The comparison between travellers and tourists smacks of snobbery
“The Traveller sees what he sees; the Tourist sees what he has come to see” is one of the most tedious inspirational quotes.
Wannabe vagabonds come out with this adapted passage from G.K. Chesterton’s autobiography like a call to arms.
“Why would you want to be a mere tourist when you could join the ranks of the open-minded travellers instead?” they cry.
There is a danger that by pitting “tourist” against “traveller”, we arbitrarily place ourselves in the group we deem superior. This is just a lazy status grab.
There’s an unfair stigma surrounding the word “tourist”
The dictionary says that a tourist is “a person who visits a place for pleasure and interest, usually when on holiday.” Setting aside business travellers who are clearly a different category, you could argue that all leisure travellers are tourists by definition.
But try walking into a hostel and calling a bunch of backpackers “tourists”. Watch them squirm when you ask how they are enjoying their ‘holiday’.
Many people don’t consider themselves tourists, even if the dictionary does. For the self-styled traveller, “tourist” can be a dirty word with all sorts of negative connotations.
On my last trip to Portugal, I met Tom and Laura, a young British couple on a weeklong trip. Laura, a self-confessed world traveller, looked visibly embarrassed as her boyfriend left the hostel in baggy cargo shorts with a large camera around his neck.
“Tom, you’re such a tourist”, she scoffed.
To Laura, a tourist sticks out like a sore thumb. It is someone who observes the locals through a camera lens but does not interact with them.
But how should you dress and act to shed the “tourist” label? How can you reach the lofty status of “traveller”?
You can’t define “tourists” and “travellers” by their travel habits
WikiHow’s “How to Be a Traveller and Not a Tourist” lists all the ways tourists apparently get it wrong: not engaging with the local culture; not trying to speak the local language; not going off the beaten track; staying in less “authentic” accommodation; not dressing to blend in; and not being spontaneous enough.
In practice, deciding who is a tourist and who is a traveller based on these patterns of behaviour is impossible.
Most backpackers like to think of themselves as travellers rather than tourists.
But you will meet very few who whip out the phrasebook or make an effort to speak in another language.
You’ll meet just as many all-day drinkers wearing elephant pants as you will culture vultures dressing to blend in.
And even those who do visit the odd museum or chat to locals tend to stick to well-beaten paths like the Banana Pancake Trail – the tried and tested Southeast Asia backpacker route carved out by hippies in the 1970s.
So where do you draw the line between “traveller” and “tourist”?
Is someone who stays in a posh hotel but eats at “authentic” restaurants and chats to locals a tourist? Is someone who stays in hostels but eats comfort food and talks only to other foreigners a traveller?
There are clearly no real rules here. So there’s no good reason to be dismissive of tourists.
You can still call yourself a traveller without looking down on tourists
Back in 1936, when G.K. Chesterton published his autobiography, it was probably quite a bit easier to tell a traveller from a tourist (or “tripper”, as he actually calls them).
Without much commercial aviation, covering great distances was a real logistical challenge. The bar for standing out was lower, because clocking up a lot of miles and staying in far-flung cities was much harder.
Nowadays, travel bloggers like me will adopt names like “traveller”, “wanderer” or “nomad”. These words are still associated with experience, endurance and difficulty, even though being a nomad in 2020 usually just means sitting by tropical waters with your MacBook.
Of course, if bloggers do it for branding, there’s nothing wrong with backpackers who don’t really like foreign food or local history being “travellers” too.
The term on its own is harmless.
I picked The Sceptical Traveller because it sounds a lot better than The Sceptical Tourist, not because I have anything against sunburnt men wearing “I heart Barcelona” t-shirts.
The Sceptical Tourist just reminds me too much of Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad – the sort of person who prods foreign food suspiciously and doesn’t care too much for visiting a lot of unfamiliar places.
As amusing as the programme is, it’s not really the message I’m going for.
You should ignore the whole debate and travel as you please
When discussing authentic travel on this site, I took aim at people who complain about destinations being touristy despite being tourists themselves.
It’s the same instinct that drives some people to turn their noses up at tourists while insisting that they themselves are “travellers”.
Creating hierarchies is human nature. But we should be really wary of people who create a flimsy hierarchy where travellers sit at the top and tourists at the bottom.
If we reject the idea that tourists and travellers are somehow in opposition, we can enjoy our holidays to the fullest, feeling no guilt for our travel habits. Call yourself whatever you want – ‘traveller’ or ‘tourist’. There’s no real difference.
Are they travellers or tourists? Who cares.