Traveler Vs. Tourist: My Search For The Difference

Thursday, February 24, 2011

“Hmmm . . . The Expeditioner’s Guide to the World. That’s quite the area to create a guide for. What’s it all about?”

About a million possible answers spun through my brain. I was signing books in Helena, Montana. A well-trained editor surely would have had an earth-shattering response to this query. Apparently, I’ve still got a ways to go. My answer probably sounded a little more like, “blah, blah . . . 39 stories, blah, blah, blah . . . basically the greatest book on earth.” I finished with a flippant comment along the lines of, “We really tried to keep the stories real. You know . . . raw and true to life — aiming more at the traveler than the tourist.”

That’s when this nice lady asked me the question that has been discussed since the advent of backpacks: “You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but how would you distinguish between tourists and travelers?”

Despite some type of universal understanding, definitively answering the question is terribly difficult. Both do have merit, perhaps one more than the other. My mind swam around the infinite amount of layers to each, the numerous variables, and the instantaneous decisions. It’s where you travel to, how you travel, what you do as you travel. The label is as unique as a destination, and individual as the person traveling. A definition could be in the eye of the beholder.

There are many things an answer could be. It could be a backpacker versus a resort-er, but not necessarily. Maybe it’s the difference between Samantha Brown and Anthony Bourdain, but what is that exactly?  It’s not really a traveler’s spending habits or tastes, but it could be. Travelers and tourists have a lot in common, yet there is a distinct difference somewhere in the gray area. How does one define the indefinable?

I paused, thought of all these scenarios that get at the essence of travelers and tourists, and tried my best to formulate an answer. My attempt to make a singular coherent thought in the course of this conversation came to this moment.

“Mindset,” I replied.

Perhaps, in the space between these often contradicting travel types, the traveler’s mindset separates the two. Travelers search for the place, and tourists search for their version of a place.

These versions of travelers may be only definable in behavior, but I think there may be something behind that. In search for the true essence of a destination, one may head to back alleys, local bars, and seek out the people and experiences that make a place unique. On the flip side, when tourists get to a destination, their effort goes towards seeking the postcard pictures, the television ad campaigns, or finding what the world has already known of the area.

The paradox lies in the fact that those same attractions that grab tourists, undeniably makes an area unique. Think about the Badaling section of China’s Great Wall — a fully restored section of modern masonry. It is still the Great Wall, but it doesn’t hold the clout that visiting the crumbling Simitai portion of the Wall. Why is that? The Great Wall is the Great Wall, no matter what condition it’s currently in.

Perhaps one answer can be found not in a traveler’s behavior, but in the traveler’s mindset. The traveler goes to Simitai in search of what truly existed — to learn about what really exists — crumbling bricks or not, 3-hour rickety bus ride and all.

I come from the school of thought that you can be a traveler anywhere, even in your hometown. That is, as long as you have the right mindset.

And as the gal left the bookstore, bells jingling from a string attached to the door’s handle, I don’t think I settled anything regarding her question. That wasn’t really my point. What I do hope for is that someday, in the future, she simply thinks about it.

[Photo by zoetnet/Flickr]
By Jon Wick


About the Author

Jon lives in Butte, Montana, spending most of his time on skis or bikes; sometimes both. He began travel writing while teaching in Korea and is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Montana Tech. Jon has begun writing his first book, The Story of Will, whose movie rights are still (very) available. Catch more of Jon at (@ExpedJon)

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