Is this distinction more than cosmetic? For many people, travel is a time to celebrate an unemployed lifestyle, to sleep in dormitory accommodation, get on the booze, and copulate with whomever.
If they tried this lifestyle at home, the Salvation Army would soon be involved. But if you put a few thousand clicks between your upbringing and your actions it becomes an exercise in cultural appreciation, an important rite of passage and a period of ‘finding yourself’.
You might find yourself in a hostel crammed with puking Contiki kids. You might find yourself covered in bed bug bites, you might even find yourself incarcerated in Belorussia. But will you really find yourself?
The tourist is sure they are having a better time than the traveller. They know this because they’re experiencing foreign culture with all the comfort of home. The traveller thinks s/he is having a better time than the tourist, because you can’t experience foreign culture with all the comfort of home. But the traveller is also sure they are on the path to self-improvement.
The tourist’s self-help book on their path to enlightenment is the Lonely Planet.
If you go to Kuala Lumpur, the Lonely Planet suggests seeing the Petronas towers. If you go to New York City, the LP suggests the Empire State Building. If you’re in Agra, it suggests the Taj Mahal.
Is looking at, and going inside big buildings really the path to enlightenment? So easy! The traveller is deluding himself he thinks that the lonely planet trail is any less well-worn than the tourist trail.
Or does the traveller get a deeper cultural experience? Do they hang out with the locals? In my experience, lots of people spend lots of time watching DVDs in the hostel. They may flirt with the waitress, but so does the tourist.
Googling ‘waitress+tourist’ led me to: Paul at the Coyote Margarita restaurant, in Bangkok (!)
And even if the traveller is exposed to more local faces, does cultural interaction change you? Do you remain a better person for your whole life if you chat with a few chicken farmers on a bus in Bolivia? If you go and have a meal at the home of the guy selling postcards outside Angkor Wat, will you be a better friend, father, or accountant?
And does it stay with you? Do you need to exchange emails for a month later, letters for years thereafter, homestays for decades hence? How does this mysterious process work?
Is there perhaps an Outward Bound aspect to the travelling experience? Something about independent survivial outside of your element? A culturing of one’s internal rugged individualist. Maybe there’s something to be said for adversity. Perhaps Zimbabwe or rural Pakistan. You don’t see Contiki tours there.