Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Travellers don’t know where they’re going.
– Paul Theroux
Traveller or tourist? What do you consider yourself to be?
It is funny how often this question gets asked within the travel community. And from what I can tell, the only ones who care are those who consider themselves ‘travellers’. People who go on a weeklong holiday to Ibiza, or a two-week jaunt to Florida do not care if they are called tourists or if they are called travellers. Those that have strong opinions on being – or not being – either one tend to be (from my experience) almost exclusively, ‘gap-year’ backpackers aged around 18-23. And they always claim they are travellers. Such people have a belief that to be a tourist is a bad thing, a negative in some way. And thus it is vital that they share their ‘traveller’ credentials.
Does being labeled a tourist make you any less happy?
In most of these conversations, a tourist is a ‘holidaymaker’, someone who goes to one place (maybe with a daytrip out here and there), your typical, relaxing summer break. But if your perfect trip is one where you lie on a beach for a fortnight, sipping cocktails and catching up on your reading list and that is exactly what you do, are you not happier than the person who spends their trip arguing about the differences between the words ‘tourist’ and traveller? Equally, if your thing is soaking up the architecture and history of Italian cities, and that is exactly what you do on your long weekend, are you really less of a traveller than the backpacker who spent 3 weeks in Rome but never set foot in a museum or cathedral?
What defines a traveller?
Does a tourist tip over into being a traveller after a certain period of time? If my trip lasts for 14 days, am I a tourist, but if it were to last for a month am I a traveller? Where is the cut off? Where is a person one day off being a traveller? Do I have to go to several locations whist I am away, or have no fixed date of return?
Or is it more about the intent of the trip? The ‘cultural immersion’, the lack of tour guide, the interactions with local people vs tour guided, planned, with organised interactions? Maybe it is to do with planning – those willing to ‘go with the flow’, who do not know their next destination and have no ideas about what to do in a place until they get there, are they travellers? Whereas those who plan to the minute, and know exactly what they will do each day are tourists? But then, I know a lot of people who would definitely be considered ‘travellers’ who like to plan and know their time is well spent, and they are not wasting precious time trying to find a place to stay or making a decision on what to do each day.
Is it to do with the luggage you use? Maybe a backpack denotes traveller and a suitcase means tourist? What if I go old school and use a trunk to transport my things, what would be my label then?
Is it more to do with the transportation you take? Do you have to go the cheapest method, the most ‘authentically local’ method in order to be considered a traveller?
Is it the places you go or the places you stay? The money you spend? What if you travel solely within your own country or within one continent? Is an important stipulation in the traveller nametag that you head into a place with a different language, culture, cuisine, etc. than you own? And again, does it matter? Provided you are happy and you are not causing any harm to anyone else or the environment, can’t you be both a tourist and a traveller?
I honestly don’t know.
Who decides which label you should have?
Do you get to label yourself? I mean, in school labels were just kind of given to you based on your interests and social group. And I suppose it is similar in everyday society too – you see labels heaped upon people (and groups) by the media. In these cases we don’t get to decide.
If it is based upon the people around you, then surely as you travel, you are entirely surrounded by either locals or those travelling, so surely then everyone is a traveller, regardless of anything else about how they travel?
When you find yourself in a foreign country, to the local populace, you are not ever going to be regarded as anything but a tourist. You are not local, they will not care if your travels are for one day, one year or the rest of your life. You will be a tourist, unless you move there – then you might be afforded the title of ‘immigrant’ or ‘expat’.
Of course, there are times that you do get to decide your own labels. I often label myself as quiet, as shy, as anxious. But I also label myself as adventurous, as hard working, as lucky. But the labels I give myself hold no sway on how others see me. I am female, I am white, I am privileged. These are things that can be labeled upon me without speaking a word to me. So those labels I give myself ultimately do not matter. I consider myself to be kind, to be caring, to be friendly, but others I interact with may not agree. So those labels I give to myself are worthless. Consequently, whether you consider yourself a traveller or tourist is not really relevant – it is how others see you.
Traveller or tourist: if I have to decide
If I have to decide, I think the whole argument is redundant. I am not a fan of labels. I think they cause more harm than good in general, and lead to segregation. I gave up labels when I left school, these arbitrary tags we give to people to define them, to separate them from others. Because labels allow people to place expectations on others, they allow people to decide what another is like without even talking to them.
I think, if I am completely frank, the whole argument has been put forward by insecure backpackers who need to feel superior to others. Because you can’t really feel superior when you are wearing the same t-shirt for the fifth day in a row, haven’t showered in a week or slept on a bed in the past 56 hours. But they do like to feel a smugness in the idea that they are having a more authentic travel experience than those on an all-inclusive or a guided tour. Because, they are meeting the people and finding those hidden gems that are overlooked or not talked about, and boy, do they like to tell you about how authentic their trip is. What they often do not seem to realize is that that little old lady who is all kindness and smiles is only kindness and smiles precisely because they are a tourist. Because they feel the need to present an image to people, just like those at home present an image of things always being well. It is not that you are not having an honest conversation, simply that it is not always the whole truth, because people do not air their dirty laundry to strangers.
I know that I would rather meet a person that is conscientious in their travels, than an obnoxious traveller.
Oxford English Dictionary Definitions
Traveller: A person who is travelling or who often travels.
Tourist: A person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.
Ultimately, if a traveller is a person who is travelling or who travels often, and a tourist is a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure, then are they not essentially the same thing? The more appealing definition to me is that of a tourist – I travel, I travel for pleasure, I do not simply travel to travel. So maybe, I am a tourist? Maybe I am a traveller because I travel for a long period of time. Maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t matter to me the label. As long as I cause no harm and am happy in what I do, who needs a label?
What do you think? Traveller, tourist, both, neither?