Traveller – or tourist? Which are you? And why it matters

Traveller (noun) – a person who is travelling or who often travels.

When I’m away somewhere, travelling – for the want of a better word – I’ve had many conversations with strangers with improbably large rucksacks that go a bit like this.

Stranger with Improbably Large Rucksack: How long have you been travelling?

Me: [looking at train we’re on and then at watch]: About two hours.

SILR: No, I mean how long are you away for?

Me: Two weeks.

SILR: Oh, a holiday.

Me: And you’re not…?

SILR: Oh no, I’m travelling.

It’s not just the length of time they’re away that they are talking about. It’s an attitude. And we all know what they mean – just take a look at their Twitter feeds, these travellers, nomads, backpackers, wanderlusters, roamers and adventurers.

You go on holiday. They are experiencing real life. You’re a tourist. They’re a traveller. The implication being that the first is a terrible thing to be – the resorts, my dears, the noise, the people! – and the second a much more noble enterprise. As if a wage slave’s city break or week on the Algarve is somehow less valuable an experience than travelling overland to Istanbul, trekking in Morocco or blogging from a Vietnamese beach. ‘Travellers’ have ‘authentic’ experiences, they get ‘off the beaten track’, and they are absolutely, definitely not on holiday – heavens, no – but seeing the ‘real’ country instead.

Digital nomad? Where’s your camel?

To be honest, I don’t really mind what people call themselves if it makes them happy. Well actually, there’s one I do mind – if you’re going to call yourself a ‘digital nomad’, I want to see you with a camel as well as a laptop.

If you are an actual explorer – a hammock-in-the-jungle kinda guy, a tent-in-the-desert gal – with a wanderlust that knows no boundaries and a drive to see the world that’s dredged from your very soul, then ‘traveller’ is probably fair enough. Some of the greatest travel books have been written by such people, providing fascinating philosophical insights into the way that Planet Earth’s peoples live.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. Everyone else is basically a tourist – a tripper, holidaymaker, sightseer, visitor,  excursionist, if you will. And what’s more, this used to be a good thing.

It was once quite the height of sophistication to be a tourist. A ‘Grand Tour’ of the Classical sites of Europe was de rigeur for a wealthy young person in the 17th and 18th century. To be a ‘tourist’ was to be a person of taste and means – you visited extraordinary ‘authentic’ sights, you ventured ‘off the beaten track’, you saw the ‘real’ Europe. You certainly weren’t on holiday – that would have been a stay on your country estate or a retreat to the spa pavilion. ‘Travellers’ were traders, working people, on-the-road stiffs who had to stick to the 9 to 5 (or more likely the dawn to dusk) to earn a living. You, on the other hand, were touring Europe to have an experience and, as a tourist, you were one of the fortunate, one of the favoured.

Lucky to travel

You still are, of course. If you can afford a holiday then, whatever you call yourself, you’re lucky to travel, to be able to afford to visit beautiful, interesting and exotic places. 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, where they really don’t care if you’re a nomad or an adventurer as long as you spend money in their guest house or restaurant. Because tourism – not travellerism – is paying their bills.

As a travel writer, it also pays to have some self-awareness, because readers can see straight through any inauthenticity. I’m in no doubt. Wherever I go and for however long, I’m not a ‘traveller’ inducted into some arcane priesthood. I’m not a ‘nomad’ with secret knowledge and special skills. I’m a tourist, visiting somewhere for pleasure – my own and the readers. I’m a guest in another country, for a short or a longer period, and then I’m going home again, where I’ll tell people all about my holiday, for a holiday is what it really was.

Not being precious about this truth allows me to tell other truths: what is this place really like for a visitor? did I enjoy it? would I recommend it to someone else? is there a story to tell?  And then the best I’m going to be able to do is give you a snapshot of my time in whichever destination it was, and because I’m a writer I’ll be able to make it sound interesting, exciting or adventurous, depending on my mood and style.

So telling the truth about being a tourist makes me a better traveller – in its very general sense. And telling truths about travel is the job of a good travel writer.

Tourist (noun) – a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.

Tourist. That will do me.

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Published by Jules Told Me

Hi, I'm Jules – travel blogger & Rough Guides writer – sharing travel-writing tips, travel ideas and amazing places. I hope my journey can inspire your next trip, and I wish you happy travels in fascinating places

6 thoughts on “Traveller – or tourist? Which are you? And why it matters

  1. I love this! There is some preciousness about travelling, so it’s nice to hear someone being a champion of the humble tourist. I’ve often thought about how we can all be ‘home tourists’ too – spending more time where we live, exploring the places we often take for granted. Thanks for the articles, Jules, always fun and always make me want more!

  2. Loved reading this! Agree with EllaBella people don’t like saying they’re “tourists” these days, they’re travellers/explorers/backpackers, anything except a tourist!
    Since returning from travelling end of 2017 I tell myself to see more of the UK…so far failing 🤣

  3. Iv’e been both a traveller and a tourist over the years but the lines are blurred. People sitting around in a hostel surrounded by other travellers drinking cheap gin and tonics are just tourists on a tight budget but they may not see it that way.

    I’ve been scoffed at by budget travellers by being called a tourist but I’ve been guilty of it. I remember making fun of rich American tourists with big cameras and tour guides when I was a barefoot hippy in Kathmandu in 1982.

    Being a traveller is a badge of honour for some people but I’m happy to be either. It means I’m away from home and enjoying the world.

    In the end it doesn’t matter. The locals will usually see you as a tourist if you aren’t a local anyway.

    1. You’re right, in the end it doesn’t really matter. Why make a single word the hill you die on? Being away from home, enjoying the world – we’re so lucky to be able to do that.

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