I keep coming across an adage about travelling that says ‘be always a traveller, not a tourist.’ I used to think that way, but many years of travel have led me to the conclusion that travellers are tourists and it would be better for everyone if they saw themselves in that way.
Let’s first look at how the dictionary defines each term. Let’s start with ‘traveller’. There are a few definitions; the first is the most obvious: a person who is travelling or who often travels. The second starts getting a bit more abstract: a Gypsy or other nomadic person. The third is edging on the esoteric: a person who holds New Age values and leads an itinerant and unconventional lifestyle. When we think of the adage I mentioned, it is the second and third definitions that come to mind. We tend to think of a traveller as someone who morphs into their environment in search of something deeper than photos and post cards; travellers like to believe they have temporarily become part of that new their host society while looking for deeper meaning on what it is they are doing there.
Here is how the dictionary defines a tourist: a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure. This is the only definition, and it closely resembles the first definition given to a traveller. Colloquially we tend to think of tourists as people who travel through packaged holidays and take part in tour groups. We tend to see tourists as corny, funny shirts wearing people who don’t miss an opportunity to take a photo or buy a souvenir.
Most people would like to think of themselves as travellers. In fact, in my travels, I have witnessed many self-declared travellers scorn at a group of tourists. Hell, I have been guilty of that too. Travellers would like to think they are better than tourists, that they are more sensitive and respectful of the place they are visiting, that they absorb and live the culture temporarily as locals. Travellers see tourists as an annoyance to other travellers and locals, who crowd and invade cities in search of the perfect selfie in some popular sightseeing spot.
As I got older and travelled more, I have concluded that travellers are no better than tourists. In fact, they are worse. My definition of a traveller is that they are nothing more than a low-budget, unhygienic, overly philosophical tourist. In fact, for locals, they don’t see much of a difference between travellers and tourists; they are all the same – another foreigner who can’t speak the language. In fact, locals prefer tourists, as they likely spend more money into the local economy. Travellers, on the other hand, take pride on how little they manage to spend on a daily basis. For locals, that sucks. If people are going to come and crowd their cities, they want them to at least spend a considerable amount of money to help their economy. Walking around in shabby clothes, carrying oversized backpacks, staying in dingy hostels and sporting questionable hygiene is hardly a pleasure for locals who don’t care whether you are in their city to take selfies or soul searching.
I recently read an article on how cities such as Florence, Rome, Venice and Barcelona are now hoping to receive fewer tourists, as they feel they have lost access to the best parts of their cities. In fact, with the advent of AirBnB, residents are now miffed that tourists are spilling into their neighbourhoods and restaurants which used to exclusive to locals. In the search for something authentic, tourists who see themselves as travellers are invading local people’s domain. This is another reason why I think tourists are better than travellers, as they at least unknowingly respect the locals by staying in the touristy parts of town.
So next time you pack your bags, be a tourist, not a traveller. Stay in the tourist areas, do tourist things. For the locals, whether you are wearing a corny shirt or some shabby hippie clothes, staying in a 5-star hotel or a dingy hostel, you are tourists just the same. All they care about is how much you will spend and when are you going to leave. As far as those are concerned, tourists do much better. So when you book your next holiday, be always a tourist, not a traveller.