Traveler vs Tourist: Traveling Without Labels

The traveler-vs-tourist debate has been around for ages. To some, a tourist is somebody who is more interested in the destination and not the journey, who usually avails of pre-arranged tours and sticks with the guidebooks, who books accommodations beforehand, and who only admires the place and not make attempts to connect with the locals and immerse in the culture. On the other hand, a traveler does the exact opposite: he enjoys the journey as much as the destination, gets lost in the crowd and go where their feet lead them, ditches guidebooks, connects with locals and immerses in the community to appreciate the culture and be part of it.

And that, my friends, is a big ball of crap. There are many forms of traveling and to say or imply that one form is better or even more respectable than the other is a form of elitism and snobbery. Travelers have their own reasons and goals for, and approaches and styles of traveling.

The problem with these definitions is that they are stereotypical and superficial, and they look like something cooked up by people with egos as colossal as the globe so that they could not only feel good about themselves but also superior to others. Blogger Runaway Jane nailed it here:

“If you look at the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a tourist, it simply defines the word tourist as ‘a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.’ I don’t know about you, but every “traveller” I have ever met on my travels has been travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.”

If I may add, however, unless you’re traveling for business or work and/or you do not wish to see anything other than your hotel room or your office, then no, you’re not a tourist.

But as long as you’re traveling for pleasure in a land where you do not reside, you are a tourist. And yes, you’re a traveler, too.

There are many problems with the “labeling” mentioned above. For example, booking accommodations in advance, whether you call yourself a traveler or a tourist, is something you are encouraged to do if you’re holding a Philippine passport and if you want to make it past the Immigration counters fast and easy!

The truth is, to locals, foreign visitors traveling for leisure are all tourists, unless you decide to stay for a looooong period of time and get a job there. And guidebooks — travelers don’t need them and tourists depend on them? Part of being a responsible traveler is learning about the place beforehand so you wouldn’t do something rude, offensive, or illegal unintentionally when you get there. And oh, you can’t say you’re above those who use guidebooks when you heavily research online (websites, forums, blogs) for useful tips and information. I mean, come on.

The Problem with Labels

Traveling is starting to enjoy so much popularity lately and it is expected that many types of travelers would emerge. As they grow, they are tagged with labels. The problem with labels is they tend to come with brewing stereotypes. What’s worse is when one claims to be better than the other.

Who are we to say that a person who travels every weekend, what many consider a “tourist”, is less of a traveler than somebody who has been backpacking long-term? What if a long-term “traveler” fails to connect with the locals like what a long-term traveler is expected to do? Should they be “demoted” to the “tourist” status?

What if a “tourist”, who only had weekends to travel, comes back again and again to one place for years that the locals there have known him by face, by name, and deeper than any “traveler” who stayed there longer? Are they still a tourist? Or are they now a traveler?

Finally, let’s assume that somebody does not connect with the locals or immerse in the culture AT ALL. Let’s say that they just visit places simply to relax, take a break, and go sightseeing. Or maybe that’s just their thing. Let’s say that they’re a “tourist” in every sense of the word. What is so wrong with that? At the very least, they still contribute to local economy.

The problem with labels is that it often doesn’t fit everyone in the group it is supposed to describe. Like I said, we all have our reasons and goals for traveling and each of us is coming from different personal backgrounds. Yes, they do matter, too. Not everyone has the luxury (of time or money) to stay longer or go deeper in destinations they choose to visit. Not every journey has to be introspective or a step towards self-discovery. Some of us who don’t usually get an opportunity to travel will grab it to just enjoy and have fun. And as long as you do it responsibly, it’s completely fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

I remember this one conversation that I had with a friend. “They’re just labels,” I said.

“We need labels to know the content,” he replied.

“That’s true, yes, if we’re talking about medicine bottles. But we’re talking about people,” I added.

We’re not inanimate objects like pills and tablets that can be boxed into strict and rigid descriptions that are prescribed by others. If history tells us anything about labels, it’s that it can be dangerous when applied to something as complicated as human beings. Heck, even Harry Potter teaches us that. You don’t just classify someone a “mudblood”; you’re all wizards for crying out loud.

If you want to enjoy your trips better, you have to be open-minded about many things and accept the differences that come with diversity. Why can’t we give the same open-mindedness to others who share the same passion? Backpacker or “package tourists,” weekend traveler or long-term traveler, budget traveler or luxury traveler, “traveler” or “tourist” — you are a traveler and we all contribute something to the places we visit.

There are many types of travelers. Travel at your own pace, in your own way. If there’s one thing we should all learn from our journeys, it is that we live in a big, big world, and everyone has a place in it.


    • I agree, Christian. The thing that drives me crazy is when they start generalizing traits. Travelers are like this, tourists are like that, blah blah. Ugh.

  1. Finally! Someone said it all! I hate to say this but I really hate people who are very proud that they are the so called “traveler” and not just a tourist. Who cares right?! Thank you for this post. You nailed it!

  2. Thank you for writing this. We all have our reasons for traveling, and we really shouldn’t look down on how other people choose to travel. On a sidenote, I like the Mario-Luigi & Harry Potter references ;p

  3. Very nicely written and I encounter this somewhere too, the distinct reference to traveler and tourist and I agree with you as long as Mario and Luigi, no matter what their description of their travels are, keep on enjoying the company of the road, they are well beyond in their exploits of the world, one which will definitely inspire us. Of course, minus the labeling 🙂

    Honestly, I seldom encounter bloggers who write very well and you are one of those who write beyond par. Kudos to u Yoshke 🙂

  4. yeah, i’ve read also about difference between backpacker, tourist, and flashpacker, although i do’t agree about giving labels to the traveller, we are the same right? nice blog pal!

  5. kapag binabasa ko to,naiisip ko ung ibang religion na nakikipagtalo saken minsan na sila ung totoo at maliligtas..hahah.. aun :))

  6. I totally agree! Great writing as always Yoshke!! 🙂 It just goes to say that some people really prefer the form rather than the substance. The most important part of travelling is not just the connection to the place, but how the place has changed you as a person. Travelling is not as superficial as defining the difference between being a ‘traveler’ and a ‘tourist’. 🙂

  7. I agree that labeling how one travels is wrong. It has actually no sense at all. Your opening paragraphs had me disinterested in your article, poor comparison between labels. Haha I just thought your article might get bearable if I continued.

  8. I totally agree. As long as you enjoy what you, the places you visited, the people you are with, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself (traveler or tourist).

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.