Helen’s Travel Corner

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What’s the difference between a tourist and a traveler?

January 19th, 2009 · 7 Comments

I know this question has circulated among travelers in hostels all across the world.  I’m also sure it will continue too.  There’s something that drives us to define and separate real travelers from the wannabes.  To a certain degree, the word “tourist” has evolved into having a negative connotation in the travel community, to the point where it might even be offensive to some.  A backpacker might shudder at the thought of being called a tourist, only to inconspicuously use his or her Lonely Planet guide.  I know in my touristy hometown, if a car slowed down in the middle of the road, they were definitely tourists.

There’s a couple of ways out there to further divide hard-core travelers within the traveling community.  There’s the Travelers’ Century Club only for people who have been to over 100 countries.  There’s also the mosttraveledpeople.com which recognizes members who rank highest.  The site even further claims to have quantified the entire planet so that it is in fact a credible claim to be the most traveled person, even though Guinness World Book of Records no longer recognizes it.  If you don’t qualify for these, there are also applications for Facebook and blogs to show the world exactly where you’ve traveled, so to ensure some bragging rights.

For me, the difference between a traveler and the tourist is the mindset.  Whether you travel only one country, a hundred or, dare I say, never leave your country, you can be a traveler.  I consider myself a traveler but when I go to Miami in a couple of weeks, I will definitely be a tourist, with little care beyond my tan and what book to bring.  In The Art of Travel, Botton describes the traveling mindset as “Receptive, we approach new places with humility.  We carry no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting.”  I’d like to think it’s approaching all decisions, and being cliche, is about taking the road less traveled, whether literally or figuratively.

In 1992, Paul Theroux said “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” (discovered first at TravelBlissful).  What I think is amusing is how little things have changed in the history of travel as we know it.  I’ve been reading The Grand Tour: A History of the Golden Age of Travel and back in 1760 Samuel Johnson wrote:

The greater part of travelers tell nothing, because their method of traveling supplies them with nothing to be told.  He that enters a town at night and surveys it in the morning, and then hastens away to another place…may please himself for a time with a hasty change of scenes, and a confused remembrance of palaces and churches…but let him be contented to please himself without endeavoring to disturb others.

This immediately reminded me of travel plans that consist of ten cities in ten days.  But if that’s how you prefer to travel, cool.  Whatever rocks your boat.  For every person, there’s a different definition of who is a traveler.  In this travel corner, it’s all about attitude and not how many places you’ve been.

Tags: travel

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mike // Jan 20, 2009 at 7:51 am

    For me, a tourist is also an actual state… if you’ve got a camera around your next, are wearing a baseball hat in a country where they don’t play baseball, are shouting everything you say and fumbling with an oversized map. That’s a tourist…

  • 2 Erica // Jan 20, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    I agree that it’s about the mindset. I also think it depends on whether you immerse yourself in the local culture and make an effort to talk with locals, learn the language, etc. rather than just hurrying from sight to sight or lying on a beach all day.

    I feel I’m traveling even though I’m at home in Sweden, just in a different way.

  • 3 Barbara @ UpTake.com // Feb 5, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Having backpacked around the world for six months and traveled all my life, I have my own particular definition. I define travelers as people who are in search of an authentic experience. This does not necessarily mean travelers don’t visit the most famous tourist sites, only that they (we) look beyond them.

  • 4 The ExperienceLess Movement | Helen's Travel Corner // Jan 29, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    […] It’s a new spin on the old dialogue of authenticity and travel (eh hem, my own post on the difference of a traveler and tourist can be read […]

  • 5 What does real travelling mean to you? – trourist // Feb 24, 2010 at 6:12 am

    […] “For me, the difference between a traveler and the tourist is the mindset. I consider myself a traveler but when I go to Miami in a couple of weeks, I will definitely be a tourist, with little care beyond my tan and what book to bring“. Written by Helen Todd at her blog. […]

  • 6 coachhire // Oct 11, 2010 at 1:18 am

    Tourist, traveler, visitor, explorer, they’re all only labels with definitions that can interpreted many different ways which all intersect at some point.

    It’s easy to conjure images of the tourist as being herded like sheep and not taking an active part in shaping their travel experience. It might not be how I would like to experience my journey, but it’s just that, a choice.

    Many travelers “tourist” at some point on their journey. Even the most down-and-out backpacker has gazed at some famous monument or building if only from a distance or casually hung at the back of a tour group to catch what the guide was saying.

  • 7 okuneye // Jan 19, 2012 at 5:58 pm

    distinguish between a tourist, traveler, visitor and excursionist

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