Recently a new meme has been doing the rounds on social media: a series of split-screen images showing the purported differences between ‘tourists’ and ‘travelers’ – a selfie-stick sporting tourist on one side, and a traveler on the other, aiming their camera outwards; a traveler relaxing in a hammock, while the tourist checks into a fancy hotel. The message is clear: tourists are self-obsessed, luxury seeking, and somehow lacking when compared to travelers, who are knowledge-seekers; relaxed and open-minded. This is nothing new: the web abounds with article and posts dividing people into these categories, and suggesting one is somehow better than the other. Now, as a travel blogger, I’m going to be controversial and say this: all this stupid divisive categorization of people who go to other countries has got to stop.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the broad differences being posited between the words traveler and tourist, and I even agree with some of them. There are definitely certain people who visit countries with an open mind, a desire to see and experience the realities of the country, and a sense of adventure; whilst there are undoubtedly those who are ignorant, self-obsessed and only interested in ticking off experiences like a to-do list. My contention is simply this: the divides between the two types of people I just mentioned are so vague and fluid that there’s no point in categorization. I can also see how it sort of makes sense to refer to the former group as travelers and the second as tourists; however, what I disagree with is the way we break people down into these categories and dismiss those who don’t fit in with what we deem ‘proper’ travelling.
Which types of people generally get seen as travelers? It’s usually younger people, travelling on a budget, sleeping in hostels or tents, trying to visit ‘off-the-beaten-track’ places. Tourists? Older people, staying in hotels, guided tours etc. Okay, so this isn’t universal, but, let’s face it…these definitions are fairly accurate when it comes to how people view foreigners in other countries. However, if we look past these initial definitions, most people have the idea that, as I mentioned above, travelers are somehow ‘good’ at being abroad, whilst tourists are ‘bad’.
I recently read an article about this very issue, which confidently stated that ‘travelers’ care while, by definition, tourist don’t. I couldn’t disagree with this more: the basic fact is that some people care and some don’t. And those people might fit into anyone’s definition of either tourist or traveler. When I do trips with my parents, we become ‘tourists’ by most people’s definitions: we stay in nicer hotels, take flights, do guided tours sometimes. Why? ‘Cause they have bad backs, didn’t have access to the language education I was lucky enough to etc. etc. Face it, people get older and prefer certain comforts, but that doesn’t stop them caring, engaging and being interested. Do my parents express more interest in the places we are visiting, make more effort to interact and share with local people, than many people I have met backpacking? They sure do! The article in question was illustrated with a group ‘selfie’ of the ‘travelers’: not a bad thing, but it just highlights the ridiculous discrepancies in this whole debate…didn’t those memes tell me that selfie-taking was for evil tourists?! When I go bird-watching in isolated parts of Colombia, I often hire a local guide…which one does that make me?! Help…I don’t know who I am anymore…
The fact is that, 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! This doesn’t make them bad people or wrong or inferior in any way, but these same people would pointedly refer to themselves as travelers and pour scorn on so-called tourists and tourist activities, whilst basically indulging in the same behavior. If you’ve ever visited South-East Asia, you’ll know that a huge percentage of young people drink, party, and sight-see their way through the region, whilst referring to themselves as ‘travelers’. This is my major issue with these labels: the way that they lead to people acting superiorly and scornfully towards others. If you want to call yourself a traveler, that’s fine, just don’t diminish other people’s efforts to experience a bit more of their world. The bad foreigner abroad is a universal phenomenon, and we’ve probably all been guilty of it at some point.
Let’s take Colombia, the country that I have traveled through the most, lived in, and worked as a travel blogger in, as an example: what are the biggest damaging stereotypes about Colombia? Cocaine, Pablo Escobar, violence, war…right? At the risking of demonizing foreign visitors (and let me make this clear: the vast majority are not like this), I have met a fair number of young ‘travelers’ (backpacks, hostels, budgeting etc.) who happily indulge in cocaine, take the Pablo Escobar tour because he’s ‘cool’, and have very little idea that Colombia is still engaged in a damaging and brutal civil war which has scarred its history. Many can’t spell the country’s name right…
Take a look at our post: “It’s Colombia, not Columbia”
Yet, many of these people would describe themselves as travelers (with the inherent superiority over tourists that that entails). On the flip side: I’ve been on plenty of trips where I have met engaged, interested people on a 10 day break, staying at a nice little boutique hotel, taking a guided tour. People who have learned a bit of Spanish, read a few books, and wouldn’t dream of touching drugs whilst they’re here. Yet, by most definitions, they’d be dismissed as tourists. Who’s better for Colombia?
My big issue with all this traveller vs. tourist debate (as I hope I’ve adequately explained over the past 1000-odd words!) is the divisions it implies and the act of categorizing people. When we categorize, especially when we place ourselves firmly within one category, we divide and stereotype; we feel superior and denigrate others, usually without taking much time to explore their reasons and motivation. So, instead of categorizing and dividing and sneering, and producing endless articles and memes congratulating ourselves on being ‘travellers’, why don’t we all just try and be better people when we visit other countries; make an effort to understand the culture and the people, avoid the damaging stereotypes (and learn how to spell the countries damn name while we’re at it!) That might just be a better way of going about it. I know, I know…I’m such a tourist, right?!