Traveller v Tourist … Round 1 … Fight.

A Tourist

A Traveller.

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.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

4 thoughts on “Traveller v Tourist … Round 1 … Fight.”

  1. I am currently a tourist.

    I am in California driving a white Ford Mustang up highway 1 to San Francisco. I am immensely enjoying being a tourist. I’ve been staying in modest hotels rather than hostels this time. It’s fine but you do miss the random hook-up’s with other travellers but that really doesn’t make-or-break my trip. I just like being a wanderer.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with whether you’re a tourist or traveller. I also think that you can’t really be a traveller without being a bit of a tourist and vice versa. So, it’s really about where you go. If you go to India or the likes you’re going to have a memorable trip full of enriching experiences, some places are more ‘normal’ (=dull)

    Incidentally, have you ever tried going FULL tourist in your home town? I find that I have a wonderful time and learn so much about the place I live. Proves to me that being a tourist isn’t all that bad.


  2. Your last paragraph captured me. The first time i set off on a trip on my own, rather than on a family holiday, a big part of it was about was standing on my own two feet and experiencing the world without any expectations from others about who you are supposed to be. It was about independence. You find out a lot about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of person you are when you aren’t constantly having an existing version of yourself reflected back at you by the way your friends, family and everyday acquaintances interact with you.

    This doesn’t really relate to travel so much as getting away from that which is familiar to you. For some this might just involve moving out of home or might happen if they go away to university.

    Beyond that travel/tourism can be about a whole bunch of different things including just having fun, or having an educational quality (like reading a book or visiting a museum, visiting a great piece of architecture or a natural wonder can leave you asking questions and expanding your horizons). The uniting theme for me though is a desire to behave differently and think differently than I would in everyday circumstances.


  3. For me, this was an interesting post since I’m “travelling” right now. Yessir, this comment is coming to you from a genuine hostel dining room table.

    Maybe I’m just getting old (or not doing it right), but I agree with you about the hostel thing… a lot of the time it seems to be people sitting around watching DVDs, or getting smashed every night, and my god… “facebooking”. I have never seen so many people do so much “facebooking”. That said, a cheap bed is a cheap bed.

    There’s also something the commenter above alluded to, and for me it’s key, namely the “pace” of a trip. Maybe it’s not always the case, but I associate the pure “tourist” trip as rushing around from landmark to landmark, and while that can be rewarding, especially if the landmarks are amazing and filled with history you’d never otherwise encounter, it also doesn’t give you much time to yourself. Travelling (or my definition of it) does I think, and for me it’s a big part of being able to step back at a point in your life and reflect.

    You also were spot on regarding a big part of modern travel – the competition, a.k.a “you’re doing it wrong”. For the tourist, it’s “I saw x,y,z,a,b,c,d…. oh, you didn’t get to see z? oh what a shame, it was my favourite” and for the traveler, “what, you drank bottled water? I filled my drink bottle from a open sewer before getting a lift in a car driven by a blindfolded monkey.”

    PS I’m not going to lie, I stumbled across this getting the link for the “8 things I don’t miss …” post for a friend :) but I’m glad I did!


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