What am I? A traveler or a tourist?

We have all heard that there is a difference between a traveler and a tourist. And most of us would be preferred called the first, than the second. We think that a tourist is someone that sojourns to a destination just for a vacation. Tourists will visit places where they can see the sites that are “the main attractions”, take pictures, play sports, (golfing, swimming, and snorkeling come to mind), do shopping, eat food that is similar to the one they are use to eat and rush back home to tell their friends, coworkers or fellow students, all what they did.

On the other hand a traveler is so much superior, right? As Matt Gross (no relation), a former “Frugal Traveler” columnist for the New York Times says, “A traveler (is) smarter and sharper, more flexible and less tied to itineraries, more willing to go off the beaten path, less concerned with having the right experience and seeing the important sights, more excited about connections with locals that about acquiring souvenirs. For travelers, life (is) about travel. For tourists, travel (is) what you did on vacation.” [1]

Matt Gross, also mentions another category of voyager, the backpacker. Writing about them, while in Vietnam, he says: “They were… bearded guys in tank tops and tie-dyed pants, willowy girls in long skirts, all tanned, all musty, all with enormous high-tech, high capacity backpacks, towering over their skinny bodies. They drank the cheapest beers, slept in un-air-conditioned misery, and subsisted not on street food but on banana pancakes and French fries in the restaurants that catered to them. They would hang around seemingly forever, then vanish to the next low-budget destination, or maybe back to finance jobs in London or New York, leaving behind thumb-smudged bootleg copies of last year’s Lonely Planet.” [2]

There is another category of traveler, the visitor. A dry definition of the term that can be found in several sites online is: “A visitor is a traveler taking a trip to a main destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited.” For me the term also applies to somebody to goes to a place to “visit” his family and/or friends. For example when I go back to Argentina I go to visit my family and friends, who live there. I may do some tourism, while I’m there, but that is not the main purpose of my trip.

Maybe we could add another category: the excursionist. That is a person that takes a short journey (less than 24 hours) outside of his/her area of residence. If I go to the beach in Wrightsville, NC for the day and don’t stay over, I’m in an outing, an excursion.

So, going back to the question in the title of this essay, what am I, a traveler or a tourist? John Flinn on an article titled “Are you a Traveller or a Tourist” on The Travel Club.org site says: “…we’re all tourists (in the “unsophisticated traveler” sense of the world). We all spend a brief time in a foreign place and then leave. Some might work harder than others to get off the main tourism grid, and some put more effort into chatting up the locals. Riding on the chicken bus or sleeping with the pigs on the floor of a village headman’s house are memorable things to do, but if you think this gives you any significant insight into another culture you’re kidding yourself.”

And then he continues saying: “Sometimes when I travel abroad I do feel at home, and sometimes I feel (as “tourists” are accused of feeling) like a stranger in an extraordinarily strange land. I like that feeling much better. Sometimes I make my own way, and sometimes I’m happy to have my way made for me. Sometimes I’m transformed by my journeys, and sometimes, to be honest, I’m not.” I definitely share Mr. Flinn’s feelings.

I believe that I’m a tourist more than a real traveler. Although I don’t always act as a tourist (I like to immerse myself as much I can in the culture of the place I’m visiting), I know that in the short time I’ll be in that foreign place, I won’t be able to assimilate more than a small slice of the large pie that culture represents in this big world. But, I know that traveling to that foreign place, no matter as a traveler or as a tourist will enrich my life, as it has done for many years while following my wanderlust.

[1] Matt Gross, The Turk who Loved Apples, Da Capo Press, 2013, pg. 227

[2] Idem, pgs. 102-03

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