Why I Think the Traveler vs. Tourist Discussion is Pointless

If you’ve been engaged in the online travel space, you’ll likely quickly come across the big discussion. One might even say the grand debate.

Traveler vs. Tourist. Go ahead. Type that into a search engine. Google gave me over 100 million results.

Many of those hits will say some version of the same thing. Tourists are short-term, highlight-hopping, resort-staying folk. Often with negative connotations attached by those who consider themselves travelers. Travelers are often long-term, slow-paced, low-budget, “off-the-beaten-path” folk.

I find the distinction to be nonsense.

If you are in a place and culture that is not your own, you will be a tourist. If you are traveling and you see any hot popular site, you are a tourist. There is a reason some popular sites are popular, and any traveler would be silly to not go to Angkor Wat just because that’s what everybody does when they visit Cambodia.

Usually, when this is brought up it seems as though folks are trying to make a distinction between vacationers that pay for more luxury experiences and for the most part wall themselves off from where they are, and those that choose to -- or have to -- take more budget-friendly options like hostels and work aways.

Even if you are on the more budget-friendly route, I BET you’re still a “tourist” in many ways. Are you benefiting from the tourism industry? Staying in lodging short term? Taking buses and planes? Opting for any tours and scuba classes or the “must see/do” thing? Take a selfie with the Eiffel Tower? Congratulations. You are a tourist.

I am not in the least bit ashamed of this super “touristy” photo. I SAW THE EIFFEL TOWER DANGIT.

Even if you are a family of four taking a 2-week vacation to an all-inclusive resort, I BET you’re still a “traveler” in many ways. Are you learning a bit of the local language? Are you passionate about getting really unique photos of your destination? Are you stepping even a toe outside of your comfort zone? Congratulations. You are a traveler.

Does this backpack make me look like a “traveler”?

Does this backpack make me look like a “traveler”?

Just because you spend less money and more time, doesn’t mean you aren’t still a visitor. It’s important to keep that in mind. We are all tourists when we travel. Travelers when we tour. We are guests in spaces that are not our own. Trying to pretend that we are somehow more “authentic” in any way just seems ridiculous. There will always be a smidgen of impenetrable distance between the observed and the observer.

That’s okay. In many ways, that is the entire point. To see how close we can come to bridging cultural gaps while knowing we can never be 100% successful. That is a worthy endeavor that should be available to anyone who wants to do so respectfully.

Ditch the pointless labels. They’re not serving anyone. Especially yourself.

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