I’m a Traveler. AND a Tourist.

“A person who travels.” Can you guess whether that is the definition of a tourist or a traveler? The answer: both. Due to the nature of my travel and work (as well as the places I’ve lived), I hear this tourist versus traveler debate frequently. I’ve heard many travelers quote G.K. Chesterton as saying, “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” However, I find a fundamental problem in arguing about two things that essentially mean the same thing. It’s almost like saying you love cats, but you’re not particularly a fan of felines. Or more relevantly, if I asked you if you considered yourself a foodie, and you responded with, “Oh no, I can’t be grouped with foodies. I’m a gastronomist.” Go around telling people you’re a gastronomist for a week and tell me if your Facebook friends’ list doesn’t dwindle.

Alaskan Cruise A year and a half ago I took my first cruise, an Alaskan cruise on Norwegian, from Seattle to Alaska. It was a departure from my typical travel style. But one of my first nights on the cruise, I met a family of four that was on their first Alaskan cruise. The husband and wife worked a combined 100+ hours per week and this was the one vacation they took ever year, a one-week cruise annually to a different destination. “Daddy, daddy, ” one of their girls exclaimed running up as I was walking with them around the cruise ship. “You just missed us passing by icebergs.” I had never seen someone so excited about a piece of ice. The entire family all week showed that kind of elation. Being from the suburbs of the south, this was their escape. No work. No emails. No phone. I started to realize then that it wasn’t about how many miles you go, but how much you put into those miles you go.  What’s important is not where you go, how many places you go, or how you experience it. What’s important is that you go.

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.-Abraham Lincoln

I feel like at times, there’s this superiority complex among travelers. We compete in our work, sports, hobbies, and relationships so often that it must be natural that there’s some inherent draw to competing in travel as well. People often ask me how many countries I’ve visited. And I have no idea. You’ve probably been to many more countries than I have. Last month was my first visit to Asia (to Okinawa, Japan), I’ve never visited South America or the South Pacific and I haven’t been east of Austria in Europe. Does that make me any less traveled than someone that has visited every country in the world?

Time Out put out an article of 20 great things in Los Angeles for tourists to do. I’ve done half of them, the most recent, being a trip to Disneyland, which I’m visiting today. I’ve also gone to the Hollywood Sign, attempted to pump some iron at Muscle Beach in Venice, perused the Original Farmers Market and The Grove, strolled the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and watched a movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. These are “touristy” things to do in L.A. I’ve also walked the Golden Gate Bridge, toured Alcatraz, visited the Statue of Liberty, gone to the top of the Eiffel Tower, and toured the World of Coca-Cola. Does this then make me a tourist, but not a traveler?

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

I don’t like olives. I don’t have anything against them. I just don’t prefer them. Friends have tried to introduce me to the “best olives they’ve ever had” on multiple occasions, and I still can’t come to enjoy them. I also don’t like sweet potatoes. But I love sweet potato fries. I hate grilled fish tacos, but one of my top three favorite foods is beer-battered fish tacos. I hate vodka, but a Greyhound cocktail is my favorite drink on a weekend morning. Do any of these dislikes make me any less of a foodie? Of course not. In the same way, one person’s travel interests and styles aren’t superior to any other person’s travel interests and styles. Can you imagine if we all traveled, ate, and drink the same way. How boring would that be?

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. -Robert Louis Stevenson

If the first place you want to go upon getting your passport is Cancun, then great. I’ll give you some recommendations based on your interests. If you want to go to Antarctica, then great. I don’t know anything about it, but I can tell you that you need to buy one of each of everything from The North Face’s winter stock and layer up. If you want to see all 50 U.S. states before even getting your passport, then great. I’ll give you some route recommendations and if you stop in L.A., I’ll buy you a beer. I will always eagerly seek out the off-the-beaten-path (literally) and go to that dive where I’m the only caucasian American, but I’d be lying if I’d said I’m above doing something “touristy.” I don’t care where you’re from, where you go, how you get there, or how many places you’ve gone and are going to. I just care that you go. It was the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who said, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” It’s for this reason that I’ve traveled and moved around like I have. I travel for change. Because if it really is about the journey, and not the destination, then who cares how many destinations you’ve gone to and how you choose to get there.


23 Comments on “I’m a Traveler. AND a Tourist.

  1. Spencer, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for posting this! I really can’t stand when people compete about travel, or when people say something along the lines of, “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller.” I believe that everyone has a right to travel however they want, so long as they are being as morally, culturally, and environmentally responsible as possible. Hopefully this doesn’t come across as spammy, but I recently posted about an experience I had with the whole tourist vs. traveller debate, and I came up with the same conclusion: I’m both. http://www.thisbatteredsuitcase.com/will-question-role-traveller/

    • Love the perspective Brenna! We’re all in it together. I don’t care how people do it or where they travel. I just care that they go. Thanks!

  2. Great words. Everyone has a different budget, different place in life (parents or single), different amounts of vacation time, live in cities with great airfare options versus terrible ones; no need to compare. I live in a city with terrible airfare, so there are destinations I choose not to travel to because the money I would have spent to get there I could use on two trips a little closer to home instead. Last October, for instance, we would’ve loved to travel to Greece. But we decided to spend less money and spend a week exploring New Mexico instead. It was a fabulous experience.

    • Love it Lance. I especially love your example from last October. Sometimes the greatest travel experiences are in our own backyard and don’t require a passport stamp.

  3. What I’ve found interesting about this discussion is that the “tourist vs traveller” debate rarely comes from the mouths of the “tourists”. Most tourists are just fine being tourists. In fact, being a tourist is something to be proud of. The “travellers” in this context typically want to separate themselves from the “tourist” group, often due to the superiority complex you’ve referenced. I understand, fundamentally, the difference between the two, but I can’t help but feel that everyone is “both”. Even the most seasoned of “off the beaten path” traveller is a tourist the second his/her passport is stamped for entry…

    • Great perspective here Cam. Especially appreciated your commentary about tourists feeling comfortable being just that.

  4. Beating the dead horse…

    It’s kinda funny but only ‘travelbloggers’ seem all too eager to dig up this corpse. Must be seasonal.

  5. Great article. I remember traveling with my brother for the first time. His first experience flying (outside him being an infant and flying to Disney World with the family). I remember stopping at a pull off of the Seward Highway. His face was priceless when he pointed and said “Look at those mountains! They have snow on them!” Throughout the trip, I took notice of how impressed he was by the sights and scenery. Having traveled to a few countries for hiking, these views may not have registered with me as they did him. I LOVE to do some of the cliche tourist things, along with the off beaten ones. I agree that travel and tourists can be one in the same. At least it is experiencing new things. Who cares where it is!

    • Thanks Angela! That’s one of my favorite things to do is to travel with someone who has never traveled abroad or hasn’t traveled much. I often take the travel experience for granted, and being with someone like that puts it back in perspective.

  6. “Go around telling people you’re a gastronomist for a week and tell me if your Facebook friends’ list doesn’t dwindle.” This made me laugh :)

    Very good points though. I also look at travel as somewhat of a personal thing. Therefore it’s so strange to me when I see people going at it like some sort of competition to see every country before they’re a certain age and whatnot. You really summed up my feelings about the subject in the last line. This was very refreshing to read.

    Happy travels :)

    • That was my favorite line too! It really is about just going. Where we go or how we get there or what we do doesn’t matter as much. Each trip is unique and personal, and it’s about what individually happens to each of us that ultimately matters.

  7. Hey Spencer,

    I’m with you, I couldn’t agree more. I spend a lot of mine time travelling round rural Africa. But, I also takes trips to Euro Disney… whatever. I love all kinds of travel, and really don’t see one above the other. Whatever makes you happy! Great article!

    • Love it, thanks Helen! I love that you spend so much time traveling around rural Africa. I would love that opportunity.

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  9. I love your gastronomer and foodie comparison. One truth I have found is those who some people might call only “tourists” are the ones who enjoy and appreciate their travels so much. My grandma was like that–rarely got to travel and was SO enthusiastic when she did get to travel.
    I have concerns about mass tourism but hate the traveler vs. tourist distinction. As humans we tend to compare like this in so many ways, ways that make us feel better about ourselves (in my field, I hear that with professor or instructor, linguist or applied linguist, etc.). So lame.

    • Ha! I think that line has become the crowd favorite, as well as my favorite. I’ve noticed the same about my family. They don’t need to travel abroad or to somewhere the interesting. They just like to travel, no matter where it is. That’s what it’s about at the end of the day. Thanks Jenna!

  10. I think I’ve cracked the riddle.

    Travellers think everyone else is a tourist.

    Tourists are blissfully unaware of the riddle.

    Either way, as long as you’re out there seeing/trying/loving/facing new things, then good for you.

    Happy travels (or touring),


  11. I’m so with you on this, Spencer. Nothing gets my dander up faster than people insisting that they’re “travelers, not tourists”–as if there’s something wrong with being labeled a tourist. That, and other questions and comments that betray a sense of superiority leave me thinking less of certain travelers. Recently someone on Twitter interacted with me for the first time, and his first question of me was “How many countries have you been to?” I had to resist the impulse to respond “Why? Is this a competition?” and instead opt for a more calm, reasoned response. But my initial reaction was that I didn’t think terribly highly of him for even asking that question, because a) why does that matter? and b) why would he care? I’m thrilled whenever I hear that people are traveling, no matter where they’re going or what form of travel they’re opting for. All that matters is that they’re traveling and seeing more of the world than their hometown.

    And yes, this is a topic that comes up over and over again in travel blogs, but that’s because we keep running into it over and over again. If people would stop making the distinction, we could stop addressing it.

    • I’ve gotten that question upon first meeting someone a few times. I got a -D in math, so that’s just too much work for me. Plus, I really think if it’s more about the journey than the destination, then travel should be more about the quality of the trips, than the quantity of the trips.

  12. I can give recommendations for Antarctica! :-D The first is to go. It’s awesome. And sure, like you said, you’ll need to buy a bunch of North Face. But oh my is it worth it.

    • Antarctica is def at the top of my list. And I will in fact buy a lot of thermals and North Face and ninja masks.

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