The traveler vs. tourist debate has been raging for years, and I disagree with almost every blogger who writes on the topic. At some point, the word tourist became an insult.
Article upon article has been written on how to travel the world without acting like one. Just a quick Google search has plenty of sites shaming tourists, calling them cheap, loud, drunk, and more.
Even Rick Steves, the famed travel writer, wrote an article called “The Ugly Tourist (and How Not to be One)” in which he divides visitors to Europe into two classes.
As you can guess, the “bad” one is, “those who view Europe through air-conditioned bus windows, socializing with their noisy American friends.” If you do any sort of tour or don’t hang out with random strangers that you meet on the street, you’re clearly traveling wrong. You are (dare I even say it?) an ugly tourist.
Oh, and god forbid you want to take a photo. Apparently, to Rick, “the worst ones have selfie sticks.” If you’re traveling alone, forget about taking a cute pic of yourself because if you whip one out you’ll quickly be labeled as a narcissist and that dirty “t” word again!
Outside of the internet, I’ve met countless backpackers on my trips who offhandedly dismiss destinations, cities, and even entire countries as too touristy. For full effect, make sure you imagine this being said with a tone that indicates they’re clearly above the base location, and definitely won’t be adding it to their to-do list.
Is there anything more ignorant and close-minded than that?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a tourist as “a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure,” and Merriam-Webster states that a tourist is “one that makes a tour for pleasure or culture.” By these definitions, a trip to seek enlightenment with the monks in the Tibetan Mountains is just as touristy as a spring break vacation to an all-inclusive resort.
If you’re not one of the few exceptions, like an expat working in a foreign country, I have some very, very bad news for you: you’re a tourist.
Call yourself a backpacker, call yourself a traveler, call yourself a digital nomad or a million other names, but the facts are that you’re a tourist when you travel in a new country, and being a tourist is not bad or wrong or anything to be ashamed of.
I travel full-time and some of the most amazing places I have ever seen are solidly of the tourist persuasion: Machu Picchu in Peru, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, and pretty much the entire city of Florence, Italy. Sticking to the off-the-beaten-path destinations would mean missing out on the best that almost every country has to offer, and the truth is that touristy places are often popular because they’re cool, unique, and worth visiting.
There’s plenty of touristy things I love to do that the internet vilifies in their traveler vs. tourist articles.
I hang out with other Americans I meet, don’t speak every language fluently when I visit a new country, and I almost never choose to do a homestay to “immerse myself with the locals.” ‘Cause you know what the locals are doing? Going to work from nine-to-five, then coming home to watch Netflix.
Sometimes… I even eat fast food. Honestly, whether you choose a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant or an international chain, it doesn’t matter. Your travel experience is no one else’s to judge as wrong or right.
However, even though I’m a tourist there are still plenty of things I don’t do when I visit new countries, like insult local customs or expect everyone to speak English.
You know why I don’t do these things? Because I’m not a dick. My behavior in other countries has nothing to do with being a holier-than-thou traveler, and everything to do with being a decent human being.
There’s a wrong way to be a human, but there’s no wrong way to travel.
As long as you are kind, thoughtful, and open-minded, you do you. Take a bus tour, or renovate a bus and get off the grid. Wait in insanely long lines at famous restaurants, or do a homestay and learn to cook the local cuisine.
Explore somewhere new the way you see fit, enjoy your travels, and please stop using the infamous “t” word as an insult, because it’s not.
Where do you stand in the traveler vs. tourist debate? Comment below with your thoughts!
PS stick around and browse the Interesting Reads series to see why I think America’s dining culture is super strange, read my rant thoughts on how to furnish an Airbnb apartment, listen to my handpicked travel playlists on Spotify and much more.