Tourist vs. traveler: How you act says a lot more than what you wear



Last summer, on a July afternoon in the Forbidden City, it seemed that half of China’s massive population had descended on the Beijing landmark. And it wasn’t just Chinese visitors: Swedes, Brits, Americans, Indians, Egyptians, Canadians — people from everywhere. And they were everywhere.

The weather didn’t help. It was stunningly hot, and humid beyond all good sense, making everything seem that much more vivid. The crooks with their “let’s go to the tea house so I can practice my English” spiel were doubly annoying. Mandarin Chinese was exponentially more confounding. The crush of it all was infinitely more suffocating. And the tourists …

Because in situations like those, the thought wanders in: Ugh. These tourists.

These service-demanding, English-braying, camera-toting, fanny pack-wearing, locust-swarming, flag-following, McDonald’s-eating, souvenir-buying tourists. Perhaps it shows a mystifying lack of self-awareness, but there it is: Tourists are everywhere, and they’re ruining the vacation.

“The tourist,” wrote Evelyn Waugh, “is always the other chap.”

“Me?” the intrepid wanderer thinks. “I’m a traveler.”

It’s the eternal debate, revived every summer when the hordes descend: traveler vs. tourist. Or rather, Joe Cool vs. the Dork Brigade. For as long as people have stepped foot outside their homes, a certain segment of the journeying cognoscenti have argued the philosophy of traveler vs. tourist.

To wit:

A traveler weeps feelingly over the sunrise and promptly journals his or her impressions afterward. A tourist takes a perfunctory picture without really seeing.

A traveler seeks out back-alley street food, because dysentery cooties make stuff taste better, apparently. A tourist pouts until an Applebee’s is produced.

A tourist insists that these foreigners “speak American.” A traveler knows how to say “a little” in six languages, to winningly answer the question, “Do you speak ___?”

A traveler blends into the local culture like a ninja, or so they think. A tourist sticks out like a hippo walking on its hind legs.

Upon returning home, a traveler has self-deprecating, “I can’t believe I did that” stories that somehow end in his or her being made an honorary member of a tiny Polynesian cargo cult. A tourist, upon returning home, has stories about inadequate room service.

A tourist journeys to a destination. A traveler knows the journey is the destination (whatever that even means).

And on it goes. Google “traveler vs. tourist” and it’s either insufferable smugness or travel writers declaring that the entire argument is over. It’s done, OK?

It will never be over. And nobody will ever want to be considered the tourist.

But here’s the thing: Isn’t everyone?

“When you’re visiting somewhere, you have to ask yourself, are you from here?” said Cindy Stanfield, who leads tours worldwide for The Travel Connection and Scubaventures. “If you’re not, then you’re a tourist.”

“We think a ‘traveler’ is cool, the ‘tourist’ is not,” wrote Daisann McLane, a National Geographic Traveler columnist. “But I think we should let that go. We are all tourists. If you can afford a round-trip ticket to Laos, and you go there for personal stimulation, not for a job, even if you end up staying for six months on the floor of a Hmong hut in a remote village, you’re still a tourist.”

The problem is semantic, said Debbie Kovalik, executive director of the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau. In any place that sees a lot of them, “tourist” has assumed a negative connotation.

“In Colorado, some people saw a tourist as somebody that came in and used our resources and wasn’t necessarily understood as an asset,” Kovalik said. “More of a problem, potentially.”

Margie Wilson, owner of Grand Valley Books, said that when she lived in Aspen, she and her friends called the tourists “turkeys.” Her attitude, however, has changed since meeting tourists, especially train tourists spending the night in Grand Junction, who come into her store for books about area history and geology, for advice on where to eat, or just to meet a local.

“They’re thrilled with our town, they’re ecstatic to be here,” Wilson said. “They’re almost always polite and friendly. I find them to be delightful. I love tourists.”

And the thing to remember is that anyone who’s ever been anywhere outside their home should relate to the feeling of being somewhere new, of wanting to meet friendly people and make new friends, of trying to understand the idiosyncrasies of the place and appreciate the culture. That’s the point of leaving home, even if it’s just a weekend trip to Denver.

“(The traveler vs. tourist debate) is a pointless, elitist discussion,” wrote travel editor Bruce Kirby. “The style with which one travels should be irrelevant to others. Stay in a five-star hotel, or a flea-ridden flop house. Travel is neither an ideology nor a status symbol. As long as one treats the people they encounter and lands they visit with respect, I can see no reason to judge someone on a comfortable Caribbean cruise against another who crawled across Antarctica on their knees.”

Perhaps, then, it’s just an inherent human snobbery, a need to feel superior to someone. Thus, the jokes about “those tourists” belching forth from enormous tour buses, while the traveler had a fascinating time in the third-class carriage (a blatant lie; nobody – nobody – enjoys third-class).

“Among the status-conscious, the word ‘tourist’ has come to mean ‘anyone who travels in a style I consider inferior to the way I like to think I do it,’ ” wrote John Flinn, former San Francisco Chronicle travel editor. “The problem, I think, is that it’s gotten so much harder for status-conscious travelers to feel superior.

“A generation or two ago, merely stepping onto an airplane or a train or a ship and going somewhere — anywhere — was all it took to give you the backyard-barbecue standing of a sophisticated man of the world. But these days everyone travels — on the trail to Everest I once ran into a vacationing San Francisco stripper — so what can be done to elevate yourself over your fellow travelers? Deride them as ‘tourists.’ “

But if being a tourist means wanting to see something new and different, then it’s a position somewhat above reproach. In the end, what matters is the type of tourist a person is: the waiters-spit-in-your-food kind, or the new-friends-weep-when-you-leave kind.

No less an authority than Emily Post had nothing kind to say about the tourists who clot braying swarms of consumption, “objectionables” who are “loud of voice, loud in manner; they always attract as much attention as possible to themselves, and wave American flags on all occasions,” Post wrote.

The best tourist, she continued has an “understanding of, and kind-hearted consideration for the feelings of others” and is a keen observer and listener. Moreover, “there is no greater test of a man’s (or a woman’s) ‘wearing’ qualities than traveling with him. He who is always keen and ready for anything, delighted with every amusing incident, willing to overlook shortcomings, and apparently oblivious of discomfort, is, needless, to say, the one first included on the next trip.”

Traveler, tourist, these are not the labels that matter. Manners, though, matter. Open-mindedness and open-heartedness matter. The ability to listen, to adapt, to cherish wonder when it comes, to treasure new vistas, to recognize what a blessing it is to travel at all — to Delta, to Tajikistan, to New York City, anywhere new, anywhere unfamiliar, anywhere that isn’t home — these matter. Recognizing that, despite the crowds and heat, it’s still pretty amazing to be in the Forbidden City. That matters, whether you’re a traveler, a tourist, or just someone with a passport and dreams of the horizon.


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