The Traveler vs. Tourist Debate and Why I Don’t Give a Crap

Last updated on:
Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!). Read the full disclosure policy here.

“I am not a tourist.”

This is the tagline for a tour company's latest campaign, where they are trying to inspire people to begin traveling differently.

Now, I’m all for inspiring people to travel. I’m also all for trying to convince people to travel outside of their comfort zones in order to experience places more deeply. It’s good to get “off the beaten path” sometimes.

But I have to be honest – I kind of take issue with the whole “I am not a tourist” campaign.

Kapiti Island

The traveler vs. tourist debate is certainly not a new one. For years, travelers and tourists have been defined and delineated, being separated from one another and placed at two ends of an invisible travel spectrum.

Tourists are the ones who wear fanny packs and Aloha shirts. They’re the ones piling out of big buses to strike stupid poses in front of all the tourist sites. They are the ones eating at McDonalds because they’re afraid of “weird” food. They are the close-minded ones worthy of ridicule.

Travelers are the ones who tote backpacks and only 3 pairs of underwear around the world. They use local transportation and thrive on living in hostel dorm rooms. They eat at street stalls and interact with locals as much as possible. They are the adventurous ones worthy of envy.

At least, these are the definitions we’ve been presented with – that tourists are “bad” and travelers are “good.”

But you know what? Those definitions are a bunch of crap. They’re nothing more than narrow stereotypes, and it bothers me when they are pitted against one another, as if one is more desirable than the other. When a big tour company tells people to “take travel back from the socks-and-sandals tourist crowd,” it makes it sound as though the evil tourists are ruing travel for everybody.

Which isn't true, of course.

Forbidden City
Would you skip this just because it's “touristy”?

I don’t care how you travel. I don’t judge where you go. I don’t label the “tourists” and the “travelers,” because, at the end of the day, those are stupid labels anyway. Not all “tourists” are buffoons, and not all “travelers” are saints. People are people, regardless of their travel style. I'm just glad they're traveling at all.

And yet, we are still confronted with the tourist vs. traveler debate time and time again.

My main question is: why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t a tourist also be a traveler, and vice versa?

What would you call a person who books a spot on a guided tour, but who spends their free time chatting with locals and getting lost in new cities? What would you call a person who backpacks around Europe, but only stays in places with Western amenities? Is one of these people “better” than the other? Of course not.

The truth is, there are some travel styles that just do not fit into either the “tourist” or “traveler” category. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I am proudly a little bit of both.

If I stuck my nose up at “touristy” things, I would have never…

…climbed the Great Wall of China…

Great Wall

…visited the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

…watched a sunset on Waikiki Beach…

Waikiki Sunset

…cruised through Milford Sound…

Milford Sound

…or climbed to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica

Some of these “touristy” experiences have been some of my favorites. I have great memories from all around the world of being a tourist, taking lots of photos, and just enjoying the sites that everyone comes to see.

At the same time, if I refused to be a “traveler,” I would have never…

…went hiking on a glacier…

Franz Josef Glacier

…road tripped across the United States…

Road Trip

…climbed sea cliffs in New Zealand

Castlepoint

…seen one of the world’s rarest birds up close…

Takahe

…or traveled solo.

Wanaka

These, too, are some of my favorite travel experiences. And I never would have had any of them if I’d been too afraid to leave the guided tour behind.

But, looking back on all of the amazing travel experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have, it becomes clear to me that it’s not about being a “traveler” as opposed to a “tourist.” It’s more about taking advantage of opportunities and doing the things that appeal to me.

I don’t travel for anybody else, so why should I let somebody else tell me “the right way” to travel?

Because here’s a not-so-secret secret: there is no “right way.” There's no “wrong way,” either. There’s only the way that works best for you. And sure, maybe your style is different than the next person’s, but that doesn’t make it okay to apply those “tourist” and “traveler” labels.

Screw those labels. And screw the people who use them in a derogatory way.

I’m going to keep traveling the way I want to travel, no matter what you call me. And I hope you'll do the same.

READ NEXT: Am I a Lame Traveler?

What do you think of these labels? Do you have to be one or the other? How do you feel about the “I am not a tourist” campaign?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

Join the ADB Community!
Sign up here to get exclusive travel tips, deals, and other inspiring goodies delivered to your inbox.

185 Comments on “The Traveler vs. Tourist Debate and Why I Don’t Give a Crap

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

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

  1. For me, the goal is to not be an “obnoxious tourist” or “jaded traveler.” I don’t want to be the guy that eats at McDonalds, but I also don’t want to be too cool for the Eiffel Tower.

      You sound exactly like me! And I think you summed up what I was trying to say in this whole post in 2 sentences. Lol. Nicely put!

      Absolutely agree with you two – I feel that when travelers claim they aren’t “tourists” they are referring to the obnoxious minority who have no respect for the countries they are visiting. Then again, some travelers are just as bad in their own way – so self-righteous, as if they are saving the world by traveling.

      There is no correct way to travel, just as there’s no correct flavor of ice-cream.

        Well said, Roy! I agree that some “travelers” can be just as bad as the “tourists” they look down their noses at.

    Those must-see tourist attractions earned their popularity for a reason. I for one, am not going to skip it because it’s a ‘tourist’ attraction. Now tourist traps that serve bad food near those attractions, that’s another story.

      Agreed, Gerard. The “big” tourist attractions may indeed be kitschy and crowded, but they’re that way for good reason, and I certainly wouldn’t skip any of them! Sometimes, I really like just being a tourist and seeing the sights when I’m visited a new place.

    Wow, I had no idea about G Adventures latest slogan. I’m totally with you. I think it’s crap. I’m a total tourist and unapologetic about it. I take the “must-take” photos, I eat at restaurants with menus translated into different languages and I avoid hostels like the plague. But that doesn’t make me disrespectful. There’s a difference there.

    I’m a traveler too, and I think, at the end of the day, everyone is a little bit of both. Tourist experiences are some of the best.

      I’m so glad I’m not alone on this! Though I feel like all of you who are commenting are putting it much better than me! Lol. I’m like you, though — I enjoy doing all the must-do touristy things and documenting it in photos and on video. Like you said, those experiences are some of the best!

      And I agree that those people who really love to travel are a little bit of both.

    OMG THANK YOU… I FU**ING HATE THAT CAMPAIGN… and because of it stopped following them. I even tweeted to them about it a while back and they ignored me. I think it is stupid and pathetic… I mean really for any “TOURING” company to write that is kinda stupid. I mean really “YOU’RE NOT A TOURIST So why travel like one?”.

    To me and I have argued this topic with other “backpackers” in the end we are ALL TOURIST… we are visiting new places and touring them… no matter how we do it, solo or in a group we are TOURIST. If we visit a must see attraction or go off the beaten path we are still touring so um yes we are still TOURSIT. I’ve been wanting to write about this on my blog… but I have made a promise to keep the blogging and travel world out of it for now while I am on the road. I want it to be a diary of my travels & experiences. As for being a tourist or traveler I would say I am a tourist… cus who cares there is nothing wrong with that. In the end we are experience a different place, culture and seeing new things.

      Haha, have I told you lately that I love you, Jaime?? I’m glad you agree with me on this!

    Ditto to what Deej said. I agree that narrow stereotypes are largely BS, but at the same time, most stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason. That said, there are definitely plenty of “tourists” who are absolutely lovely people once you get to know them, and there are plenty of “travelers” who are snotty asshats.

      “Snotty asshats”… love it! And you’re so right, of course. I totally agree that stereotypes are definitely borne out of some degree of truth. But I think these stereotypes have gotten out of hand in the way that they’re used to sort of put people down.

    Hehe well you know how I feel about it. Kind of dumb. I’m a tourist ALL THE TIME – it’s ok… it’s fun!

      I do indeed know how you feel about it! 🙂 And I agree — being a tourist sometimes is definitely fun!

    I love this post! I think the most important part of traveling is keeping an open mind. If you won’t do something because its too “touristy” you are only cheating yourself.

      Thanks Elizabeth! And I agree that you’re often missing out by skipping something just because the “tourists go there.”

    I agree–everybody needs to take a deep breath and walk their own walk.

    What’s wrong with eating at McDonalds? My husband and I like to eat where the locals eat, but there are times when you just want a quick meal in McDonalds. Plus it seems to taste better in another country.

    In all seriousness you travel for yourself. Do whatever makes you happy, no matter how touristy it seems. The rest are just haterzzzz. =)

      Haha, you know what? I’m totally guilty of eating at McDonalds abroad too, Sheila! But seriously… how could I go to a place like China and NOT check out what they have on their dollar menu?? 😉

        Plus they have free wifi! I eat more McDonalds when I’m travelling than anything else (and their banana bread in Oz is amazing too!)

        I totally agree. An American friend who came to India was so amused at our ‘Mc Spicy’ burgers she had to take pics of the poster.
        I was shocked to see the McDonalds in Cairo had no vegetarian food. Esp since we have like at least 10 veg options here.
        You learn abt different cultures in McD 😀

          Haha, that’s very true! You really can learn a bit about different cultures just by checking out their McDonalds’.

    A fantastic post about a highly controversial issue amongst backpackers, travellers, tourists, holidaymakers (or whatever people like to call themselves). As somebody else pointed out we are all essentially tourists when we visit a well-known attraction, it doesn’t matter if you got there by local transport, tour bus or private jet. I don’t understand why people get so upset about it – just travel your way and let others do the same!

      I don’t know why it has to be such a big issue, either! People should just travel how they want to travel, and leave everybody else alone.

      Thanks for reading!

    I agree. If we are visiting a country we are all tourists. Locals don’t distinguish between tourists and travellers. I think a mix of touristy attractions and more unusual or “local” experiences is the way to go, but really it’s up to everyone to just do what they want (as long as they aren’t being obnoxious or disrespectful of local culture).

      Regardless of what you call yourself, being obnoxious or disrespectful is NEVER okay. But I totally agree that locals don’t distinguish between tourists and travelers — to them we are all the same. Now, if only we could see ourselves that way!

    First off, touristy things wouldn’t be touristy if there wasn’t a reason to see them! It’s all about doing what you’re comfortable with and enjoy–there’s a way to travel for everyone, even if that way to travel is a bit more touristy!

      Exactly my opinion, Christine. The millions of people who visit the “top” spots every year can’t all be wrong, right?

    I believe that all tourists are travelers and all travelers are tourists. I don’t see a difference between the two and can’t stand it when people think that one is better than the other.

    Some of our favourite adventures have been at hugely popular tourist attractions like Machu Picchu and Petra… we don’t like crowds or tourist traps, but that’s the price we all have to pay to experience some of our world’s top attractions (supply and demand!).

      I don’t really see the need to differentiate between the two either, Cam. Like you said, I think most people are a mixture of both anyway!

    Fantastic post, Amanda. We totally agree with you – we’re all tourists in the end, no matter in which way we’re traveling, as part of an organized trip or backpacking. We certainly see ourselves as tourists and we would never even think about skipping a sight because it’s touristy.

      Thanks, Dani! I’m with you — I’d never consider skipping a site just because someone else might classify it as being “too touristy.” Sometimes, those end up being my favorite places!

    Sometimes I am tourist, sometimes – traveler, but who cares how somebody calls you?

      I think we definitely shouldn’t care! But, unfortunately, plenty of people do.

    Totally agree! I am neither a tourist nor a traveller but a little bit of both and more! I love to see and get my picture at all the tourist hot spots and yet I want to see more, to hear more to touch more. I like to experience the authentic experience but every now and again indulge in some Western home comforts – and why not?
    Great blog – I can sense your anger!

      Thanks Fiona, glad you enjoyed this post! It’s not anger so much as annoyance. I mean, we’re ALL traveling, no matter what labels are given to us. So shouldn’t we all be getting along and supporting each other?

    Such a well written post, it’s refreshing for a traveller/tourist to not care whether they are a tourist/traveller! I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of sneering at ‘tourists’, but I really am not one to judge, as my personal formula of travelling/touring is, as you say, a mix of both. I’ve eaten McDonald’s once or twice whilst abroad. I’ve also tried some amazing local cuisine (sushi for breakfast, anyone?!). I’ve booked on bus tours, and I’ve taken public transport. I’ve stayed in hostels, used Air BnB, slept in a car on a mountain and booked lovely hotels. And I’ve loved it all. So…I’m with you…who cares?! Thanks for opening the floor to such a great topic!!

      Thank YOU, Elle, for adding to the great discussion. I really try my hardest not to judge others when I travel (unless, of course, they are being really obnoxious or disrespectful) because I know everyone travels differently, and no one shouldnever be made to feel badly about their travel choices!

    Hey Amanda,

    First off all, thank you for your passion for travel. Believe me, G Adventures couldn’t agree with you more.

    For us, it’s not about calling ourselves “travelers” in order to feel superior over less-informed “tourists”. As you’ve mentioned, we’ve all been tourists on plenty of occasions. After all, hitting a resort really doesn’t allow you to absorb the local culture. It’s about hanging out in the sun and tipping a few back. The difference, however, is a state of mind. It’s about recognizing that not being a ‘stereotypical tourist’ entails an attempt to absorb the culture a bit more. That’s what’s really at the hear of the ‘You’ll Never Forget It’ campaign. It’s meant to encourage people to look beyond the sites and monuments of a place—in hopes of revealing the more enduring beauty in the lives in the cultures and people that are local to the areas.

    No doubt that our tours still include famous sites that “tourists” would visit (as your responses highlight, for good reason), and they also include unforgettable experiences that only a “traveller” would uncover.

    In the recent past, people who may have only ever seen a country from behind a resort wall (or as you said, piling out of a big bus and snapping a few shots and then piling back on) have experienced trepidation when looking beyond those limits. There is a fear of the unknown that keeps them from truly knowing a place. Our goal is to show these people that they too can experience those things that were typically reserved for only the most avid backpackers. They too can see the world through new eyes.

    We are all travellers in this life, and we all travel for different reasons. In our experience, we find that the most unforgettable experiences are never part of an itinerary, they happen if you let them. With ‘You’ll Never Forget It’, our hope is that we open that conversation. That tourists and travellers take the time to interact with local people, try a traditional restaurant, and as you said “get off the beaten path” from time to time.

    If we can get more travellers doing this, we can support more local economies, open more minds and hearts to the beauty of our differences, and generally make the world a better place.

    Thank you for your heartfelt response. If you’re interested, we would welcome a chance for a member of our Brand Team to have a one-on-one conversation with you for a deeper look at the design and goals for the campaign. If so, please call our office at 1 888 800 4100 and ask for me.

    Cheers,
    Neil

      Hey Neil, thanks so much for your response. I really appreciate it, and I hope you understand that this is in no way an attack on G Adventures or anything like that. I actually think what you guys do is great, and that your tours probably are some of the least “touristy” ones out there. I also appreciate that you focus on supporting local economies, because that’s so important in making tourism sustainable all around the world.

      However, the whole “I am not a tourist” mantra still does rub me the wrong way. I understand that you’re not rallying against tourists or anything like that. But by having dialogue about how “I do not get competitive about shuffleboard,” etc., it almost does come off with an air of superiority. I understand the message, but I guess I’m just not a fan of how it’s being presented.

      But thank you so much for weighing in on this post and adding to the conversation!

    Without tourists alot of travellers wouldn’t have jobs. I work in a ski town, up the hill, and without the tourists coming in and spending their dollar I wouldn’t have a job in a town I love.

      Very true, Mike! Without the “tourists,” a lot of people and places would suffer.

    You have it exactly right. Most people staying in a hostel, in room with10 people would take a room of there own if it’s the same price. Travel is about seeing the world however you can. If you get tired of hostels and need to stay someplace nice then go for it. On my trip around the works I used everything from a tent to a 5 star hotel. Sometimes a few days of luxury can help you recover and get you ready for more hostels and camping. It’s all about the magical moments and not trying to feel more significant or better than everyone else. Justin

      Trip around the world I mean. Stupid iPhone spell checker.

      Well it’s great that you just traveled the way you wanted to, Justin. That’s definitely the way to do it! And I agree that sometimes a day or two of luxury is just what the doctor ordered.

    I ‘ve been thinking about this a lot lately and, like you, get so annoyed when there appears to be a pretentious element to travel. I think that, despite people choosing different styles of travel, we are all tourists – whether it’s climbing the Eiffel tower or trekking solo through the Amazon Rainforest naked on a pogo stick (okay, that’s a random and slightly weird idea which I haven’t done by the way :-)) I love visiting the ‘touristy’ attractions, but always like to look out for something unique and different as well. I think there seems to be a bit of an aversion to the ‘tourist’ label. It can often be associated with unadventurous travel, following the trodden trail, blah blah. People should just do what they want, without there being any labels.

      Yes, the “tourist” label is often associated with travel devoid of any novelty. And there are definitely people who don’t want a lot of novelty when they travel. But I don’t see why we’re supposed to “look down” on them. It’s not like you can force someone to want to be more adventurous…

      Also, I had to laugh out loud at the “trekking solo through the Amazon Rainforest naked on a pogo stick.” Haha! I wonder who’s going to try it now.

    Love all the comments you have gotten regarding this post. I am glad to see that most of us feel the same way:-). We all travel differently, we all have our quarks and really, that is what makes us all unique! If we were just one or the other, how boring would that be?

    Great post, as always:-)