Nowadays, it’s easier than ever for a person to hop on a plane and visit any corner of the globe. With the increase in international travel and prominence of social media sites like Instagram showing endless feeds of travel photos, the debate of whether one is a “tourist” versus a “traveler” has reached more diverse circles.
Within these discussions, the word tourist often carries a negative connotation; it has come to characterize a person who seemingly only visits a place to take a selfie and mark it off their bucket list. On the other hand, the word traveler seems to elude to a more worldly and cultured person who visits a place to learn more about the locals and expand their horizons.
After traveling, living and working in more than 35 countries for over a decade, here are my thoughts on the tourist versus traveler debate:
Embrace All Opportunities
Many people miss great opportunities and learning experiences when they avoid the so-called “tourist” hotspots. In these heavily trafficked areas, locals often have a strong command of English and other widely spoken languages. There can be wonderful chances to have deeper conversations with people who live there.
In places less frequented by tourists, memorable interactions are still found — albeit in different ways, with the use of gestures, smiles and body language — but it’s harder to ask complex questions about what life is like in their country without speaking the local language.
My most authentic interactions with locals haven’t happened on some remote mountaintop with just the two of us in this blissful, Zen-like state. They’ve taken place when I’ve embraced the opportunities presented to me, regardless of where I was or what else was around me.
Take Advantage of the Benefits
I have visited both hidden gems as well as tourist hotspots, and I love them both. So many people flock to cities or landmarks because of their universal charm, appeal and culture — and there’s a reason they do. After all, they wouldn’t be tourist destinations if there wasn’t anything attracting people there in the first place.
It’s important to remember that even while many other people may share your experience of the destination, you can make each trip to a tourist hotspot uniquely your own. For instance:
- Find a quiet sidewalk off the main street and write a page in your travel journal.
- Sketch your surroundings and make note of the five senses: What do you smell, hear, feel, see and taste?
- Look first, then take pictures. Take a mental snapshot before you pull out your phone or camera.
- Find a bench and people-watch.
- Hire a local driver for a day and gain insight into the country’s culture and customs.
- Try the local cuisine, not just foods that are familiar to you.
For long-term travelers, there are other, less obvious benefits to visiting tourist destinations. Often when I travel, I am on the road for months — if not longer. Tourist destinations offer a break from the stress of off-the-beaten-path voyages. They’re where I usually get all my laundry done, print important documents, use faster and more reliable wi-fi, and stock up on items that are harder to find outside city centers, such as my contact solution.
Don’t Miss Out
There are some amazing places in this world to see. Is skipping Venice, Italy, because it’s too “touristy” a good reason for missing out?
If I had that frame of mind when traveling, I would have missed out on so many memorable experiences, including:
- Seeing the Sistine Chapel
- Getting completely soaked while visiting both Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Iguazu Falls in Argentina
- Hiking the Inca Trail
When we travel, Chris and I plan enough time to see the main attractions of the location, but also plan time to wander off. While visiting the Grand Canyon, we shared the top viewpoints with hundreds of people, yet we also chose to hike down to the bottom of the canyon for an overnight stay, enjoyed a sunset view all to ourselves and shared a small campground with a handful of other people.
Maintain the Right Attitude
People get too caught up in the tourist issue. I’ve seen travelers visit places such as the Taj Mahal or Buckingham Palace who get upset because they are not the only ones there taking in the sights. In most cases, the problem is not the place, it’s the person’s attitude. Don’t expect to visit a worldwide attraction and not be among a crowd of people.
We spent a week exploring the UNESCO World Heritage of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Just like hundreds of other people, we too wanted to see the sunrise and sunset. We were in the mix of so many people shoulder to shoulder and, yes, it was chaotic, but the experience was worth every minute.
During this trip, we also gave ourselves plenty of time to visit both the “must-see” temples and those that are aren’t as widely recognized. In some cases, we had temples nearly all to ourselves and enjoyed the experience without being packed like sardines in a crowd.
Ultimately, whether you enjoy a place is dependent upon more than just the location itself; it’s largely determined by your attitude. On your next trip, make sure you pack the right attitude, regardless of where you’re going.
Be a Tourist and a Traveler
There will be times you may feel like a tourist and a traveler — and it’s OK to be both.
You can’t truly experience everything the world has to offer without visiting the most renowned landmarks and attractions — just like you can’t have a comprehensive understanding of a culture or location without traveling beyond the main streets.
When I was in Chaing Mai, Thailand, I loaded up into a packed van, and a tour guide took us to us to see the White Temple, the Black House and other places while learning about the history and enjoying a planned lunch. During this trip, I felt more like a tourist.
When Chris and I were in Cambodia, we took a six-hour bus ride to get dropped off on the side of the road. We jumped on a pair of motorbikes with our backpacks, took a wooden raft, then walked to a remote village to go on a jungle hike. This time, I felt more like a traveler.
In both cases, I learned new things, had a great time and met wonderful locals. In both cases, I gave up one of two things: the challenge of trying to figure things out for myself or the ease of having someone do the planning for me. However, in both cases I got amazing experiences in return.
After traveling extensively, I don’t think too much about the need to label the place I am in nor myself as a tourist or traveler. I have found it’s the attitude one carries forward that will dictate the type of trip the person will have. If you can focus on the reason you left home in the first place — to see a new country, its places and its people — you will be too busy enjoying your trip to worry about whether you are a tourist or a traveler.
When you stop worrying about this question, then you learn to embrace life on the road and you can call yourself whatever you want.
For over a decade, Tiffany Soukup has traveled to more than 35 countries with her husband Chris, hiking into remote jungles, looking for endangered wildlife and seeking adventures.