Traveller or Tourist?

Are you a traveller or a tourist?  If an item I heard recently on a radio programme is to be believed, this is an extremely loaded question.  It seems that the majority of people who write about travel on their blogs describe themselves as ‘travellers’, and rarely as ‘tourists’.

A couple of things interested me about this report, and the interview with the academic sociologist who had undertaken research on the subject.  The first was the discovery that there was an academic sociologist making a study of travellers’ tales blogs. I’d never really thought about what such a researcher actually does, but if they can study this, there must be no end of things to which they might get to the bottom.

The second was that the research was done entirely by studying posts published in blogs; very specifically, the academic had no direct contact or conversation with any of the writers.  What she discerned from her reading was that those who believe themselves to be ‘travellers’ also believe they are having a more ‘authentic’ experience, and rather look down on ‘tourists’, which is generally used in a pejorative way.

By the written word shall ye be known.

My elderly Concise Oxford dictionary offers little help in distinguishing between the two vying words: to travel is to make a journey, especially one of some length to distant countries (and, to act as a commercial traveller, or door to door sales man), while a tourist is a person who makes a tour, traveller, especially for recreation; however ‘tourist class’ is the lowest class of passenger accommodation in ship train etc, and a ‘tourist trap’ is a place that exploits tourists.

I’ve never thought much about how I would describe myself when I am at large in the world; but now that I’ve posed the question, I think I’d say I’m a tourist when I travel through one place after another.  The subjective judgemental distinction I draw in not that between tourist and traveller, but between those who travel in a group, and those who do not.  I’ve done both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of them.

When I did my trip around the world on my own, I treated it as a full-time project, almost as a job of work, to do the research, see the site and record my impressions; periodically I joined a group, and felt like I was on a holiday, I had to pay much less attention, I went along with the flow, I did what I was told, I ate and slept when and where I was delivered.  I relaxed, until I started feeling antsy wanting to be on a solo jaunt again.

Recently I’ve been undertaking a periodic effort to visit places in London that are on the ‘tourist trail’ but which I’ve never been to before.  One noticeable thing about most of these outings is that, as a resident Brit, I have generally been in a minority; providing anecdotal evidence that we tend not to visit the sites of interest on our doorsteps.  If we didn’t go on a school trip we may never actually visit our own national patrimony.

The only occasions I can recall rejecting being designated a tourist was when I lived in Moscow.  At the time, the entry price for many museums and galleries was one thing for Russian residents and something 100 times greater for foreign tourists.  There was always a dispute at the ticket office and we would have to go to the supervisor’s office, show the residents stamps in our passports and argue that just because we were foreign didn’t mean we were in the tourists price category.

So what are you, tourist or traveller?  And what makes one experience more ‘authentic’ than another?

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  1. Ah yes, a thorny issue Rowena! i can remember it being hotly debated in the kasbah in Marrakech, the coffee shops of Amsterdam … I’m just surprised it’s taken so long for a branch of sociology to begin studying the perceived differences between travellers and tourists. Sitting where I do, there’s a third distinction – as you rightly pointed out – the resident alien, or expat visitor. Who has the most ‘authentic’ experience? Who learns the most? Who is most changed?

    My excursion to Unawatuna and Galle a few weeks ago pinpointed a distinction I think you’ll agree with – if you don’t make your own way, make the arrangements – you’re a tourist. It’s very strange, but there it is. I chose the destination, agreed on a class of accommodation, and my friends did the rest – it was my birthday trip and I was just along for the ride – and I felt like a tourist in a town I’ve known – even lived in – these last twenty years.

    It was a delightful experience and believe it or not, I noticed things I hadn’t the last several times I’d been down. As to the distinction imposed by governments by way of a two-priced fee structure (sometimes 1,000% here), asking for the tickets in Sinhala helps, and having the exact change, though I always have my passport handy and where so segregated, line up wit the ‘locals’!

    • I think we’re probably in agreement on this, Wanderlust! There can be an extra pleasure in being looked after and led, that can make us feel more like a tourist than a traveller. It’s the way some people use either word as an insult that I find puzzling. And then that great search for ‘authenticity’, which seems to assume that a place has only one identity and nature that only those with the right knowledge can experience. How I perceive even my home town changes each time I leave the house……

  2. There are two moments when I wanted to be neither traveller nor tourist..the day my sister wore welly boots to the Bolshoi and the day we were driven through Istanbul, a party of only seven girls in a huge luxury coach, all to ourselves…and on both occasions I felt the critical eye of the locals upon us…and just wanted to vanish!

    • Ha – it’s all about knowing the local protocol and customs in those circumstances I guess. I’ve hopped about changing from boots to shoes before going to the Bolshoi several times – and when Russian colleagues visited in London, they thought we were philistines for taking our coats to our seats in the theatre.


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