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The Traveller vs Tourist Debate – Which One Are You and Does It Matter?

man looks over cloudy forest with title text overlay

Am I a bad travel blogger for not visiting certain destinations? Should I be calling myself a tourist blogger instead? In this post I want to dive into the traveller vs tourist debate, and figure out what, if anything, counts as “real” travel.

There seem to be infinite terms for people exploring the world. A simple look at travel blogger niches is a good place to start. We have the backpacker, the flashpacker, the budget traveller, the luxury traveller, the budget luxury traveller… The list goes on!

One thing all travel bloggers do have in common though, is the use of “traveller” to describe oneself. I’ve not come across many blogs that proclaims themselves a tourist niche (the exception being the Invisible Tourist – more on them later). Why is that? Is there a negative connotation associated with the term tourist? Or is it that traveller just sounds better?! Let’s break down the traveller vs tourist debate.

I recently wrote a post looking at travel snobs and how respecting one another’s travel decisions is important. I thought I’d take the conversation one step further and dive into the “traveller vs tourist” debate to show that judging others is redundant when we’re all aiming for the same thing: seeing the world.

The Fraudulent Travel Blogger

This idea all started when I felt like a bad travel blogger. Not because my content schedule has more ups and downs than a yoyo, but because my chosen destinations aren’t as exotic, unusual, or exciting as some other’s. In hindsight, this is pretty silly. But nonetheless, it got me thinking I should take myself off to far-flung and unheard of places. I wanted to be someone being seen to do cool things, and somehow I felt that made my travel blogging a failure.

My insecurities as a travel blogger aside, what’s mad, is that my most-visited place is New Zealand. Literally the most distant place from the UK as you can get. Why was I feeling like a fraud when I got to explore more of such an incredible country that so many dream of visiting?!

I started to think maybe the problem is a “grass is greener” effect. Of course I’m incredibly grateful to visit New Zealand and love being there more than anything. Do I feel like I’m not travelling as much because I see people going to places I’m eager to visit? Probably. But on that logic, other bloggers would be feeling the same towards me. I had to dig a bit deeper to figure out what the real problem is.

Cloudy mountain view with lake in front

Fomo Is The Enemy

And then it struck me, I’ve got FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out is a common problem for travel lovers. Seeing idyllic nature and vibrant cities on all sorts of platforms at every moment of the day causes FOMO even for the most self-assured travel lover. The constant reminder that everyone appears to be somewhere far more interesting than you instills a sense that they’ve got it better. While that’s not necessarily the case, it can certainly feel that way. We’ve got Instagram to blame for that, which is one of the many problems with travel blogging. Ugh social pressure, amirite?

Heck, I’ve even experienced FOMO when I’m travelling myself! Talking to and meeting other travellers on the move while abroad makes me itch for their stories. I want to hear where they’ve been and where they’re going next. At least when I’m travelling I can recount my own stories too, you don’t come across such situations as much when you’re at home. It’s way harder to meet other travellers in between daily life!

So as I was working hard and saving money (for more travel, duh) I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy seeing my fellow travel bloggers off around the world. They were truly living their best traveller life. My comparatively meek weekend staycations and mini-breaks felt so inferior! I felt like I was simply being a tourist, ticking sights off a list from places I wanted to see, but not as much as I wanted to be somewhere else, immersing myself in new cultures. It sounds so crazy and entitled, I know.

Man hikes across icy bridge in mountains

A Change of Heart

How wrong to feel like I was missing out when I was enjoying such great experiences the whole time! I realised it wasn’t the places that were making me feel this way, it was myself. My attitude stank. I was seeing myself as only a tourist. And even if that’s what I was, what’s wrong with that? Nada, is what.

Once I realised my error, I started to  make a change. Just because I’m not in places I wish to be yet doesn’t make me any less of a traveller, just a different kind of one (for now!).

Man overlooks forest and cloudy mountains

Travel is in the blood, it’s not something that goes away.

“You can shake the sand from your shoes, but it will never leave your soul.”

For me, that means that being a tourist or a traveller is circumstantial. I will always be a travel-lover in my heart: looking for the next destination to teach me something new. Whereas I will be a tourist momentarily, experiencing new places in the here and now, when it arises.

All of this self-realisation has led me to be more content. Being in the moment, grateful for the present and past experiences.

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

I won’t lie, I do still think how nice it would be to go somewhere completely different. Get stuck into new experiences and unfamiliar cultures. Ahh doesn’t it sound exciting? I’m trying to remind myself I feel that way because I love travel, not because I’ve got anything to prove. And my turn will come, I need to be patient and make the choices that shape the journey myself.

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”

– Pat Conroy

Traveller looking into distance sitting on boat

So What IS The Difference Between Traveller vs Tourist?

Back to the point in question. So now I decided I can be whatever I damn-well please, I was thinking about what everyone else calls themselves and why. A good place to start in the traveller vs tourist debate is their actual definitions. Let’s see if this helps settle things!

A traveller is defined as the following:

Noun: A person who is travelling or who often travels.

A tourist, on the other hand, is defined by:

Noun: A person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.

See the difference? 

At first glance the definitions got me stumped. They seem so similar! On a closer inspection, I noticed a key phrase in the tourist definition.

for pleasure.

Ah. A traveller doesn’t have to be travelling for pleasure, then? Maybe that’s true. Travelling can be hard work. I associate travelling with a broader spectrum of activities, of which tourism is just one.

Travel can be:

  • planned
  • spontaneous
  • long term
  • short term
  • for business
  • for pleasure
  • a lifestyle
  • practical
  • a necessity

But tourism is something that falls under the travel category. Does this help narrow it down? Let’s see what real people and not the Google dictionary are saying.

What are the quotes saying about tourists?

“Anyone who needs more than one suitcase is a tourist, not a traveler”

– Ira Levin

Bit harsh.

“To the tourist, travel is a means to an end; to the traveler, it’s an end in itself.”

– Marty Rubin

That’s getting better, but still makes it sound so drab to be a tourist. This hardly seems fair at all, so let’s find someone championing the tourists.

Travel quote poster and fairy lights

Let’s Ask A Tourist Their Thoughts

One strong argument FOR labelling yourself a tourist is noted by the Invisible Tourist. Alyse, the blog’s writer, says that the travellers of the world are becoming rather snobbish. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote a whole post about travel snobs. Have a read if you want to avoid becoming one!

As we can see above, all the quotes I could find about tourists are definitely on the higher end of the snobbish scale. Why the judgement when there are flaws with “travellers” too?

The point here is that if we’re giving tourists a bad rep, then being a traveller isn’t always much better. Looking at the negative connotations of a traveller certainly highlight an element of superiority associated with that label.

Jules from Jules Told Me agrees.

“Thinking of yourself as a tourist keeps you grounded. It reminds you that not everyone has this opportunity, not least half the people in half the countries you visit.”

He argues that everyone is at some point a tourist, whether your trip is long term or short term, and in whatever form it takes. Better yet, being a tourist was even once a celebrated thing. Seeing the famous sites of Europe in the 18th Century was by no means a holiday, it was a privileged experience of adventure. The term traveller was better suited to those on the road by necessity through their unfortunate classist work, most likely. Not exactly the way we see it nowadays, is it?

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Back to the modern day. Calling oneself a tourist rather than a traveller has the benefits of both worlds. The chance to enjoy some luxury from time to time, while also being flexible to have local and authentic experiences. It’s the term that suits those who like ticking the popular sights off their lists, while also having the chance to explore the hidden gems off the usual tourist trail.

So, the important thing to remember about being a tourist is that it’s not all socks and sandals, guides hoards, and generic tat. Tourists can have personalised trips too, and give back to the locals whose home they visit. What a misconception we have made about tourists!

As the Invisible Tourist notes, the key term here is invisible – respecting and blending into local life. Clearly, being a tourist OR a traveller isn’t a true fit when there is so many overlapping traits between them.

Furthermore, giving yourself a definition in the first place can be restrictive. If you’re exclusively a traveller avoiding the cliche or popular spots, then you’re hella missing out! The touristy areas are so for a reason, they’re often impressive to see and important to experience.

“The trick to travel is to ignore the definitions you once gave yourself”

It seems we’re reaching the conclusion that labels are silly. And I’m inclined to agree.

Traveller watching sunset over river and mountains

So… Are You A Traveller or Tourist?

Sometimes both, sometimes neither. My theory now, is that it all comes down to simple necessary and sufficient conditions.

If you’re a tourist, you’re also a traveller. But if you’re a traveller, you’re not necessarily a tourist.

Plus alllll the other labels, definitions, synonyms, and terms we can fit in between.

It seems I’m not the only one who thinks you can be both at the same time. I came across a recent post on Twitter by Nomads With A Purpose, who posed the question:

Do you call yourself a traveller, backpacker, or tourist?”

The question got several responses from my fellow travel blogging community members.

An Orcadian Abroad, Cassie the Hag, Dave Does The Travel Thing and others said they’d call themselves all 3. That seemed to be the favoured answer.

Caroline from Pack The Suitcases said:

“Just a person on holiday. I couldn’t go near a backpack, ‘traveller’ indicates long-term, and tourist would be technically correct but has too many negative connotations!”

This opens the door to the debate in question, and a later comment from Van Life Diary expands the options to include “nomad” too.

What this thread seems to highlight is that it can be a sensitive topic at times. For example, the label of “traveller” could be misinterpreted to indicate the ethnic group of travellers/gypsies. While the context of the term’s usage would make such an error unlikely, it’s an interesting addition to the mix of ways to describe oneself.

So have I cracked it? Can you now define yourself as a traveller vs tourist? Sadly not, I think. The diverse vocabulary and rich synonymous nature of the English language exacerbates the dilemma with endless options. And as we saw earlier, a myriad of opinions doesn’t matter as long as you’re travelling the world the way you find most valuable.

Does it matter if you’re a traveller or a tourist?

Nah. It doesn’t matter. My personal crisis around being a failed travel blogger isn’t reflective of anyone being a traveller or a tourist, you can self-assign whatever label you wish. Or none at all! The more I dug into the traveller vs tourist debate, the less clarity I found. I won’t be calling myself anything but Suzy for now!

I think we can all agree that regardless of terminology, we have one common goal: to see the world, experience cultures, and create memories from enriching experiences.

 

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    ellieslondon
    09/03/2019 at 5:57 pm

    This post! ? I love it. I try really hard to not compare myself and where I decide to go, to other people. I try to remind myself that there will always be other people who would love to be going where I am going so not to bring it down! It’s weird, because I love to travel, but would never refer to myself as a ‘traveller’, which seems crazy, but in my own mind a ‘traveller’ is a backpacker or someone who is travelling long term < again, this may sound crazy! Going off of these definitions, I would say I'm a tourist because I get a lot of pleasure from travelling, but then again in my head I picture a 'tourist' standing in the middle of somewhere busy, looking upwards, taking pictures < again, TERRIBLE! I think there is a lot of overlap – I think we can be touristy travellers and travelling tourists as well, and I think I'm a bit of the prior!

    • Reply
      suzystories
      09/04/2019 at 8:26 am

      Ahhh thank you so much Ellie! Yes I totally know what you mean, we all have an idea of both in our heads and I don’t think I fit one definition much either! As long as we keep doing what we love and letting others do their thing I think we’ll be ok 😉

  • Reply
    Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    09/04/2019 at 9:45 pm

    I LOVE this post, Suzy! You’re spot on with everything. Traveller can mean so many different things, and while I consider myself a “traveller”, I can’t exactly deny that I’m a tourist when I’m exploring a new city or country – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that’s the big problem here. Like Caroline said, a tourist is technically correct, but has too many negative connotations?? That just shouldn’t be the case!

    That said, I DO think there’s a big difference which I’ve noticed more starkly since settling back into UK life. Most people at work have been on holiday this year, but I don’t think any of them consider themselves “travellers”. If you go to Amsterdam for a weekend, you’re probably a tourist. If you go to an all-inclusive resort in Tenerife and never leave it, how can that be called travelling? But if you’re going out and actively exploring the place you’re visiting, then you can definitely be either! I think when it comes down to it, it’s not how you define yourself, it’s what you’re looking for when you travel (and the age old “travellers blend in, tourists stick out” argument is kinda true!). And, the most important point, there shouldn’t really be anything wrong with that.

    • Reply
      suzystories
      09/06/2019 at 10:34 am

      This is so well put! I completely agree 🙂 Such an interesting observations about holidays abroad, and indeed I would probably put that in the tourist category too (in fact I’m writing a new post on a closely related topic!). It’s a real shame tourist seems to have negative associations, I’m sure its a stereotype that’s been nurtured by bad behaviour over time, but I hope that will change 🙂

      • Reply
        Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
        09/10/2019 at 7:54 pm

        Haha yes, if someone’s being an idiot, it’s easy to say “bloody tourists” whereas you expect “travellers” to be more respectful. Which is totally not the case for either side! But I do think it’s built that stereotype.

        • Reply
          suzystories
          09/11/2019 at 4:11 am

          Yes absolutely!

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