The Great Traveler vs. Tourist Debate

As is probably surprising to no one, I am a lover of all things travel. I read tons of travel blogs, endlessly stalk Instagram for trip inspiration, devour travel memoirs – you name it, I probably do it. As much time as I spend thinking about and planning for travel, I’ve started to notice the debate of “tourist vs traveler” on the internet, through quotes, in my Facebook newsfeed, and in books. Not sure what I mean? Here are a few quotes:

I could go on and on! There are tons of these images and quotes floating around the interwebs.

I’ve read many, many blog posts lamenting the uncultured and annoying traits of tourists, such as sighting seeing on the beaten path, taking guided tours, staying in western hotels, going on cruises, doing group tours, only eating American food…you name it, I’ve heard it. By contrast, “real” travel is defined by those people who eschew the big sights and only head for the local villages and back alleys. They stay in homestays or couchsurf, eat “where the locals eat” and try street food, and they never, and I mean never, take guided tours or go anywhere with a tour group. I mean, tours are for tourists, and if you haven’t caught on yet, “tourist” is starting to be a bad word in the travel community. It’s like being called a jogger instead of a runner, if that helps put things in perspective.

My trip to Nicaragua would be called “travel.” My trip to Ireland would be called “tourism.” Guess what? I learned things from both.

I’ve thought long and hard about the merits of being a “tourist” versus being a “traveler” and I’ve come to a conclusion: who cares?

Are you a #tourist or a #traveler? @thetrexrunner doesn’t care, as long as you go somewhere. Click To Tweet

Honestly, does it really matter whether you prefer to travel like a “tourist” or not? If you aren’t being rude or inconsiderate of the locals, then no, in my opinion, it does not matter. While I definitely got “off the beaten path” in Nepal, I fully recognize that most people would absolutely hate traveling that way and would be much better suited to a different type of trip. To me, there is no point in traveling if you are going to be so miserable or wracked with anxiety that you don’t get anything out of it.

Yeah, you could say that doing a homestay in the Nepali village of Chalish is “off the beaten path.” Jacket by KUHL

When AJ and I went to Ireland a few years ago, neither of us had ever left the country as adults. Everything seemed overwhelming when we planned our trip, so we made sure we were staying in one place – Dublin – and booked group day tours from there. Yes, group day tours on one of those giant buses – perish the thought! At the time, it was absolutely perfect for what we were capable of handling and we enjoyed every second of the trip. If I had gone there with no plans or without a pre-booked place to stay, I wouldn’t have gone. It’s that simple.

Over time, I’ve certainly become more adventurous and more confident in my ability to figure things out on the fly in a new country. On our most recent trip to Europe, we headed over knowing nothing besides where we were staying (Airbnbs and hostels – my, how far we’ve come!). We had no plans at all for what to do. Three years ago, that would have literally caused me to have a panic attack, but does that mean that my travel now is more valuable or “better” than it was back then? I don’t think so.

There is something to be said for just wandering around and seeing what you find (Bratislava) – Jacket by KUHL, boots by Keen

I truly believe that regardless of how you travel, you can learn something from it. As much as I personally dislike cruises, you can absolutely learn something from your ports-of-call, even if you are only there for a few hours. Ok, so you fly to the Caribbean and literally stay at an all-inclusive resort the entire time? Well, that’s not the way I’d prefer to do it, but you’re still seeing a new place and meeting new people – even if it is just the locals who are serving you drinks or the European couple sunbathing next to you. Travel in any form teaches us something, and these lessons build on each other over time.

Visiting a Caribbean island? Sounds like something a tourist would do. (Nevis)

When I talk to people about travel who don’t travel, they usually tell me that it’s either too expensive, too overwhelming, or too scary, so they don’t go at all. If the Option A is not traveling at all and Option B is  taking a cruise or doing the all-inclusive resort thing, I’m going to tell you to go with Option B 100 percent of the time. Why? Because when you do, you’re probably going to realize it’s possible to find a trip that fits your budget. And it’s possible to get from your airport to your hotel without getting lost, even if you take a cab or arrange a private transfer. And you’re probably not going to be the victim of a terrorist attack or a kidnapping or whatever else. So the next time you think about travel, those fears will likely be just a little bit smaller, and maybe the next time you’ll explore a little bit more. Or maybe you won’t! Either way, you’re going.

Just go. It doesn’t matter if you pick the safest, easiest destination ever, like I did with the Azores. It doesn’t matter what you do when you get there. Just open your mind and your heart. Pants by KUHL

And who’s to say what type of experience is or is not “authentic,” anyway? Is this some type of contest? Why would I personally care how you choose to travel, as long as you are not damaging the environment or upsetting the local people? Again, who cares? The condescending attitude displayed by people who deem themselves “real travelers” doesn’t serve anyone, and it doesn’t encourage more people to get out and see the world. And after all, isn’t that the whole point? Don’t we want more people to see and experience the world in order to increase our global understanding? Am I missing something?

Let’s encourage people to travel rather than tell them that they’re doing it wrong.

There are definitely things I do on my trips that are completely touristy and plenty that are not. Some trips are more “off the beaten path” than others, but that doesn’t make those trips inherently better. You get out of travel what you put into it, and I fully believe that if you open your mind and your heart to the people and places around, whether or not you eat McDonald’s when you get there really makes no difference.

LEAVE A COMMENT: What do you think? Where do you fall on the “tourist vs traveler” debate?