Are You a Traveler or a Tourist?

One of the cruise boats I’ve been lucky enough to travel (yes travel) on.

Living in New York City, I encounter tourists all the time. It can get annoying, having to weed through people who are snapping photos, looking at guidebooks, or are just obviously lost. But every time I see a confused, excited, or even bored tourist on the streets of NYC, I try to remind myself of one thing: I’m exactly the same way when I go somewhere else, and that it is perfectly fine.

What is “real” traveling? And what makes a person a tourist vs. a traveler? Travel snobs would love to provide you with a list of dos and don’ts, or distinguishing characteristics that properly dichotomize us into one or the other. But I’m here to tell you, it’s all bull. I’m perfectly fine with calling myself a tourist just as much as I am a traveler.

As the Internet has grown, and world travel has become more and more accessible to the general population of the world, the topic of “tourism” vs. “traveling” has become a heated one. So-called “travelers” like to assert themselves as the more sophisticated, more cultured, more worldly of the two sets, because they perhaps don’t wear certain clothes, use a guidebook, carry a camera, or visit popular destinations. As this HuffPo piece points out, “We all know travel elitists: They will actually pick a dinner party fight about whether tourists are real travelers. Or whether a vacation is really a trip. They scoff at the mere suggestion of mass tourism. They have canned, over-intellectualized, one-size-fits-all answers as to the ‘right way’ to travel…that is usually their way of traveling.”

Numerous refined “travelers” all across the web have made their own declarations about what it means to be one versus the other. Some claim that tourists are reluctant to venture out of their comfort zones, and “wear the same clothing he’d wear at home.” (Side note: What’s with the hatred for white sneakers? And how many people can afford to purchase an entirely new wardrobe to wear every time they go abroad so that they better fit in? How ridiculous would my white ass look if I walked around in Morocco or India dressed in traditional clothing? I would stick out even worse.) Others assert that a tourist is only in it for as much sightseeing as possible, that a hit-list of spots and photo ops are all they care about, and create ludicrous charts such as the one below, to differentiate people:

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Tourists, that blog says, are simplified, intransigent, and “are time poor and cash or credit rich.” No hon, I may be time poor, but I’m definitely not cash or credit rich. Ignoring the fact that this article looks down upon organized tours while its lead photo captions its subjects as “Waiting to be picked up for our jungle tour,” I have to say, these differentiations are absolute bullocks. Do travel snobs really believe that tourists have no opportunity for interaction? That we have no sense of spontaneity? That we couldn’t care less about local storytelling or food? Nonsense, all of it.

Organized tours, while cheesy, with their stickers and their flags, have been some of the most informative and enlightening experiences I’ve had while traveling. On a recent visit to Milan, I had disregarded my usual pre-planning nature and neglected to look into the fact that tickets to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” sell out months in advance. My travel buddy and I managed to find a walking tour that took us to places we had already seen on our own, but the tour guide’s personality and information made revisiting the sites wonderful. And “The Last Supper” itself was a miracle. Sorry, travel snobs, I had a photo taken of myself in front of that glorious painting? Being in that room, how could I not?

Me in front of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”

Cruising is one of the travel snobs’ most hated forms of traveling; it’s not real travel, they say, but I could not disagree more. Not only does it offer an opportunity to visit multiple places in a limited amount of time, but you can absolutely have meaningful experiences while visiting new places on cruises. Hubs and I visited Florence for only a day while on a cruise, but that didn’t stop me from declaring it probably my most favorite place in the world. Our tour bus guide recommended a restaurant right off of the Piazza Santa Croce that was thus filled with sticker-wearing, cruise passengers from our bus, but that didn’t stop it from being one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Italy. The pasta was outstanding while the roast beef and peas I ate reminded me so much of my grandmother’s own cooking that I cried. (It’s called Casa Toscana, if you want to try it out for yourself.) Wandering around town, we also stumbled into a wine and olive oil shop where the owner treated us to a tasting accompanied by various cheese. We were the only two people in the joint, and we sat and happily ate cheese and drank wine while chatting with a local Florentine shop owner. When my mom visited NYC one year, we went to see “The Lion King” and ate dinner at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Times Square. Despite being located in the very epicenter of “tourist trap” alley, the shrimp at that restaurant was freaking outstanding. Surely all of these experiences are too touristy, right?

I feel like these differentiations, these labels, and these requirements placed on people make an already difficult undertaking even more so. It’s an incredibly privileged thing to travel the world. Most people on this planet will never leave the city or town in which they grew up. People who travel, and “tourists” alike are not only brave enough to venture out of their comfort zones, but they may also put in tons of extra hours at work, pinch pennies, and sacrifice a lot in order to afford their once in a lifetime trip to Paris. If they want to see the Eiffel Tower while they’re there, who the hell cares?

Putting arbitrary limitations on people may make a person who is already nervous about traveling even more anxious. And that’s not to say I haven’t suffered as a result of my own preconceived travel notions. I recently had my own travel snobbery challenged when in Europe this month. As a total planner, I’m perfectly content to map out a route and dive into a list of places I’ve “scouted” via my little guide book. I had never been on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, the bane of a so-called “travelers” existence. But I gave one a try in Berlin and was pleasantly surprised. Sure, I had looked down upon the NYC tourists and their giant red, double-decker bus tickets, but seeking out a sightseeing bus trip in Berlin allowed me to sit back, relax,  and let the bus take me to the places that I was probably going to go to anyway.

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Me and my bud, Jenny, on a cheesy, hop-on-hop-off tour bus in Berlin.

Another ad campaign for some sort of travel app that I’m not even going to look up pitted the very idea of travelers vs tourists against one another in side-by-side images, and they’re just as reductive as they sound. The idea that because I don’t care for bugs makes me a spoiled American is nonsense. Sorry, but as a woman, even if I’m with other travelers, I’m not going hitchhiking. The idea that I’m a bad traveler because I want to sleep in a bed as opposed to the ground is ridiculous. That said, I’m ALL FOR sleeping on the ground. When I was in Morocco, some of the fellow travelers went on a desert camping overnight that I wish I had had the chance to go on. They slept in tents in the African desert among scorpions. Hating bugs and loving beds, I still totally would have done that (and still hope to one day!)

Thankfully, many travelers and travel bloggers out there have seen through the nonsense and are starting to realize that the whole tourists vs. travelers argument is doing nothing but creating more of a divide. Many have already articulated what I feel about the subject. As one blogger noted, “as someone who has largely traveled independently, living from a backpack, and sleeping in hostels, I have met just as many people doing the same who, if we’re going by these silly definitions of ‘tourist’ or ‘traveler’, are the biggest ‘tourists’ I’ve ever met!” Another says that, “Don’t ever feel you need to travel in a way you are not comfortable with – you are the only person that truly knows the impact that travel has on yourself. After all, we all learn and enrich our lives through our experiences and those experiences will happen no matter if you’re a tourist or a traveler. Don’t ever feel you have to be something you are not when you travel. This whole hierarchy that exists seems to displace so many ‘tourists’ that have perfectly valid, enriching and beautiful experiences while traveling – don’t ever underestimate that. Tourists are no less travelers than travelers are tourists – we are starting to create a problem by polarizing both of these ways of traveling.”

For anyone curious as to what sparked this tourism rant of mine, it was an article that assured that travel, as a result of various countries cracking down on tourism numbers, was about to get more and more difficult. While sustainability is an issue that needs to be addressed, it’s not the topic of this post, and that article uses casual racism while screaming of elitism. Traveling is already a completely privileged thing that few get to do in their lives, making it harder by drawing lines between who does it right and who does it wrong or making it so only an elite group of wealthy people have access to the world isn’t right or fair.

So go forth and see the world my travel friends! Dudes, being a tourist is ok. Travel how you want to travel, be it on a cruise, or in a hostel, at an all-inclusive resort, or off the beaten path. Be a traveler AND a tourist. Being a tourist doesn’t mean you’re not a traveler. Your way is the right way. These are your memories, your taste buds, your interests, and your dollars. Seeing the world is an amazing thing, and don’t let anyone’s preconceived notions of how to do it stop you.


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