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The Difference between Tourists and Travelers


The traveler vs tourist debate has been on-going since God knows when in the travel community. And it doesn’t seem to be abating anytime soon.

Having thought about this for quite a while, read several opinions and observed both self-acclaimed tourists and travelers alike, I think I can weigh in on this debate with my two cents.

Whether one is a tourist or a traveler, one thing we all can agree on is that they both are individuals who travel to different locations. However, that’s where all the similarities end.

There’s an inherent difference between a traveler and a tourist, and I guess it has something to do with the individual’s mindset. There’s a marked difference in the way a tourist and a traveler approaches being in a new location and the manner they set about experiencing their new environment – my guess is; this is at the core of the raging debate.

So, you may ask what exactly differentiates a traveler from a tourist?


A traveler sets out to truly get an immersive experience; a tourist is not so involved

This is not to say that tourists don’t have memorable experiences but from what I’ve seen it’s not like a traveler's.  There’s this palpable sense within a traveler to get into the skin of the area they’re traveling to – it seemed like they consciously decided to stop and understand what makes the locals tick.

A tourist enjoys their experience, but one can quickly sense they’re just passing through and hence wouldn’t bother to take a closer look.


Travelers try to blend in; tourist tend always to stand out

Understand that neither of these stances is inherently wrong or right. It’s just what it is. You’d from a mile single out a tourist, with their clothing – which is intended to keep them comfortable – to the selfie-stick waving couple, the constant presence of a camera, the socks and sandals, and the fact that their eyes are most times glued to their smartphone. These are tell-tale signs that allow that someone is a tourist.

However, the traveler will always want to blend in with the locals; they’d have given a thought or two to their clothing – even when they pack comfort clothes, they still include clothes that add a touch of the culture of the place they are heading to.


Travelers are willing to taste local cuisine; tourists tend to stick with what they’re comfortable with

I get it, you don’t want to eat something that doesn’t sit well with you or may upset your stomach and ruin your vacation – but that’s why you’re a tourist! Tourist often sticks with the food they’re familiar with and sometimes include brand food chains.

A traveler, on the other hand, understands that food is the link to the heart of any culture. They are more than eager to taste local cuisines.

Travelers reach out to build relationships with locals; tourist only sightsee

A traveler does not just want to see famous tourist attractions, they also take the off-beat roads to see places that are off the tourist path. They make an effort to talk to locals, to learn about the stories behind what they’re experiencing first hand from the locals because they understand that the locals are the best resource when exploring a new place.

A tourist tends to stick within their comfort zones; they tend to merely want to see the famous places and don’t make any effort to meeting other people outside of their traveling buddies.


Travelers try to learn the local language; tourist tend to stick to their native tongue

One recurring trait I’ve noticed in travelers is their tendency to want to learn a few words of the local language immediately – there’s this sense of sincerity in them to try to communicate with the locals. One could argue that they’re patronizing and not sincere with their intentions – well, I can’t debate that with you but, I’m just reporting what I’ve observed.

However, a tourist would in most cases, tend to just stick with their native tongue. And again, I’m not suggesting this is wrong.  As long as you’re enjoying your stay and doing what feels right and comfortable to you, that’s all that matters.

Final thoughts

Honestly its quite fascinating to watch how people act once they’re in a new place; whether you choose to stick with only the stuff you’re familiar and comfortable with, or you’d instead stretch yourself a bit by stepping out of your comfort zone – remember you’re out there to have fun. Just do it, have fun no matter what your idea of fun is.

Personally, I believe the tag tourist or traveler shouldn’t stop you from doing what feels right for you.  



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  • 05-learning-a-foreign-language

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Comments (3)

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Interesting thoughts on a constantly recycled debate. I certainly tried to prise the tourist out of the people in the groups I led, but not all were willing victims. Part of it surely is the time allocated to holidays - the tourist tries to see as much as possible in that time, but a traveller would be as happy poking around local markets - it's TOO easy to get sight-sore !

I think it may not be all that easy to divide the world into 'tourists' and 'travelers;' the world is not really that binary, and there are many shades between them. And many of those we meet are on the path to deeper experiences as they experience more and travel more.

I think of the many new travelers who used to post on the Frommer forums about their desire to 'see as much as possible' and 'do as many countries as possible' in impossibly short time allowances. Some of us who were regulars there were constantly urging them to slow down, and leave time to form real impressions, and to enjoy a bit of what was going on around them.

While it's useful to learn basic phrases and to not dress outlandishly, what really forms those impressions is time and thought, and a recognition that travel is not just about seeing the extraordinary, the famous, but also in seeing and experiencing the ordinary, the day-to-day, and trying to understand the ways in which it is similar to and different from our everyday experience.

And, of course, trying to understand how things came to be what they are, which is often not the fairy-tale version that comes in tourist office brochures. In many cases, that comes not from deeper research but from more experience, making comparisons not only with home, but with other places visited.

I don't think anyone starts out to be either a tourist or a traveler, and I think that most people are never entirely one or the other. Perhaps, to remove some of the baggage that may be attached, we might try the term 'visitor' instead.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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