Monday, March 18, 2013

Traveller vs. Tourist



For years I've been thinking about the power of language to influence the opinions we form and the actions we take in our lives. Including travel. What do you become when you pack your bags, board a plane, and head off to explore a new city, country, or continent? Are you a traveller, or a tourist? And why does the distinction (and the hierarchy it implies) matter?

I loathe this commercial for Anthony Bourdain's newest show, Parts Unknown, on CNN. It's a 30-second spot that, for me, represents an emerging conflict I feel bubbling up in the tourism industry (and heck, even in the travel blogging world).


I think this commercial clearly illustrates the perceived differences between the terms traveller and tourist. According to this line of thought the traveller seeks authentic cultural experiences; the tourist is content with following a tour guide through parts unknown. The traveller interacts with locals; the tourist interacts with resort staff. The traveller explores 3,000 year old ruins; the tourist sits on a beach. The traveller sleeps in local apartments, yurts, or treehouses; the tourist bunks up in hotels and resorts. The traveller takes home polaroids and journal entries and hand woven baskets as souvenirs, while the tourist is content with postcards and t-shirts and fridge magnets.



What is implied is that the traveller is to be respected, and the tourist to be mocked. The traveller is intelligent, the tourist is not. The traveller roams the world with good intentions, while the tourist lacks authenticity. And here is where I disagree.

The more I travel the world, and the longer I live abroad, the more I have come to believe that you can never truly 'be a local'. You can never truly see a city, country, or continent as a local does. Even expats who live abroad for the majority of their lives always maintain something of an 'otherness.'

Further, how authentic can your travel experiences ever really, truly be (especially when the exchange of money is involved)? When you dig deep down, what actually makes a traveller any different from a tourist? And, more importantly, how are they the same?

Here is where things get interesting. I have always thought of myself as a traveller, and I think I relate that term to the frequency of travel. A traveller travels often; a tourist travels once or twice a year. But, when I visit popular travel destinations (Paris, London, etc.), no matter how frequently I travel, I feel like a tourist. And when I set foot on the road less travelled, I feel like a traveller. So I am just as guilty as Bourdain (and CNN, and plenty of travel writers and marketers) as falling into this authenticity and labelling trap.


But, as I have alluded to in past posts, I am tired of the travel hierarchy. I am tired of the increasingly higher bars we set about what real travel is, what makes travel valuable, and who is a traveller. I commend anyone who explores the world around them - whether that's a trip to Disneyland, a trip to a new cafe down the street, or a year spent backpacking and volunteering around the world. I see the value in seeking authentic travel experiences, but I don't think that we should turn up our noses at anyone who chooses to sit on a beach, or (heaven forbid) follow a tour guide around a foreign country.

While I understand CNN's Parts Unknown commercial is targeted to a specific demographic, I urge CNN, Bourdain, and you, fellow travellers, to begin rethinking how you define who gets to be a 'traveller' and what makes travel valuable.

I'm interested: how do you define yourself? Are you a traveller, or a tourist? And, are you comfortable with that distinction?

- Jess

20 comments :

  1. Another fantastic post, Jess. This has been on my mind quite a lot lately - that is, the way we use our words. (I have an expat vs immigrant in my drafts.)
    The hierarchy drives me nuts and just as you said, it doesn't matter how many authentic experiences we seek, we'll always still be an 'other.' After 2 years of actually living in a country, I was still an other. I also find it frustrating by this generalization that there's a certain way everyone lives in one country. Apparently it's authentic if you stay in a hut in the jungle but not authentic if you stay in a hotel in the city? The city is just as much a part of the country as the jungle is - it's just different.
    We all have different goals for every trip we take. For some, we're heading out to relax and escape everyday monotony; sometimes it's to learn while for others its for meeting new people and making connections. My travel experiences are exactly that - mine. I don't need someone from the outside validating them because in the end, I'll decide if I have accomplished my own goals.

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    1. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for such an insightful response, I couldn't agree more.

      (Don't get me started on expat vs. immigrant...)

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  2. I'm definitely a tourist and I make no qualms about it. I don't want to rough it in a tent when I can sleep in a bed and have a shower with hot running water. However, I like to experience all that a country has to offer from the museums to the streets to the beach to the markets. And I will always pack my hair straighteners ;)

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    1. I love that you feel confident enough to proclaim how you travel, and that it works for you. There's no place in the travel world for judgement (or at least, there shouldn't be).

      And who can say no to hot running water? ;)

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  3. Great Post Jess! I've felt this travel hierarchy several times on my travels and this needless distinction between tourist and traveller. In my opinion, just the fact that you want to see something different, be it on a tour, means a lot. You are making an effort to see the world.

    I've roughed it and I've done a bit of luxury travel; I've done tours and I've done the go along until you find something interesting; I've stayed in fancy hotels and I've stayed in hostels... What does it make me??

    Personally, travelling, be it on a cruise or on some dingy bus in Asia is the same, as it means you are willing to explore, go out of your comfort zone, see something different.

    We are all travellers and tourists.

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    1. "In my opinion, just the fact that you want to see something different, be it on a tour, means a lot. You are making an effort to see the world." I agree.

      I understand the travel hierarchy probably began as a marketing tool, but I hope that more people (as you have) think twice before letting it pervade the way they think about and speak about travel and travellers.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment :)

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  4. Such an insightful post, Jess (and gorgeous graphics too!) I definitely feel this tourist vs. traveler thing going on, and there's a definite feeling of superiority on the traveler side. It's all a bunch of nonsense really--and quite against the ethos of a traveler to be judgmental, aren't "travelers" supposed to be open-minded anyway?

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    1. Thank you, Christine! I'm certainly not finger-pointing, but I do think it's a shame. I'm all for open-mindedness :)

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  5. Love this post Jess! It is such an interesting topic to think about. Since I went on Semester at Sea I have tended to associate myself more with the word 'traveller', probably (subconsciously) because of the superior hierarchy that comes with it. Honestly though, I've done my fair share of both types of travel... Jurg and I tend to do nicer, resort type trips because that's what we're comfortable with and enjoy as a couple. When I meet friends (like when I went to Rwanda and Uganda last year) we usually tend to rough it a bit more, use local transport, etc. I've had amazing experiences through both! And like you said, regardless of how you travel, you're seeing only a part of a country - neither method is going to turn you into a local. Any travel is good travel in my book :)

    xxx
    Jenna

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    1. As I worked both in the tourism and travel industries in the past 40 yrs... I like to classify all as 'visitors', be they tourists, or travellers. We can be a visitor within our own country even when we step outside our immediate areas let alone leaving them. Food for thought.

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    2. I really like that term! Thanks dg :)

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  6. i think this was such a great post and really puts things into perspective.

    i guess by people's definition, im a 'traveler'. BUT...it is because i stay in hostels/couchsurf and i go to destinations most of the time that are not as commercial or filled with people. the reasons? 1) im poor and can't afford to stay in a nice hotel. and 2) because im claustrophic and being around too many people overwhelms me. if i could afford to stay at a nice hotel, believe me, id turn in my hostel key in a HEARTBEAT! i hate sharing bathrooms, dorms, and hearing people snore or walk in drunk at 3am.

    i go to a location usually for the culture, people, and food. that doesnt make me superior to someone who goes for the sun, beaches, and warmth; just makes me different. ill admit, i get really annoyed with norwegians who constantly tell me that americans are poorly traveled when the only places they have been to are 'syden' trips (greece, italy, spain, turkey, canary islands where they stay at resorts with other scandinavians and eat scandinavian food)...but it's all good.

    i think traveling is important. what motivates one person is never what motivates everyone else. and i think people need to consider that. as long as you're seeing something different and going outside of your comfort zone...power to ya! you're a traveler/tourist in my eyes. and i dont differentiate between the two. they are more or less, one in the same.

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    1. Hear hear! Thanks for your thoughtful contribution to the conversation. That's so interesting about 'syden' trips!

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  7. GREAT post - thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  8. While I couldn't agree with you more, I also think that Anthony is being really authentic. That's exactly who he is!

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    1. I agree, and (as a marketing student) I admire Bourdain for being true to his brand. BUT I don't think the implied disdain for anyone who doesn't view travel as he does is unnecessary. (And even downright offensive.)

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    2. Also, thank you for joining the conversation Andi :)

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  9. Thank you Jess - this is a topic I have been thinking about quite often. I do not like this whole traveller / tourist, expat / immigrant thing either! It always implies that one is more worth / cooler / unique than the other. I am a tourist as much as I am a traveller, I am an expat as much as an (temporary) immigrant. I do not like to put myself into a box. I like to go out there and explore. And I like to move to new places to get a more local expierence. Does it make me cooler, more sophisticated, better than somebody who never lived abroad and likes to travel on the tourist tracks? No. Clearly not. It is what makes me happy. We should stop to feel the need to belong to a more exlusive group and just enjoy whatever makes us happy!!
    Rught? Right!

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