The Traveller vs. The Tourist


The way we travel is fast becoming defined by stereotypes, dictating who travels the right way and who’s doing it completely wrong. But does your choice of how you see a place really distinguish if you’re a nomadic traveller or naïve tourist?


Kitted out in khaki shorts, an ‘I heart [insert city]’ t-shirt and a rain jacket tied around the waist, the common Tourist can be found with their head submerged in their Lonely Planet guidebook. Occasionally, they may reach for their bumbag of secrets and pull out a bottle of overpriced water to cool themselves from the scorching foreign heat. The females lie in the shade; nattering about the dreamy pool they will dip themselves into that evening, piña colada in hand with plenty of Instagram-worthy bikini snaps. The males however, begin an extraordinary show of dominance in the pack, taking it upon themselves to argue ferociously with the tourguide who waves his ‘Follow Me’ flag in surrender to the sunburnt males.

On the outskirts of the same city is a vastly different species. Identifiable by their clashing choice of tie-die and florals, and covered in tattoos of Chinese lettering; these are the Travellers. Sunkissed skin decorated in friendship bracelets and festival bands, the traveller wanders the land in search of the authentic. They are usually found alone, poor, and smelling of the grapes they crushed on the nearby vineyard to earn their next meal. These rowdy creatures live out of their rucksacks; yet though their bag may only contain harem pants and a GoPro, their mind is brimming with wanderlust, unique experiences and endless Tumblr quotes.

These are the stereotypes that are defining the way we travel. Who we want to be and who we don’t. More often it’s the tourist that we fear we could be labelled as for pulling out an itinerary or insisting a visit to a city’s main tourist attraction. Travel is fast becoming a rite of passage for many. For a weekend escape from native soil you can jump on a plane and be on foreign ground for as little as £20. Gap years between school and university, university and the graduate world are becoming increasingly popular for those who want their last tastes of adventure before reality sets in. Travelling has become easier and more accessible to us all, yet has brought a new and competitive trend to judge who travels the “right” and “wrong” way; who is the traveller and who is the tourist.

Excluding a traveller’s and tourist’s stereotyped appearance, what’s the difference? Many argue that the traveller travels to experience a place’s authenticity off the ‘beaten track’, connecting with local culture and embracing their surroundings. The tourist explores the already discovered for pleasure, jumping from attraction to attraction to take in a sugar-coating of culture. To put it as an analogy, the tourist is the 14 year old you find sporting a Guns n’ Roses t-shirt to look “edgy”, knowing at most the chorus of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’; whilst the traveller sports the 1988 tour shirt and has all six albums. It is a stereotype that defines inward motives and authentic knowledge.

Like the 14 year old’s inexpert choice of attire, the tourist is often labelled as only seeing the materialistic culture of a place. Most likely this is fuelled by the booming tourism industry that makes travel more comforting and pleasurable for the foreigner, with cities operating to please any native in any circumstance. Yet this pleasure and comfort appears to be turning many off, with many seeking culture that isn’t handed to them on a plate, exploring away from the busy crowds and into the rawness of a place. The choice of how people travel, and what they see, has led to this unnecessary and untruthful divide of stereotypes.

I’ve always thought of myself as a tourist, enjoying the safety of a guidebook on family holidays. When I ventured on my first solo trip to a South African riding centre it occurred to me that this could be my chance to level up to “traveller”. I had a growing portfolio of countries visited, I was young and I was going somewhere you wouldn’t find in the Lonely Planet guidebook; surely that qualified my traveller status? Not at all. Although I found the authentic; drinking with the locals and herding cows out of fields cowboy style, I was still a tourist. A tourist that had to pretend to be a traveller leading other holidaymakers on their beach treks, knowledgeably pointing out the names of coastlines and the best local spots for lunch. It was like the blind leading the blind, but on horseback.

I met a friend there who travelled South Africa with a meticulously planned out three month itinerary of the major cities. Another friend enjoyed spontaneously jumping from outback farm job to farm job, and another who was sorting their visa to stay for another six months at the centre. Each of these people had their own experiences and stories of South Africa, they had been both on and off the beaten path and gained the same highs and lows of any travel experience. Road tripping the famous Garden Route made their experience no less authentic than working at the remote riding centre, but working there didn’t mean they were anymore traveller than tourist. They were still strangers learning to live in a foreign place, surrounding themselves in a culture that they wouldn’t find at home whether for pleasure, escape, or business.

Whether you reach for the experiences handed to you on a tourist-place or not, your choice of activities and exploration when travelling does not define your travel stereotype. “Tourist” should not be made a demeaning term used to justify the “wrong” way to travel. Nor should “traveller” be used to hail the connoisseurs of travel that define themselves on what they are not. Travel with good intention and consideration; that is the only right way.


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