Tourists versus traveller; Defining a Traveller

The tourist may see all the sights but the traveller will discover their own”
This quote was posted recently on social media, not for the first time. However, on this occasion it fuelled the tourist versus traveller debate, some suggesting that ‘travellers’ consider they are superior to tourists. Questioning whether it is in fact possible to differentiate, and that the popular use of the term ‘traveller’ is purely fuelled by ego.

Tourist versus traveller; A street in the medina of Marrakech in Morocco, North Africa on Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Finding the out-of-the-way places in town

It is true that the quote is simplistic, and a generalisation but quotes lose their impact if too long, a clumsy and lengthy phrase is far from effective.

There is not any ‘official’ line of distinction, everybody chooses to travel for their own reasons, and enjoys their particular experience. However, there are those that wish to immerse themselves in a culture, to delve a little deeper into the nooks and crannies of a city or destination. They are seeking to understand as well as merely ‘see’ a destination, this to me defines a traveller.

An Attitude for Travel

It is this attitude that is what sets them apart, regardless of whether they have visited one or one hundred countries, this is immaterial. There are ‘travellers’ that have only visited one different society, and not even need abroad, just as there are ‘tourists’ that have visited many countries.

People travel for their own reasons, they wish to enjoy of course, and it is all about experiencing a destination on their own terms. There are some that choose to travel to the same all-inclusive resort every year, meeting the same friends and never leaving the grounds of the hotel. Nobody has the right to criticise this; they are getting away from work and relaxing, in their own way.

Similarly those that choose to drop out of their normal work routine to spend months or even years on an extended trip are travelling for their own motives. This is all that matters, that everyone enjoys their own experiences, looking down or any feeling superiority in either direction is simply wrong.

Travel snobbery

We have all probably experienced some form of travel snobbery, those that judge their credentials on the number of stamps in their passport. The use of guidebooks, or the services of a guide is looked down upon as the requirements of the less knowledgeable, experienced or savvy traveller.

Tourist versus traveller; Gitga'at Canadian First Nation tribal hall in Hartley Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Cultural immersion is a traveller holy grail

It’s possible that too much reliance on a guidebook, exploring a destination rarely looking up from a book will almost certainly mean many sights, and opportunities are missed. However guidebooks are extremely useful for researching a destination, both before visiting, and during the evening for the following day.

It does not matter how experienced the traveller maybe, the services of a guide are often indispensable. Either for finding the interesting sights of a city with an informative, and often entertaining narrative or because it is simply safe to do so when tackling a dangerous activity such as ski touring. Occasionally it is necessary to just suck it up, and join the crowd, more is likely to be learned, and it is less likely that many of the ‘must see’ attractions are missed.

Visiting any destination will include seeing all these sights, but there will always be some that wish to see more and those that are perfectly happy just ticking off this list. There are even some that will not bother doing that. There really is nothing wrong with any of these choices, there is not any judgement involved, just accepting facts.

Tourist versus traveller; Church in the Old Town of Havana in Cuba in the Caribbean on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Religious architecture attracts many kinds of visitor, Havana, Cuba

Visiting ‘tourist’ traps whatever style of travel is preferred, just needs accepting. After all who visits Rome and does not go and see the Coliseum?  Those that dismiss purchasing souvenirs that can be purchased in local shops as just kitsch are often being unfair. Sure there are many cheap, tacky articles for sale, but equally there are many quality items made by skilled craftsmen or artisans.

There are few that genuinely hold these rigid misconceptions and generally those that do are only really depriving themselves of all the opportunities that travel offers us.

Cultural Respect

Any traveller should certainly be respectful of the culture of any destination, regardless of how often they travel.

Tourist versus traveller; Exploring the tannery in the medina of Marrakech in the North African country of Morocco on Mallory On Travel 2011 adventure photography

Exploring will often find local craftsmen working

Not all people who travel either long-term or annual vacationers have this attitude. There are  unfortunately, drunken groups fighting, swearing, abusive towards the local population, and some that completely ignore the local customs dressing totally inappropriately. Sadly, they are more common than we may hope.

Do the destinations or the choice of accommodation we choose matter? Is staying in a  luxury five-star hotel in the Maldives more indicative of a tourist than those preferring a village homestay somewhere in Myanmar? It is not this simplistic of course, but the homestay is much more likely to involve immersion in the community and it is the attitude that led to this choice which defines somebody as a traveller in my opinion.

There is one thing which is common to all travellers; to the locals we are all merely tourists, at least initially. I was recently in Marrakech where refusing the services of a particularly persistent ‘guide’ meant I was considered a bad tourist!”

The truth is that we are all tourists at times, and all sometimes ‘travellers’ we all enjoy relaxing on a beach, having a drink in a lively bar, getting involved in a festival. We all visit clichéd sights, buy souvenirs, hopefully usually quality items, but sometimes cheap rubbish.

Provided the choices made are thoroughly enjoyed, and done for the right motives, it really is immaterial whether we are tourists or travellers. We travel; we are all citizens of the World, the tourist versus traveller debate is irrelevant.

“To the traveller the destination is only an excuse for making the journey”

So what is your viewpoint, do you believe there is not any real difference between tourists/travellers, is it just ego or are travellers a breed apart? Please comment.


Comments 24

  1. Nora Lynch

    Hi, thought-provoking to really consider this rather than jumping to old assumptions about ‘traveler’ and ‘tourist’. My first reaction was that to tourists, travel is one thing among many things to do, whereas for travelers, travel is like breathing air- must do, or die. In scanning for a simple image to capture this, I saw the hackneyed ‘tourist wanting a souvenir to bring home, the traveler a memory or experience’… then realized that there are always exceptions, and that in trying to define this we forget that everyone is starting from a different place that could be misunderstood by another: always a mistake to judge someone else’s insides by their outsides. Perhaps the person on the trip is the only one who should be able to decide if they are traveler or tourist that day…( I agree we can be both at different times)… and I can’t help grinning as I consider it might be best to leave that left part of the brain that categorizes and organizes and labels and dominates our thought (and cares if a person is a tourist or traveler) in order to allow our right brains to get their say – to get on with enjoying the sights, smells, and fascinating little details right in front of us on our journey. Having said that, I think this tourist/traveler discussion will always be with us.

    1. Post

      Thank you Nora, I am glad you found it of interest and that it got you thinking just a little. It is true that the debate will never end but that is cool too, gives s something to talk about when we run out of other subjects. Really does not matter what anybody thinks, as I was at pains to emphasise it is just about enjoying our own experience on our own terms. I look forward to visiting and reading your own site soon.

  2. J

    I LOVE this. I have always felt like there is this strange idea of looking down on people who aren’t going to the most exotic hard to get to place and spending the most time there as possible. I love travel and do it as often as I can, but I also love my job and don’t particularly want to leave it and travel endlessly for months. I also just like being at home sometimes too! Does this put me as a tourist or as a traveller? I use guidebooks sometimes and then half the time forget to look at them because I get caught up where I am. Which one am I now?

    OR.. is it that these are just random categories, made up like anything else and people should just lighten up and have some damn fun! lol… ok maybe that is just my opinion!

    1. Post

      Agreed I accept that there is some difference between the motives, desires and perceptions of people that travel. It is not important how any of us are categorised or what our reasons for travelling are, continue enjoying your flirtations with tourism and travel that is all that matters.

  3. Diane H.

    Very thought provoking post. I first encountered the traveler/tourist distinction on #TTOT, where “tourist” was used as if it was a dirty word. Perhaps those of us to travel extensively and are more comfortable being outside our comfort zone need to be a bit less judgmental of those who stick to the tried-and-true on their first trip out. At least they are getting some exposure to something different!

    I started traveling a bit later in life and have a lot of sympathy for people who are taking their first trip to a place where they don’t speak English and toilets flushed differently. It can be a bit overwhelming until you figure out how things work.

    That said, I like to think I am a “traveler” – at least most days.

    1. Post

      Very true, those of us that consider ourselves ‘travellers’ do usually have a greater degree of experience and maybe instead of looking down on those that choose make greater use of the facilities of their resort hotel we should accept this and offer assistance in the form of advice where possible.

  4. Marina C.

    This is pretty good!! I am actually preparing a similar post for my own blog to be posted in a few days, cause I have noticed the same thing amongst my friends in dscussions! My idea is that there are the travellers that are seeking for adventure and to find new breathtaking views, or do things that the locals do, and others, who choose the “pop” destinations, usually because their friends go there or because they are in fashion, and all they do is follow a tour guide or spend their day at the hotel or shopping. To me, both cases can be called tourists, with the difference that it’s a different type of tourism… I don’t think it’s a matter of ego or of seeing oneself as superior, it’s just a way of viewing the idea of travelling and discovering the world…

    check my blog within the next week cause i have been writing a post on this idea!


    1. Post

      Thanks Marina, I am glad you liked this piece and saw some value in it. Good luck with your own article on the same subject and I will indeed pop over and take a look when it is finished.

  5. Deb

    I get so annoyed by all the discussions about Traveler vs. Tourist. Who cares? People see the world the way they want to see it. Why do so many people feel the need to judge the way people travel? I love going to the tourist traps and I love going off the beaten path. I love staying in resort hotels and I love staying in a small homestay or guesthouse. Neither is the right way to travel. Each is just different. There is a reason that a particular path is so well beaten…it is worth seeing. Especially the first time visiting a country. I am not going to skip the Pyramids in Egypt just because everyone goes to them. But if I have been to Egypt a few times, I will give them a miss and get off the beaten path. Most people don’t have the time to get off the beaten path. People get their few weeks of vacation a year and want to see the famous sites. There isn’t anything wrong with that. I am sure that if they had more time, they would get off the tourist route and see more. But not everyone has that luxury like we all do. Your quote at the end says it all “We travel; we are all citizens of the World.”

    1. Post

      Thanks for commenting Deb I could not agree more that whatever way people choose or are able to enjoy the way they travel is what counts here. Travel is not a competition it is just like many other things in life we all make our own choices and get the most out of the opportunities that present themselves to us. Glad you like the final quote might have to stick that up on twitter now 😉

      1. Dave and Deb

        I agree,you should put it up. I just wanted to be clear that it wasn’t you that I was annoyed with. It is the travellers that think they are above people that take vacations. I like your sentiment, travel anyway you like and enjoy.

        1. Post

          No it is fine Deb I understood your meaning was just teasing a little, I am afraid unable to resist sometimes, it is in my nature. Safe travels to you too, hopefully our paths will cross one day.

    1. Post
  6. Andy Jarosz

    I was going to write my reply until I saw Deb’s comment and realised that she’d put everything down exactly as I wanted to say it. Good post and as usual a worthy debate. As Wonky implies, if in doubt ask the locals what they think of us.
    If pushed, I think I prefer to call myself a tourist as that way my job title doesn’t get misspelt by the Americans 😉

    1. Post

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Andy, and yes Deb made some extremely relevant comments indeed. I have been informed by one or two American friends that it is them that is correcting our spelling mistakes!

  7. Gail Gillespie

    I would also agree with Deb. However…I am wondering who decides those that call themselves travellers have their noses in the air? Like Deb I enjoy a variety….but I do think that there is often a difference. Tourists tend to view, while travellers interact with locals and experience the place at a more personal level. This does not mean one is right or wrong or that anyone is superior. It is what each individual enjoys. I have not met my interpretation of travellers who consider themselves in some way superior. And I totally agree that in the eyes of the locals we are all tourists.

    1. Post

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Gail. I believe we are thinking along the same lines, it is the attitude that makes a distinction between the way people travel, it is not necessarily snobbery it is just a fact that we choose to travel in our own way and on our own terms.A traveller with an attitude that is looking to experience more would not feel superior it is not in our makeup, we do not choose to travel for any reasons of ego but because it is what we enjoy.

  8. NvGtravels

    Just a quick point on using the services of a guide. I have in the past done so not because I needed to be shown where to go or for safety but simply because a local guide can enhance the travel experience by offering opportunities for conversation and insights into culture and country.

    1. Post

      I totally agree sometimes we have to accept we will benefit from the services of a guide, we can often learn more in ten minutes with a knowledgeable guide than a day on our own. If we really want to become immersed in and understand a culture as so many of us claim, learning from a local has to be the best option.

  9. Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

    Thanks for a nice piece. It is something I have been giving much thought to recently because after a trip to Egypt in March without my husband, I realized that we travel in very different ways. My husband is a bit of a safety nut and was horrified to learn that my first day in Cairo I was walking around Zamalek (sp. ?) alone.

    I’m not sure why our differences had not occurred to me sooner. I am always the one that wants to head in the opposite direction of all the other “tourist.” I recently told him that I want to travel abroad with a friend and we plan to “couchsurf.” He thought this was the craziest thing he had ever heard until he learned from a friend that this is extremely common in Europe.

    I don’t expect him to be “couchsurfing” with me any time soon so for now I will need to be content to “travel” on my own and be a “tourist” with him.

    Really, I think there can be a balance between the two.

    When I was in Egypt I was glad I had a guide for some things because I think I learned a lot more than I would have had I gone solo. But talking to the locals about the Revolution, going with my friend to vote on the Referendum and breaking bread with the Bedouins was PRICELESS!

    Climbing Mt. Sinai and having the pyramids to myself was way up there too.

    1. Post

      That trip to Egypt sounds quite the adventure, have you told your husband everything, he might get a little worried in future? It sounds as if you have also discovered you have a penchant for solo travel too, a little compromise between the two of you seems to be on the horizon so you can travel as you now seem to enjoy but also do some journeys with him. I wish you luck with the couchsurfing there is also a post on here about that The Procrastinators Guide to Couchsurfing I hope you find it useful and safe travels. Thank you for commenting.

  10. lara dunston

    I agree with Deb and Andy. I’m so over the whole tourist-traveller debate, for the reasons succinctly put by Deb above. Interestingly, I recently discovered old diary notes from way back in the mid 1990s when I was backpacking around South America for a year doing research for a masters degree, and I was pondering many of the same tourist vs traveller issues we see discussed time and time again on blogs these days. I think that thinking about what it means to be a traveller/tourist is just part of the ‘coming of age’ of travellers. By its very nature travelling causes us to reflect about things more widely and more deeply than we do when we’re busy ‘at home’, working, studying, or whatever. So it’s natural that we should be a bit self-reflexive and the first thing we would start to think more profoundly about is the very thing we *are* and the thing we are doing, i.e. travelling. The more we travel and the more we mature as travellers and people, especially in the way we think about travel, the less these ideas and debates are of interest, and the less we become concerned with ourselves and the more we start to think about others and the wider world around us.

    Iain, perhaps remind those two friends of yours that the language is called English, not American 😉

    1. Post

      I agree Lara it is an old debate but one which is likely to run on and on without ever being resolved because of course there is not a defintive answer. I guess that however we feel about it all of us sometimes feel a little smug when we meet up with somebody that is either slightly in awe of our experiences, is either a little less savvy than we are or acts inappropriately in a foreign culture. I have to admit to when wild camping and carrying everything on my back but staying overnight in a campsite for a shower and to purchase supplies feeling just a little superior I pack up and set off as everybody else is packing all their luxuries into their cars.

      I have tried that with the English to Lara one retort I got was yes but we have perfected it haha

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