Are you a tourist or a traveller? For me, it all boils down to one very important thing

Tourists and travellers. Is there really any difference? Does it really matter? Why do people care?

I don’t know why, but arguing the difference between tourists and travellers is something that happens more than you’d think when you’re backpacking and travelling.

Everyone’s got an opinion on this, and after years of travelling I thought I’d finally break my silence and wade into the debate.

Quoting Alex Garland, author of The Beach, he said:

I had ambiguous feelings about the difference between tourists and travellers – the problem being that the more I travelled, the smaller the differences became. But the one difference I could still latch on to was that tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else. They travelled.

That quote has always resonated within me, but the more and more I travel myself the more and more I believe it boils down to one fundamental difference; travellers care.

What is the difference between tourists and travellers?
What is the difference between tourists and travellers?

Travellers care more than you’ll ever realise

Travellers care about the culture and societies they are visiting; travellers care about the people they are meeting, both locals and foreigners alike; travellers care about the way they travel, they want to discover and explore. Travellers just care.Click To Tweet

A lot of people argue one of the main fundamental differences between tourists and travellers is education – that travellers use travelling as an educational experience, to learn about themselves as much as about their surroundings, whereas tourists use travelling as an escapism, a way to forget about themselves as much as the surroundings they’ve left behind.

The way I travel is I completely immerse myself in a country and a new culture. I make the effort to learn as much of the language as I can, I speak to the local people and ask about their background, the local history, the local politics. I try and leave as good of an impression of myself and the country I come from as possible while not being quick to judge theirs.

I do all of this not because I need to but because I want to, because I care.

It’s a pretty broad brush to tarnish all tourists with by saying they don’t care, but I just don’t think they do.

Travelling has this way of keeping you in a particular moment at a particular time

Is there really a difference between tourists and travellers though?

This isn’t some pretentious middle class debate, and this isn’t travel snobbery.

I, personally, do think there is a difference between travellers and tourists (unlike a lot of people out there).

Gary Arndt from Everything Everywhere, one of the biggest professional travel bloggers out there, once responded to the same question stating:

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.

This isn’t about feeling superior to anyone. I actually agree; travellers often get high and mighty about being a ‘traveller’, and to a degree this itself is anti-travelling.

However, if there is a difference between tourists and travellers, then it is down to personal perspective, what the individual thinks – obviously this is my opinion.

Travelling is a personal experience, so what other people do, what they see, where they go, it shouldn’t affect what you do or how you feel about travelling. So long as they care.

For me, it all boils down to one thing; travellers care

A life as a traveller

In my opinion, more often than not tourists are only ever interested in seeing a country’s sites and attractions as opposed to seeing the people within it, often just to say they’ve been to a particular place, and I think that’s sad, and at times completely contradictory to what tourism is supposed to do, what tourism is supposed to be about.

As I write this I have just come from the beautiful and historic town of Kotor on the coast of Montenegro.

The town is so small I feel I could give it a good go of kicking a rugby ball over its walls, yet every single day a new cruise ship moors up and thousands of passengers swarm within the walls, cluttering and clogging up the small side streets of Old Town.

At one restaurant I asked the waiter what he thought of the cruise ship passengers. He said: “They do nothing for the restaurant culture in Kotor. 99% of passengers have already eaten before they’ve left the ship, and they are all told to carry water with them, so they are not interested in restaurants. If anything, the large groups of them walking around Old Town put people off from dining outside.”

Walking around, you will see clusters of passengers all with a guide from the ship. They don’t use local transport, they don’t interact with the local people, and they rarely spend anything of notable worth; all in all, they just don’t care.

Kotor in the early morning and evening is a completely different place compared to the afternoon. Without the tourists, it is tranquil and charming. With them, it is something else entirely.

Cruise ships spew out pollution in the beautiful Bay of Kotor

The real impact of tourists

One night, after everything had closed down, including all the bars, I found a group of locals celebrating the opening of a new shop.

Confident on rakia, the local fiery spirit, I finally asked them what they all thought of the type of tourists Kotor attracted.

One guy, Nikola, said: “They do more harm than good, but it is not their fault, it is the local council’s for allowing them to come in the first place.

“10 years ago, we were all happy. Everyone stayed up late and interacted with each other; a part of that culture has died.

“The local council was only interested in making money, and then the cruise ships came.”

According to local fisherman, fish stocks and with it their way of life and earning a living are down 10 times than what they were just a few years ago.

Also, a particular type of fish has become so rare it is thought to be extinct. It doesn’t take much to deduce the correlation coinciding with the arrival of the cruise ships and the pollution they bring, both in the forms of human pollution and environmental pollution.

This is a problem for both tourists and travellers.

So what are you, a tourist or a traveller?

Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with is as travellers there is very little we can do about tourists.

I guess the only thing we can do is to keep on being ourselves, to keep on travelling, to keep on caring. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter…

What do you think are the differences between tourists and travellers? I would love to hear your opinion on the matter, and hear what you thought of mine, so make sure you let me know in the comments below.

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Alyse Theinvisibletourist
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Alyse Theinvisibletourist

I love the quote from Gary Arndt. If we venture outside of our hometown, we are essentially “tourists” at some point – whether we like to admit it or not! I always ask why are things “travellers” value automatically “better” than what “tourists” do? There are lots of overlaps and I believe we shouldn’t have to be defined as one or the other. Thanks for sharing your views on this topic!

SpainDriving
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SpainDriving

“There is no difference. It is a distinction used by pretentious people to make themselves feel superior to others.” I don’t think that tourist is something humiliating. It is just two different meanings of the describing of someone who is going to the different city, country, anywhere. You may feel the difference only in the comfort that someone has and another refuses.

Noel
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Noel

Kudos to a nicely written article. I agree with you that there are differences between travelers and tourists. But I don’t think that these differences are as clear cut, black and white. There are tourists who care, and travelers who don’t. There are many ‘travelers’ here in Southeast Asia who come to get drunk, and have ‘tourist’ mentality you’ve described. I’ve been traveling for over 10 years and lived in many countries; I enjoyed learning about new culture, picking up new languages, and growing with each experience. I don’t think I’m a tourist, but I’m not a traveler either, as ‘travel’ connotes a destination.

Rob
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Rob

Yes this is your opinion and of course your entitled to it, but Gary is right. Here is the problem; you say your are not pretentious but you certainly sound pretentious.

Definition:

To be pretentious is to make a claim or put on an act to:

A) Fit into a group.

B) Appear “better” than you are or than others.

So you are a “traveler” not a “tourist” and travelers “care” and tourists don’t. Kind of nails the definition, doesn’t it?

Paul (@luxury__travel)
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Paul (@luxury__travel)

I actually resonate more with Gary’s definition (sorry!). To say that travellers care implies that tourists don’t. Sure, some tourists don’t care, but there are many that do (and, I suspect, many travellers that don’t). A difference in care is not the distinction in my book, and I’m not really sure there is a major difference between tourists and travellers – it all just boils down to semantics IMHO.

Greg Goodman
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Greg Goodman

Having spent the past 9 years as both a tourist and traveler, I’ve found myself caught up in this debate more times than I can count. At this point, even the words in the argument have lost their meaning. A traveler is always a tourist; even if he/she becomes “localized.” A tourist is always a traveler, because the very act of not being at home means they’re traveling.

The issue, in my opinion, is trying to put word-based labels on a lifestyle choice; and getting offended when someone calls you the wrong one. The words have lost their meaning but the sentiment remains the same. Instead of arguing tourist vs traveler, we should all embrace whatever form of travel works for us. For many of those people on the tour ship, that’s the only way they will ever feel comfortable enough to see the world. And sure, they see a very limited, fake slice of it, but at least they got off their couches. (not that I’m defending cruise ships or their impact on local communities)

Anyway, now I’m rambling… maybe that means I should write my own article on the topic. Thanks for the inspiration, and thanks for making my brain work this morning 🙂

Abbi
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Abbi

Great post. I couldn’t agree more. For me, travelling is really about getting under the skin of a country, knowing its people, customs and culture. I’ve seen so many photos from other Travellers and they label a picture ‘a nice temple in …’ with little other info, like they don’t know what it means to be there.