The Great Debate: Tourist vs. Traveler

Updated: Sep 2, 2018

Most world explorers cringe at the term "tourist," preferring the more romantic label of "traveler." That's a bunch of nonsense. Here's why we all should embrace the tourist label.

The first time I encountered the great debate was on my inaugural solo trip. Over too many monstrously large Munich beers, my new travel friends (all Americans and Canadians) boisterously took sides. I was pro-traveler, running on the high of wandering aimlessly through Europe. The wiser folks said tourist. But as we drunkenly careened down the street from beer hall to bar, I realized we could chase as many authentic local spots as we wanted. We'd never actually belong here.

Travelers are tourists. We may try to mitigate the horror of the fanny pack and double-decker bus crowd, but we're still there for the same reason. Yeah, the basics might stick to restaurants that have a section in English, while the backpacker crowd only wants to go to cafes where there's a language barrier.

And sure, there's a hefty divide between those who take trips to cross of items on a checklist rather than immersing in a new culture. However, bottom line is we're all dropping in. Taking up space. And talking loudly in our American accents in someone else's home.

So we have to own the tourist label. It's like rectangles and squares. Everyone is a tourist, but not everyone is a traveler. Tourists want to see a destination. Travelers want to experience the reality of a place and try to understand it. But we all do fall under that tourist umbrella. You can't pretend like you're not there to see a place before moving on to another place.

And that's where we run into trouble again.

There are a whole lot of squares running around thinking they're not rectangles just because they went to an underground club in Berlin. Y'all are still squares. You're no less of a tourist in small-town Slovenia than you are in Barcelona.

You hear a lot of backlash these days against people searching for the "authentic" thing. The most authentic taco. The most authentic bar. The most authentic city. Because travel is vacation and vacation is escapism.

But I think that's a little jaded. We also travel to learn. Yes, we're taking a break from thinking about cleaning the bathroom or doing our taxes, but we can actually do a lot with that extra space in our brain.

Let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt, even the hipsters searching for the next off-the-beaten path hotspot who want to be able to say they got there first. (I’ll admit to some of this — I think many of us will.) But the search for the “authentic” reality of a place isn’t always with a voyeuristic bad intent.

Instead of just popping in to take some snapshots of the buildings and munching on some local snacks, you can understand why a siesta happens. If you go to the neighborhood Turkish bath instead of the polished tourist one, you can get a peek into what traditions look like when they're not softened for visitors. You can spend hours dancing to familiar American pop songs on a pub crawl or you can seek out the bar playing only music in a language you don't understand. It's a nice lesson to go have fun in a place where the fun isn't catered to you.

Whether you call yourself a tourist or a traveler, the first thing to do in Kotor, Montenegro is to climb the old fortress overlooking the town. I struggle with converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, but day I climbed the hill it was the kind of sweltering heat that permeates every corner of your body.

Perched in the most perfect rare corner of shade, I found Ben. He was charming and smart and French and a world nomad. We pushed our way to the top of the hill, parting ways only to end up sitting in the same cafe a couple hours later — each of us planning to dine solo with a book in hand. Instead, we split a table and talked travel.

"I like to think of myself more as a traveler," Ben told me and my heart sank slightly. But Ben might be the only traveler I've met who truly earned the romanticized term. He drank with locals in Dubrovnik. He helped construct a stage and run sound equipment for a small village concert. His next trip would bring him to South America where he'd donate physical labor to build a school.

I want my next visit to a far-off place to look more like that. Instead of bursting into a new city ready to take as much as I can out of the experience, I want to try to give something back to the places I go. Maybe then we can shrug off the tourist label for good. You're not a just tourist if you're a welcome guest.