Traveller vs. Tourist – Why We Should End the Debate

“I’m a traveller,” the man in his late 50’s with the well-worn backpack and superior air announced.  We were a group of strangers seated on the platform in Ljubljana, waiting for our train to Vienna.  “Not a tourist.”

“What’s the difference,” the couple beside me asked politely.

“Tourists just want to see the sights as quickly as possible.  Travellers want to immerse themselves in the countries and the cultures.”  You could hear the disdain in his voice.

I’ve encountered this arrogant attitude among some who travel extensively before.  I once had a man roll his eyes and call me a “tourist” with so much contempt he looked as if he’d just bit into a lemon.  Oddly, we were both walking Camino de Santiago at the time.

There are numerous articles debating the differences between tourist and traveller, often heavily biased in the belief that to be a traveller is somehow better.  Among many I’ve met, tourist is a derogatory term.  I personally think it’s time to end the debate . . . and the judgment.

It’s Based on Assumptions and Generalizations

A set of pictograms floating around the internet sets out the differences between travellers and tourists in very basic graphics.  Tourists prefer sites, hotels, restaurants and comfort.  Travellers are adventurous, independent, and seeking experience.  These generalizations assume a person can be classified into one or the other category based on their particular choice at a given moment.  The reality is most of us cross back and forth between these classifications when you consider a person’s entire travel experience.

We Are All Travellers

By definition alone, there is little difference between the two terms.  Whether there to see the sites or to immerse oneself in the culture, anyone who leaves the comfort of their home to visit a city or country different from their own is taking  a leap.  The simple act of choosing to explore a new destination and acting on it, however one does so, makes a person a traveller.

There is No One Right Way to Travel

Finances, physical ability, personal comfort level, family obligations, work responsibilities, and reason for travel all factor into how a person plans a given trip.  I’ve stayed at an all-inclusive in Mexico, backpacked through Europe, and road-tripped across Canada.  Whether a person stays in hotels or hostels, eats restaurant meals or street food, sees the sites or climbs the mountains, no one way is better than another.  They’re  just different.

How a person chooses to travel shouldn’t matter.  The fact that they do is what’s important.

Travel is Individual

While some may find pleasure off the beaten path, others find their inspiration in beautiful works of art, unique architecture, or culinary delights.  Some travel to churches, mosques, and temples to find spiritual enlightenment.  Others desire to wander the city streets that inspired great artists or pay their respects at monuments to those lost in war.

As individuals, our choices are uniquely personal and should be respected by other travellers.

Bad Behaviour Is Not Unique to “Tourists”

How a person behaves when they travel is more telling than the terminology used to describe their travel habits.  I’ve met self-described travellers with a passport full of stamps more interested in getting drunk than learning anything about the culture of the place they’re visiting.  I’ve also met so-called tourists who were invited to the hotel clerk’s home for a traditional family dinner.  Respect of culture and place is not the sole domain of a “traveller”.

To the Locals, We Are ALL Tourists

Locals do not differentiate between traveller and tourist.  To them, we are simply foreigners, visitors who will ultimately leave.  No matter how culturally sensitive or open-minded we may be, we still carry with us our own values, expectations and even biases.  As more people step off the beaten track, seeking unique experiences and new travel destinations, we need to be aware of the impact our presence has on those places.  We leave a footprint, and it’s not always a positive one.

When We Start Classifying, We Create Division

And don’t we have enough of that in this world already?

What are your thoughts?  Do you see a difference between travellers and tourists?  Let me know.


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