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

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“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


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


…or traveled solo.


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

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  1. […] whole traveler/tourist debate is a load of elitist baloney (Amanda at A Dangerous Business has a great post on this), I would say that I’m a fan of cultural […]

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