The Big Traveler vs Tourist Debate: Why It Needs to Die

traveler vs tourist

It’s been a while since I thought about the whole debate of being a traveler versus being a tourist. I usually come up with an opinion on it every time I read a new round of blog posts in the travel community talking about it, and then have to reestablish how I feel about it every few months.

The truth is that the line between traveler in tourist is difficult to define—just as what qualifies you as someone who “lived” in a foreign country. Is it a month? Three months? Three years? These are all arbitrary and personal definitions that we make up in order to suit our needs. I studied abroad in Venice for three months and it felt like I had been there forever, but living in Granada for six has barely given me enough time to appreciate it.

So what is a tourist? I usually think of them as the E.M. Forster definition of “Anglo-Saxons” in A Room with a View. They are people who spend only a few days in a location and do not interact with locals other to purchase things or be waited on. After that, it’s often off to the next destination, where they repeat the same actions in a new place.

What’s a traveler? My definition is someone who tries to connect with a place for a little longer. He or she might make friends from that country, or he or she could be an expat. Travelers tend to want to understand a spot from a cultural level by trying the foods and activities in the area. They might want to find places which might not be on the suggested itinerary to enjoy.

The reason why the traveler versus tourist debate is something that rolls around on a regular basis is that we all have been in the position of both. You don’t always have the opportunity to stay in a place for weeks or months in order to form a connection with it or meet the people who live there. One example I remember from recent trips was heading to Kyoto. We had two days to see everything, which is no small task. We didn’t have time to ask what type of local foods we should leisurely enjoy or have time to form a friendship with someone who lived there. We were tourists—and frantic ones at that.

However, I had tons of time living in Lucca, Italy to practice my Italian, eat the local cakes made of pine nuts, and chat with both Italian and expat friends. I now know Italy very well and can comment on the Italian experience. You don’t even have to live in a location in order to be a traveler—I connected well with the city of Fes even though I had only been there a few days. I loved it so much that I went back to experience it more.

I would like to say I’m always a traveler, but I’ve been both. I’ve spent only a few days in a location and have kept inside my own bubble. Sometimes, that’s how you want to see the world and that’s okay. Sometimes, you have to experience the world with what you feel comfortable with. I’ve been a tourist and I will be again. I find that even this small slice of time in a place is better than nothing and I can always return if I want to see it again.

The traveler versus tourist debate needs to die because either way, whichever type of travel you choose, you’re choosing to open your mind and experience the world in a new way. That is more than most choose to do in their lifetimes. One can easily become the other—and you can be both simultaneously.

When have you been a tourist? A traveler?

Keep wandering,

Alex Signature Wander


  1. giddayfromtheuk

    I’m an expat Aussie living in London (13+ years now) and have definitely been both traveller and tourist. Why does it matter so much to some which you are? As you say, being open to new experiences in whatever way you choose to connect with them has got to be a positive thing, right?

  2. Christie

    I completely agree that this debate needs to die! The important thing is people getting out there and seeing new parts of the world and cultures. Everyone has a different style of travelling and no matter what that style is, it’s still better than staying home. Thanks for the post 🙂

  3. Staci

    Interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing. I agree that the debate needs to die because it’s a way for such “travelers” to low-key look down on “basic tourists.” We should simply be encouraging each other to expand our horizons all the time, in our own ways. 🙂

  4. Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad

    I definitely think there is a difference, but I also think people concentrate on it too much! People get offended if you call them a tourist. To me, a tourist and a traveller ARE the same thing, but the connotations with “tourist” is now synonymous with the image of all-inclusive resorts, no local interaction, eating food from home, etc etc and that’s why the debate started. Really, I think it’s down to your attitude. I’ve been both, and like you, I’d like to always think of myself as a “traveller”. So, surely, that’s what I am. I may be playing a tourist (although I’ve never done the whole all-inclusive thing), but I’m also taking interest in a culture, whether I’m there for a day or a month. I think THAT’S what defines the difference between the two.

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