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

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  1. Amanda, I agree with everything you say. Today,I completed some ” are you a traveller or a tourist?” quiz. The questions were shallow and just black or white , no grey areas. The impression these quizzes give me was if you plan your holidays in advance,if you sightsee,if you like beach and pool then you are a tourist , and if you don’t plans the things in advance you are a traveller. Every country has its own unique experience. I have been to Greenland and Svalbard . It is almost impossible to visit these places without planing. You cant do that “off the beaten track thing” in Svalbard cos you are not even allowed to leave the town without a gun which you need a licence for cos of polar bears.

    Apparently, travellers talk to local people ,i wonder how many travellers remember the names of the locals they talk to once they return to their home country.

    I am a tourist and proud of it 🙂

      I’m with you – a tourist and not ashamed of it!

    OH, you’ve echoed MY sentiments exactly!!! I too take issue with the whole tourist vs. traveler issue! I even had some dude yell across the street at me (very negatively I might add), while I was walking in Little Italy in San Francisco with my souvenir bags and my camera around my neck – “Tourist!”. I ignored him at the time, but in hindsight I have some things to say to this rude dude! “Tourism” is a multi-million dollar industry, and San Fran is one of the most “touristy” spots in the nation! I AM a tourist and I don’t mind that at all! Not even a little embarrassed about it! He can come to my beautiful home in Kentucky and “tour” it all he wants to and I would welcome him with HIS camera and “tourist” stuff! Who says one is better than the other?? And WHY?? Like you say, who cares HOW you travel, JUST TRAVEL!!!!
    PS: Loved seeing your pics! You’ve seen so many u

      I always think it’s hilarious when people say they aren’t tourists. If you are visiting a place that you don’t live in with the purpose of seeing sights, trying new food, and meeting people, then you ARE a tourist. Period! And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Like you said, tourism is a huge industry!!

    For me the “teeming masses” of tourists in certain places, are just as colourful and exotic as the locals in others 😉 And of course I always tell the locals that I am “a tourist”! I arrive on a tourist visa for christ’s sake.

    Thank you…I no longer have to be in the closet about visiting Disneyland in Hong Kong… And you know what… I got Mickey’s signature too….so what!

      Hahaha, absolutely nothing wrong with that! When you’re traveling, you should do whatever it is that YOU want to do, no matter how touristy it is.

    […] of all I dislike the traveler vs tourist debate (there’s a great post here that sums up my feelings on it). I’ve gone to Times Square in New York, the Tower of London […]

    […] 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 […]

    I think it all comes down to interpretation. I must admit, I tend to leave a ‘Tourist Trap’ fairly quickly after visiting one and then trying to lose myself down surrounding streets to see where takes me – and this has provided the best travel experiences for me!

      Yup, as with many things in life, it all comes down to how you interpret it for yourself. Sounds like your method works pretty well for you though!

    […] listen to anyone who tells you that they know the “right” way to travel. There is no “right way.” There’s only the way that works for YOU. Whether you’re a budget backpacker or a luxury […]

    I agree with you. People screwing their noise up at being called a tourist reminds me of that book “Stuff White People Like” i.e., people thinking they have unique tastes and interests that are better than other people’s tastes and interests, when their tastes and interests aren’t very unique at all!

      People who think they’re better than other people for any reason at all bother me!

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m pretty sure the distinction was invented by some smug backpacker, a group I once belonged to (not the smug part).

    I’ve always found it ironic how the travellers insist that they’re seeing the “real” [insert country name here], while guzzling Budweisers and watching Die Hard, as Bob Marley plays in the background. Meanwhile, the loathsome tourists are in their hotel lobby watching a traditional dance performance.

      Well, whoever invented the distinctions, they definitely WERE invented at some point!

        Yep, and it’s a shame that people need labels and cubbyholes for things like this. Humans love to explore, and there’s a whole spectrum of ways in which people travel.

        Actually, it seems someone drew an imaginary line between suitcases and backpacks to determine which little box to put people in.

        Anyway, I still laugh at the term backpacker, because for me it means heading out into the bush in the White Mountains for a week!

    Give me a break, acting like you are above the debate is just as bad as being in the debate. It is quite obvious that you are the type of tourist that goes places just so you can tell people you have been there, otherwise you wouldn’t have felt the need to catalog all these places you have been to in your article. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist or a traveler but there is a difference.

      You’re entitled to your opinion, of course. But no, I’m not the type of person to go to places just so I can brag about them…

      Wow. Someone got up on the wrong side of his bed this morning.

      @John: A little bit of browsing the site would make it clear that its dangerous author is *first* a traveler, and then someone who’s kind enough to share her experiences.

      I, for one am glad she does. I do a lot of travel myself, am occasionally a tourist and always envy her ability to document the interesting places she’s been. We have both been to some of the same places and it’s fascinating to see them through someone else’s eyes.

      Perhaps, if you actually believe that there’s a difference between a traveler and a tourist you might contribute positively to the discussion by sharing your views.

      Attacking and criticizing someone for raising the issue and expressing her opinion accomplishes nothing positive.

    Really nice photos. I didn’t know that there was a distinction between a tourist and a traveler. I always assumed that they were the same thing. I suppose there is a stigma attached to the word tourist, but we’re not all like the Griswold family.

      It just depends who you ask, really, when it comes to how much of a distinction someone makes between “traveler” and “tourist.” I personally don’t care!

    For me the definition is really quite simple. Anyone who travels for any reason at all, be it to see the sites, holiday, business, family reunion or whatever is a traveller.

    A tourist is a person who goes somewhere away from home for a holiday/see the sites regardless of the style transportation or accomodation.

    A tourist is a subset of travellers.

    Great article, I really think you have a great point. It’s a balance between being adventurous but missing out on big things either.

      Exactly! In the end, I don’t care what people think and just do/see what I want!

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