Are You a Tourist or a Traveller… And Who Cares?

The narrator of Alex Garland’s The Beach fancies himself as a serious traveller. He is a voyeur of riots and extreme poverty and sneers at the ‘touristy’ Lower Gulf Islands. It is satire, of course, and readers will notice that he sees nothing of Thailand beyond the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road and what amounts to a private island for young Westerners.

Garland said, of the sort of travellers his book was lampooning, “These people say they aren’t tourists but travellers and think they are special, more sensitive. It’s stupid. They’re not”. The Beach set out to explode their pretensions. But, as with Wall Street and La Dolce Vita, the point is often spectacularly missed.

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There are numberless features exploring the supposed difference between tourists and travellers. It clearly matters a lot to some. There are graphs, there are charts, there are tables and pictograms to help you understand. There are lofty quotations from people like Chesterton: “The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see”. But almost everyone agrees with Evelyn Waugh that “the tourist is the other fellow”.

If you like being patronised, there are quizzes you can take to see which side of the line you fall; and if –heaven forbid – it turns out that you are only a tourist, WikiHow has a 9-step guide, complete with pictures, to teach you how to become a traveller.

As far as the dictionary is concerned, all of us are travellers (people who travel) and most of us are tourists (people who travel for pleasure) and I generally use the words interchangeably. But I did the quizzes out of curiosity and found that I am 80% traveller according to one, but only narrowly so according to another, and merely a tourist according to a third. None of them was interested in how much I had actually travelled or what I had learned on the way. This is a sample question:

Which do you prefer?

[   ] Having a map

[   ] Having no map

If you prefer to have a map, it suggests you are a tourist.

If you prefer not to have a map, it suggests you are bonkers.

Travellers, says one source, like WiFi connections, while tourists dislike bugs. They cancel each other out in my case. In everyone else’s too, I should think.

Travellers apparently blend in to their surroundings. They do this by wearing Chang Beer singlets in Thailand, chullo hats in South America, Masaai wraps in East Africa and hiking boots with zip-off trousers everywhere else.

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Travellers, we are told, immerse themselves in the local culture, so if you approach a backpacker on Khao San Road with the routine Thai greeting gin khao reu yung (have you eaten yet), he or she will respond with gin khao leauw (I have eaten already), then tell you how to make yum woon sen and start a debate about Thaksin Shinawatra.

It seems to be widely agreed that travellers are not interested in sights, and that this makes them better people. One source scoffs at “buildings of note,” while another has a go at art galleries. It must follow that the tourists who head straight for Macy’s are closer to being travellers than those who go look at Brooklyn Bridge and the Met.

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But there are sights and there are sights. The sort of traveller who would laugh in your face if you told him you had spent a morning at St Peter’s Basilica would insist that you need at least a week for the temples of Angkor, if not a month, a year, or several lifetimes.

Some good points are buried within all the snobbery. There is more to the world than the twenty dollar sights, and a ragtag market can be more rewarding than a world-famous cathedral. But to refuse on principle to see the big sights is surely as myopic as refusing to see anything else. If you want to learn something of the local culture – and it is not work, so no one should say that you have to – you need, for sure, to see how ordinary people live; but you need to know something of the history, the politics and religion as well, and that will take you back to the sights which appear in the guidebooks. Better just to go and see the things which interest you and skip the ones which don’t. Never mind whether the guidebooks gush or someone in a bandana scoffs.

Respecting local customs is just good manners, and recognising that things which are different from home may not be worse is about being open-minded. There is no need for an artificial distinction between tourists and travellers.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

15 thoughts on “Are You a Tourist or a Traveller… And Who Cares?

  1. I can proudly say I am a Traveller and a Tourist! I do travel and I enjoy it. I completely agree with your post and love the way you have written it. It is hard to appreciate where you are without understanding part of the history and different places astound and amaze different people, but if you are open to new and wonderful places then you may be shocked about what truly intrigues you. I never in my life thought I would become anti city, yet loving little India and Chinatown back streets, get me to somewhere green traveller/tourist but that is the great thing about it! There is no need for labels, is there?

    Great post, now a avid follower. xx

  2. Interestingly I did one of those traveller vs tourist quizes. I came with “flying colours” and being ” in touch with the local” and getting more of my travels than tourists. It was quite ” snobbery” when I think about it. If you travel in heels, with a suitcase, prefer three star accommodation omwards, you are a tourist. You don’t get to appreciate their people and culture because you queue to get into overcrowded places that are “typical” of a tourist. Some like the architecture, and history. I appreciate a bit of architecture, and would rather hear first hand accounts from locals while I “detroy their language” in an attempt to say more than hi and bye. Tourists are also supposedly “shameful” for carrying native tongue to destination dictionaries. I enjoy both being a traveller and a tourist, depending on my location and company. I see no need for the divide. Well written post. I enjoyed it

    • Thank you very much. I don’t travel in heels so maybe I am a traveller ; -) Accommodation seems to come up a lot in those comparisons. I’ve stayed in everything from five star hotels to tents, but – since I have been travelling for extended periods – mostly a mixture of guest houses (in Asia), hostels and budget hotels. Learning about the culture, the food, the history and such like is a big part of travelling for me, but I’m certainly not above seeing the big sights. If I were showing someone round London I would take them to Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden as well as the places you won’t find in the guidebook. I wouldn’t go to Madame Tussauds or Ripley’s, but nor would I look down on someone who did.

  3. I have yet to travel Asia. I want to go to Bangkok not Phuket first. I have heard the filth stories, and sooo much negativity. Apparently hipsters travel Phuket, and pro travellers Bangkok. Not sure why. Same with Bali etc they are for the tourist who wants to party, Hong Kong too. Japanese rainforests are for the travelled, who are also the cultured. Fascinating what you get out of online threads

    • Also I often find that there is beauty and culture in places known as party central, and crazy parties in places known for beauty and culture. The various different types of traveller/tourist tend to go to a lot of the same places

      • I know, I also noticed that. Same places, different etiquette. The traveller carries a book by a lo.cal hero, or spends hours dissing the place (higher expectations blah blah) while a tourist naively falls for everything they see.

  4. You’ve more or less got to see Bangkok anyway (depending on where you’re flying from). Phuket is an international beach resort, full of luxury travellers and sleaze; but it’s a jumping off point for Phi Phi, Lanta, Krabi Eric which I think are worth seeing (although some will say they are too touristy now). I haven’t been to Bali or Japan yet. I used to go to Hong Kong on business when I was a lawyer so my perspective will be different from what it would be if I had visited as a traveller (or tourist ;-))

  5. No heels!? You are definitely a traveller. Ha ha. Bag wise, if you don’t own a backpacker bag, you are a disgrace to travellers worldwide. Oh and those tiny sample coffees, sugar and hotel soaps.

    • I’ve got a suitably battered backpack that’s been flung into the boots of countless taxis on five continents, dumped on the deck of more boats than I care to remember and strapped to the roof of a few jeeps. Then again I’ve still got a fancy Antler suitcase with wheels from when I was an ‘ordinary’ traveller (don’t tell anyone though ;-))

      • Ha ha ha! Your secret is safe with me.I love my backpack as much as I LOVE my suitcases and Golla travel bags. Travelling Africa, the Golla is not practical. Taxi after taxi. Roadtripping was great because everything was in one car, but dragging a suitcase still did not help. Would be heavy and a nuisance

  6. And everything gets ruined in Africa with the dust. That’s fine when you’ve got a backpack, though, as it just makes it look more weathered and people think “blimey he must be a serious traveller; I bet he spent ages at Angkor Wat and you’d never see him in an art gallery”.

  7. Oh, I’ve read some posts about tourists/travelers bloggers ranting about that some pretty and classic place is unfortunately crowded by tourists, as if in some way they weren’t tourists too, adding a number more to the crowd X’D, I think that those few people see themselves as the Pope when they are visiting the Vatican so the other are “just” the tourists.
    I don’t like to take touristic tours (in Peru for example the touristic guides are driven by people that unknown everything about what they show), I travel more to walk landscapes, but certainly that makes me a tourist/traveler too and there is nothing wrong about that.
    I see the map before the travel but I, intentionally, forgot it when I’m travelling.

    • Agreed. We’re a century too late to start discovering new places, so we’re all tourists really. There are plenty of ‘touristy’ places I wouldn’t bother going to but I wouldn’t sneer at others who did; and I think it would be silly not to go to the popular places just because a lot of other people had been before. Fair enough if art and architecture bores someone and they are not interested in food, they should perhaps not bother with Florence; but to miss out on it all because it’s ‘touristy’ would be a shame, I reckon

  8. Pingback: Travelling like a Local – When It Goes Wrong | The Road Not Taken

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