to travel and a wrong way? Is being a traveler right and a tourist wrong? Not necessarily. I’ve done both, and I continue to do both. Just a few months ago I was on a very touristy cruise in the Caribbean. Was I living like a local? Was I exploring in depth? No, definitely not. Would I have preferred to have traveled that way though? Absolutely. But sometimes you just have to work with what you have. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve eaten at McDonald’s overseas before. I’ve bought souvenirs that I know weren’t made locally. And I’ve stayed at resorts. But after living in 4 countries and traveling to over 50, I have to say I much prefer being a traveler over being a tourist.
Would you say you usually travel as a traveler or a tourist? Do you agree or disagree with the points above?