There’s much ado about the traveler vs. tourist debate on a number of travel sites. Bloggers aplenty—myself included—are quick to show that when it comes down to it, who the hell cares of you’re a tourist or a traveler?
But I didn’t always subscribe to this persuasion.
If you’ve spent any amount of time living abroad, you probably became gradually familiarized with that place. After a while, the idiosyncrasies were easy to pick up: a group of senior citizens with yellow hats were probably not locals, nor were the wheeled-suitcase brigades. Remember that guy in cargo shorts and Chacos pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa for a photo-op? Yeah, he probably wasn’t Pisan. Or even Italian, for that matter.
I used to thumb my nose at these types in self-righteous arrogance, arguing that by renting an apartment and maintaining a network of friendly grocers in the mercato centrale I was “having a more authentic travel experience” than the obvious tourists.Blending in, instead of enjoying the moment, became my chief MO in a new place. If travel is a religion, I was its self-appointed Pharisee.
Looking back, it’s kind of easy to see why I—and many travelers—fell into this trap of travel-elitism: it has everything to do with insecurity. It’s playground politics all over again, and all the cool kids are carrying on as normal.
When you’re the new kid in school, you want to blend in as much as possible, and any sort of extra attention—unless it’s overwhelmingly favorable—is to be avoided at all costs. Elementary school taught us that the fastest way to blend into your surroundings is to point-and-laugh at whoever is different. And in a travel sense, so-called “tourists” are about as different as one can get: they can’t speak the language, they don’t dress like the locals, and they tend to eat at mediocre, overpriced restaurants on the main strip in full view of the cool kids. *90s-era sitcom collective gasp!*
But let’s take a look at the heart of the matter, shall we? People travel because they’re curious and inquisitive about the world around them. Is there any other qualifying criteria than this? Does it matter that they signed up for a tour group that caters to their demographic & nationality? Is their experience any less valuable because they took a guidebook-prescribed itinerary? Need we berate someone for something as trivial as personal preference?
I say no.
For one thing, the Yellow Hats are having way more fun than the Pharisees—because the Pharisees are spending their extra energy justifying their idea of travel instead of enjoying the journey.
We’re all transients when abroad, anyways. And doesn’t that make us both travelers and tourists, simultaneously?