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tourist couple travelOnce I became old enough to plan my own independent travel adventures, I fancied that if I were smart enough, I could blend in. In Paris, I emulated Audrey Hepburn’s outfits in “Funny Face” and lingered over coffee and croissants like a pro. In Athens, I ordered train tickets with such gusto that I received an enthusiastic response — and had to smile and nod knowingly, because anything not in my phrasebook was all Greek to me. In Tokyo, I confidently boarded each bullet train like a transplant and did my best not to gawk at the sheer number of people, and lights, and people.

Of course, I was fooling no one but myself, but the attempt to be an American incognito was — and remains — important to me. Why? Tourists are loud. Tourists are paparazzi. Tourists are rude. That’s because, worst of all, tourists are ignorant.

On one level, “tourist” is just a word that could be used to describe anyone, like myself, who travels to places other than their own for enjoyment. As travel writer Rolf Potts once eloquently put it: “It certainly can’t hurt to retain a sense of perspective as we indulge ourselves in haughty little pissing contests over who qualifies as a ‘traveler’ instead of a ‘tourist’.'” After all, he says, “Regardless of one’s budget, itinerary and choice of luggage — the act of travel is still, at its essence, a consumer experience.”

To an extent, I agree. I understand it may seem like a silly case of semantics to say my skin crawls when asked to define myself by the “tourist” moniker. But that’s because to me, the word has come to mean something negative, even amateur. Beyond the cliche fashion faux pas (do a Google image search on the word “tourist” and you’ll see what I mean), tourists are a breed, a sect of travelers, who refuse to buy into the place they’re currently in, and to accept that it is … different.

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In my view, there is a distinct difference between being new to a country or culture, and clinging to “I don’t know any better” as a mentality and as an excuse. I’m neither Cambodian nor Buddhist, but respect and reverence for a monks’ religious ceremony is something I’d assume would go without saying — and I cringe when I realize my instincts aren’t always shared by other “travelers.” (You know them: the ones with the flashing cameras and flapping jaws.)

It’s easy to pick up a camera or phone these days and capture everything secondhand — and I’ve been guilty of this in the past — but you become removed from what’s happening. I’ll never forget a group tour of an impoverished Cape Town township in South Africa. I was glad to be exposed to a local way of life, and many of my companions began to take pictures of the children there. I followed suit until it felt so bizarre that I finally had to stop. They were people, not just points of interest on a sightseeing tour. I could never learn what their life was really like in mere hours, but I didn’t want to waste that time by just photographing them. That’s when many of us decided to hand the cameras over and let the children take their own pictures.

While voyeurism is inherent to leisure travel, I’m also aiming to lose myself (and that includes my one-sided perspective). Despite the vulnerable position of being in a foreign land, I still find faking it (even if you don’t make it) outweighs the doe-eyed sponge you become when you stick to the “I’m just a tourist” routine. You can be more! It doesn’t take any extra time, money or resources. The secret is a little effort: a few words of the language, understanding the currency, adhering to any regional religious restrictions or even stretching your own culinary comforts.

To me, the debate is less about word choice and more a state of mind. Don’t be a patron at the global zoo — join the wild and wonderful things. Don’t be a tourist — be a traveler.

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What are your thoughts? Is there a meaningful difference between a tourist and a traveler?

— written by Brittany Chrusciel

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10 Responses to “Why “Tourist” Is a Dirty Word”

  1. Clem Montagna says:

    While on the subject of photos — in my opinin there are two things you muat NEVER do.
    First –learn your camera BEFORE the trip! I have seen people take it our of the new box while on a trip. That is not the time to hold up everyone in the group while you try to find the shutter release. Your photos will nor be very good if you don’t practice.

    Second — don’t see your trip only through a viewfinder. Your eyes are the best camera in the world, use them

  2. Christophe says:

    I prefer to blend in when possible. For the most part, it only takes some minor changes be less conspicuous, and in big cities it can be much smarter. When I worked in Paris for several months a few years back, I was able to blend well enough that tourists stopped me for directions – which was very humorous as one time it was an American couple and they were quite surprised when I answered! But it was equally mystifying to a French person when I was unable to give him directions in French to the Gard de l’Est! But eventually I was able to help – even with my rudimentary French.

  3. Paul McAfee says:

    Great “rant,” Brittany. While I’m not quite as hung up on the semantics (as you noted, we’re all tourists in the broadest sense of the word), I too try to immerse myself in the culture. That means getting out from behind the viewfinder and experiencing the moment with all of your senses. Striking up a conversation with locals rather than rudely taking their picture without permission. Using your eyes instead of a memory card to collect truly lasting memories.

    I’ve taken a few tours — sometimes they’re the most efficient way to fit more experiences into a limited amount of time. But I much prefer independent travel. You can connect with a new country and culture far better when you’re not surrounded by a horde of oblivious camera-shutter junkies who rarely even look at the thousands of so-so photos they’ve taken once they get home.

    I do take some photos, of course. But I heavily supplement them with postcards and quality books I buy on site. They have much better photos than I and other travelers could ever take.

    The countless, priceless memories I’ve collected by putting away my camera and trying to become a “temporary local” (as Rick Steves puts it) are far more valuable — and always with me — than any photo I’ve ever taken.

  4. Rachel says:

    Interesting post, especially about the cameras. We have something about the differences between ‘tourists’ and ‘travellers’ on our blog: http://www.thecareerbreaksite.com/blog/10-differences-between-tourists-and-travellers

  5. Amanda Halm says:

    I think some “tourists” might be on a trip of a lifetime-. They might not travel regularly and for them going abroad is a really big deal. I know for my parents’ generation, travel (especially abroad) is still considered a luxury. And traveling abroad the first time is intimidating and the more you do it, the less you act like a tourist.

    I lived in a highly touristic area for a year and it bugged me to have to walk past hordes and hordes of sunburned people all holding guidebooks and snapping away. But then again, they were on vacation. I was not.

    But most were super polite. A lot even asked if I spoke English in French. I think sometimes the stress & cost of travel can bring out the worst in people. I know that I have been both an unwilling tourist and a traveler.

  6. I think part of the traveler/tourist difference can also be about what you choose to do and how you go about it. While I’ve been to my share of museums and castles, last summer I took some cooking classes on a remote-ish Greek island. A few tourists around, but mostly we were visiting local beekeepers and wine makers, and going to a nearby fishing village.

  7. AnnCathMarcus says:

    I know I’m a tourist and yet I hate it, when people call me that.
    Like you I consider myself a traveller – and not a tourist. To be honest there is a distinct difference between the two, if you ask me. I’ve been traveling all of my life and I’ve been all over the world. I remember being in Scotland for the first time when I was about 5 years old and my dad taught me, how to say little words in English like “thank you” and “please”. This stuck with me and wherever I travel I usually learn how to say, “thank you”, “goodbye”, and “please” even though I know by now that I don’t remember the words for very long after I leave the country. Also I rarely take photos which seems strange to a lot of people.
    That being said I gave up on blending in after I did volunteer work in Xi’an in China, where I was given a security folder that said “please do not draw attention to the fact that you are not Chinese” – being Scandinavian that is pretty hard.
    I guess my point is that travelers doesn’t need to blend in (as this is quite often impossible), but they need not to stand out, which is what tourists do by the crazy photo snapping and general ignorance of local customs.

  8. Most people don’t get to travel much, and being a tourist isn’t something to necessarily look down on.

    OK, look down on the 14 days on the beach type holidays, I don’t mind. All they’re buying is a beach and sunshine, never mind the location.

  9. Africa Escapades says:

    Driving appealed much less to me. Watching the country go by behind glass made me feel separated from it; I spent most of my time looking in the rear view mirror….Adventure a.k.a traveler finds time to share and live like a local and the leisurely schedule will afford them the time to listen and space to interact…. You’ve got to be a traveler sometime..

  10. Annie says:

    I am handicapped and have to use a wheel chair when I travel. I would love to “blend in” but that is not possible. I have to travel with a group because it is easier for me. If the group is doing something that is too much for me I have them leave me at a cafe/park and have had the best experiences of my trip talking to people. I have found that no matter the country there are more similarities than differences between us!

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