Is there really a difference between a tourist and a traveller?

I recently saw a quote on twitter by one of the many travel bloggers on my follow list which read “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”. It was a quote by Paul Theroux, and I must say, possibly the most pretentious quote I’ve ever read! It annoyed me so much that I felt I needed to write about it, and open up this debate once again about the differences between a tourist and a traveller, and whether a) one is really better than the other, and b) whether there is actually any difference?

First things first, to say that a traveller is in some way better than a tourist, or even different from a tourist is just factually incorrect. If you look at the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a tourist, it simply defines the word tourist as “a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure”. I don’t know about you, but every “traveller” I have ever met on my travels has been travelling or visiting a place for pleasure. They certainly aren’t travelling for displeasure! This notion that there is a difference between a tourist and a traveller is just silly. We are all tourists. The only difference is the style in which we travel, and for how long we travel for. Just because someone decides to take a 2 week holiday to Paris while you spend 3 months working on a farm or travelling somewhere less popular with international visitors, it doesn’t make you any better then they are, and doesn’t mean they haven’t grasped where they have been or experienced a taste of the local culture. They just had less time to travel (usually because of work or family commitments), and may have different personal tastes to you in terms of what or where they enjoy going. To suggest a tourist doesn’t know where they’ve been is an ignorant statement, and also makes a generalisation based on stereotypes of a what a tourist actually is.

Even looking at the differences in how we travel compared to a typical holidaymaker, which I guess is where the stereotype of a tourist comes from, can anyone really say that they have never done something “touristy” while on their travels? Whether it was checking out the Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, or Times Square. Can you honestly say you have never done one touristy thing on your travels at somepoint?

The important thing for me personally is to find balance. Yes, there are always areas of certain destinations which are known as “tourist zones”. The key thing to remember is that regardless of how many “off the beaten track” places you travel too, or how many locals you hang out with, unless you actually get a flat, job, learn the language, and stop travelling, then you are not a local and never will be. You are a tourist like anyone else. Also, sometimes places are popular for a reason. Just because something is a tourist attraction doesn’t make it bad. I’ve always been of the opinion that if you want to get a taste of what a country is really like, then you have to experience a variety of sides to it. This includes both the popular tourist type destinations, and also those areas less frequented by international visitors.

Maybe I’m being a little tetchy here, and jumping at what some people may say is just a nice quote, but I hate when travellers (for want of a better phrase) get their head stuck up their own arse! There is no place for pretense or snobbery in travel. That’s not what it’s about. As people we are all different. We all have different tastes, opinions, ideas, and things we like and dislike. That doesn’t make us any better or worse than one another… just different. This illusion that people who travel long term, or get “off the beaten track” are somehow better than those who don’t is just people deluding themselves into thinking they’re somehow better or know more than someone else. It just annoys me, and it ruins the spirit of what travel was supposed to be.

Rant over.

17 Responses to “Is there really a difference between a tourist and a traveller?”

  1. Ren says:

    There is definitely some snobbery with the label “traveler.” I suppose on one hand, some want to distance themselves from the package tourist, or the stereotypical seen-through-a-camera tourist. That’s understandable, I guess. But people do have to understand that different people do have different travel style, or reasons for travel, or interests, or even time. Not everyone is cut out to go “off the beaten path” or go exploring on their own, just as not everyone is into big tour groups, or even cruises.

    Also: “The key thing to remember is that regardless of how many “off the beaten track” places you travel too, or how many locals you hang out with, unless you actually get a flat, job, learn the language, and stop travelling, then you are not a local and never will be. You are a tourist like anyone else.” That’s my favorite part.

  2. Andy Jarosz says:

    Well written Jane, and I applaud you especially for calling out that vacuous Paul Theroux quote. It is, as you say, pretentious nonsense. We’re all tourists and to label others as ‘not knowing where they’ve been’ is a ridiculous generalisation.

  3. John says:

    Great insights Jane.
    Now where did I go last night? I have the hangover. It must have been good.

  4. Melissa says:

    I do agree with your opinion about this particular quote, partly at least…. I understand the intention behind it. It is pretentious and a bit scathing. It implies that travelers are more adventurous, that they are better or somehow less foreign than a tourist. I think that traveling, no matter what, is an adventure.
    But I do partly disagree and here it is- I think there is a huge difference when traveling for pleasure and traveling for survival. I have done a lot of traveling. All over the world, I have been a tourist in many places. I went on vacation to Mexico once. Spent 3 months in south Mexico, as a tourist, traveler, whatever. Then it came time to leave and head back to Seattle so I could make it to my seasonal job in Alaska. On that trip I was robbed and had to hitchhike from south Texas to Seattle. I no longer felt like a tourist. The travel was no longer pleasure. I had no money and no one to call for help and I was on a desperate mission to get from one place to another while surviving. Sure, it was still an adventure. But during the 2,000 plus miles of sticking my thumb out and praying that I would not get picked up by a psycho, I would not call myself a tourist.

  5. Initially, I thought you were referring to another quote I responded to on Twitter yesterday. But, no.. It was actually Mason Cooley: “Travelers never think they’re foreigners.” I didn’t agree with it so much as I RT ‘d, asking if some people believe it. The Cooley quote relates to this beautifully. Some travelers go so long they lose a sense of reality. I recently met someone who suffers from the opposite, forgetting they are actually in a foreign country and it’s not like back home, Dorothy. What to do? Like you wrote: balance. People need grounding PERIOD. Traveler or not.

    Superiority or assholedom is ridiculous in travel. Isn’t the point of visiting places to engage in a whole new culture? That takes being openminded! Duh!

    I think my rant’s over. 🙂

  6. Dan says:

    There are definitely differences in the way people travel, defining it though is nigh impossible and you just end up with semantics or sounding pretentious. Then there is this political correctness that eeks in, what is exactly is wrong with one style being better than another? Yes it’s relative anyone with just a few brain sells can put that together and that means no, we’re not just like everyone else regardless of your preferred style. If there is one thing worse than the traveller vs tourist debate it’s the lubby dubby, “we’re all tourists when it comes down to it” answer.

    The other thing is that I hate about quotes is that it seems if you stick a name and date next to a quoted sentence people don’t question if it is true, wtf happened to independent thinking?

  7. Liz Hamill says:

    “The key thing to remember is that regardless of how many “off the beaten track” places you travel too, or how many locals you hang out with, unless you actually get a flat, job, learn the language, and stop travelling, then you are not a local and never will be.”

    This. Exactly, precisely this. I’ve started calling myself a tourist rather than a traveler because I’ve come to find “traveler” culture so intensely irritating. Like about 200,000,000 other folks, I’m not physically able to haul a backpack across multiple continents. Because I really need my medical insurance, I can’t spend every dime on hostels and train tickets. And yet I have the gall to believe that I’m just as inherently valuable a human being as Paul Theroux, Jack Kerouac, and the other whiny overprivileged white men who look down their noses at the “tourists.”

    Okay, taking a breath and chilling out now. Great blog, btw! I’m glad I found you.

  8. Joseph Obdami says:

    Oh BS! There is a HUGE difference between travelers and tourists. Travelers are adventurers. Tourists are shoppers. Travelers seek to become more knowledgeable about the planet they inhabit. Tourists seek out shiny trinkets. Travelers are interested in other cultures and ways of living. Tourists are interested in shiny trinkets. Travelers revel in the unanticipated experiences just around the next corner or border. Tourists revel in shiny trinkets. Travelers have great stories to share about interesting places and interesting people and the resulting interesting experiences. Tourists show off their shiny trinkets.

  9. Catherine says:

    Completely agrees with Joseph Obdami. And they are many other differences such as tourists expecting everybody to speak English or other “superior” language when in a foreign country, can’t learn a few words and look down upon those poor souls who dont have an iPhone. And many, many others that make the whole difference between a traveler and a tourist.
    So, as Joseph says: oh BS!

  10. Marky says:

    As much as possible I try to travel without borders…and I might as well travel without “labels”.

    Less, we end up manufacturing our travel experiences by being conscious about “labels” and trying hard to imitate the Anthony Bourdains of the world. I’ve seen “travelers” trying hard to get wasted at Khao San Road, just so they can brag at home that they “drank like crazy” and didn’t behaved like “tourists”.

    Just enjoy traveling without having to mind being labeled by anything. 🙂

  11. roseheather says:

    There is a difference between a traveler and a tourist. I say travelers do enjoy the travel itself and doesn’t care less about the destination as long as the journey itself proves to be worthwhile and adventurous. Tourists do plan even the most tiny bit of details, everything nice and neat, no hassles and intent on arriving on their destination,expecting to languish in a nice, luxurious hotel. Having a travel and tours business made me distinguish the difference between the two.

  12. Eli says:

    My main thought is that the differences fall down to expierince. Travelers have done it before tourists have not. Tourists are the people who crowd the gate as soon as boarding is called even though their seat is assigned and their in the last group. They’re the type of people who go through the security scanners four times because they can’t follow instructions. They’re the type of people who expect everyone on earth to speak English. They make themselves look bad and inconvience the people around them by not doing their due diligence.

  13. Mike Pennington says:

    I think you’ve missed the point. Not everyone is a tourist or a traveller. Most of us are in between. There are tourists who couldn’t tell you which country their sanitised beach resort is in, or who do the ‘if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium’ tours. There are travellers who arrive in a country with not a clue as to how long they’re going to be there, and a only an inkling of where they’ll. Then there are those of us who know exactly what we want to do and plan an itinerary. And every shade in between. I like the quote. It says a lot about travel. But just don’t assume that everyone is one or ther other.

  14. Mutlu says:

    Jane, spot on. I really hate when people call themselves travellers. it all depends on the location I visit. If it is a small Carribean island then I am a tourist sipping my rum punch on the beach. I am a traveller if i am in Greenland exploring the island my back bag. Travellers need to understand that we all have the same entry stamps and for the locals point of view, we all are a tourist in their country.

  15. Lani says:

    A tourist is an inexperienced traveller. A traveller is an experienced tourist. Heard this quote somewhere from someone…thought it was perfect!

    Look at th term “tourist visa”. Sometimes called “visitor visa” depending on destinaton and/or purpose. I don’t think it’s called a “traveller visa”.

    Different people have different styles of travel. Plain amd simple.
    Let’s not get caught up with labels and just enjoy whatever it is we are doing where ever we are.

  16. I love what Joseph Obdomi said.
    I have been both a tourist and a traveler. To me, if you are in a foreign country, yet are surrounded by fellow tourists, then you are a tourist too. But if you are surrounded by locals, then you are a traveler.


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