Traveler vs. Tourist: the Debate, the Difference, and Why it Doesn’t Really Matter

DSC00201At the moment, I am between travels so I thought I’d start off the New Year writing about my first big adventure abroad.  Just after graduation, I grabbed my 50L Osprey backpack, loaded it with the essentials and headed off to Europe for a five week backpacking trip.  Ideally, I would call this purely a traveler’s adventure but in truth, it was more likely that of a touristy traveler to start.  Fortunately for me, my touristy side quickly wore off upon learning a few things and getting into a traveling rhythm.

The distinction between “traveler” and “tourist” has been discussed through and through, but these terms are used so interchangeably that the difference may not be completely obvious at first.  The general consensus is that tourists are those privileged folk who board cruise ships, stay in fancy hotels, stick to their native language, and take all the pictures in the world on their vacation; travelers, on the other hand, board public transportation, stay in cramped hostels or camp out of backpacks, surround themselves with locals and see the world throughout their travels.


Took some pictures from a Swiss gondola, post-hike. Oddly enough, they didn’t turn out so well..

Though, when it comes down to it, anyone who ventures off to a foreign land (without plans of adopting citizenship) is a combination of both a traveler and a tourist.  Formally, a tourist “visits places away from home for pleasure,” and a traveler “constantly journeys from place to place.”  But what if you leave home and constantly journey from place to place for pleasure?  Would that make you a traveling tourist?  Or touring traveler?

I really couldn’t care less.  The mere fact that you are going out and exploring should be good enough in itself.

Unfortunately, as a species we are very skilled at comparing and grouping ourselves, (being ingrained to recognize patterns and detect subtle differences and what not).  But, lucky for us, that makes it easy to spot the tourists from the travelers!  If you really wanted to, you could probably tell just by looking.  One will be donning their best vacation clothes, checking off all the major attractions, and viewing every famous site through smart phones and camera lenses; the other will be hanging out, meeting people, learning the culture, and absorbing their surroundings with the help of minimal site visits and relatively less ridiculous picture-taking.

Underneath the obvious however, I think the real distinction between traveler and tourist lies in the reasons behind the journey.  To travel out of escape or vacation is to be a tourist; whereas to travel more out of curiosity and exploration is to be a traveler.  What’s most important is the difference in mindset between the two.  If you begin and end your trip without a change in mindset, you probably would not be considered a traveler.

Something happens in the spirit of the traveler that tourists struggle to grasp; perceptions, life ideals, tolerances and personalities all change in varying degrees.  It’s almost as if, from the traveler’s eye, the big picture can be seen, making things that were once of utmost importance now borderline trivial.

To the tourist’s credit, remaining near “touristy” parts of town only exposes them to famous historic sites, hagglers and the most stereotypical of souvenirs.  Without going further, this is all they can see, but alas these things do not “make” a city.  People and culture are what make a city, and any place really.

This is where the change in mindset occurs: when you realize that seeing that next great attraction doesn’t matter (no matter how much you want to check it off your list), but that what truly matters is cultural immersion and genuine attention.  Giving someone or someplace your genuine undivided attention is the simplest way to connect, and immersing yourself in a culture is the simplest way to learn about it.

At this point, it may sound as if I am glorifying the traveler but these characteristics are all determined by observation and experience.  It’s not fair to pin one group above or below another if they maintain different reasons for their journeys.  The idea is to simply go explore the world regardless of whether you unfold a neatly-packed button up Hawaiian shirt from your suitcase or grab the nearest clean t-shirt from the depths of your backpack.

So, whether you identify as a traveler or a tourist, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re actually getting out there.  But if you want the distinction, it all basically boils down to the reason you’ve deciding to get out there in the first place.  Just by answering the question “why do I want to travel?” you can label yourself right then and there (if you’re into that kind of thing).  Otherwise, just keep exploring and trekking on in whatever manner you please.

Happy travels and happy tours!


5 responses to “Traveler vs. Tourist: the Debate, the Difference, and Why it Doesn’t Really Matter

  1. Agreed! I think what really determines one being a traveler or a tourist is the eyes with which you see things; a traveler explores and goes off the places where culture is artificial or created for foreigners’ comfort while a tourist just stays there.

    But as you say, it doesn’t matter. Each person is free to choose the way they want to travel!


    • Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, there are definitely differences between the two but what really matters is getting out there in the first place and learning something new. Really though, how can you not learn at least something from traveling? (Or touring for that matter!)


  2. I guess the amount of time kinda dictates your travel. Like you, I was able to go on a 5-week cross country backpacking of the US but now after getting married and settling down, those sort of trips are hard to come by so I resort to 3 – 5 day trips of 1 – 2 places. At the end of the day, your real intention is the one defining factor on whether to see yourself a traveler or a tourist.


    • Couldn’t agree more. Even if there are time constraints, the reason behind your travels and the mindset you have or develop throughout your journey are really what it all comes down to 🙂


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