The Traveller vs Tourist Debate (And Why It’s a Load of Crap)

Aaah…the endless traveller vs tourist debate…it still goes on…and on…and on….and on…

Since I delved into the world of travel blogging, I have come across countless articles on the differences between what makes a traveller and a tourist. A traveller being someone who wears a backpack and spends months at a time “immersing” themselves in new cultures and mixing with the locals. Whereas a tourist is described as someone who sticks out like a sore thumb with their fanny packs and bags of souvenirs while on a guided tour of the main attractions.

Quite frankly (in my opinion) it’s a load of condescending crap that is full of stupid cliches and implies one way of travelling is better or inferior to the other.

The Traveller vs Tourist Debate (And Why It's a Load of Crap)

Let me give you an example… 

I’m sat in a bar in Ho Chi Minh, drinking a beer while casually reading my Kindle. A young guy pulls up a chair and asks “what are you reading?” To which I reply “I’m just flicking through a guide book trying to find something fun to do. I’m only here for a few days before my visa runs out so want to make sure I make the most of the time I have left in Vietnam.”

He rolled his eyes and threw me that kind of smirk (you know the kind – the kind you just wanna wipe right off their smug little face).

Confused by his reaction, I gave him a questioning look, and without a second thought he spouts out “Sorry…but I just don’t understand your kind of travelling…”

My kind??? I’m thinking to myself “oh here we go” – I knew it was only a matter of time that I would cross paths with an elitist “traveller” who has been there, done that and probably way better than me. I like to call them “travel bores” (but you can read more on that in my tongue-in-cheek article on how not to become one).

Not in the mood for his false sense of superiority, I spat: “and what KIND of traveller do you see me as then? “ I was interested to hear seeing as this guy had known me for literally two seconds.

Boldly he replies: “You know the kind that live by their guide books…don’t go off the beaten track and try to really IMMERSE themselves in a place. They just want to tick off all the main sights and move on to the next place. I don’t see how you can truly get a feel for a place that way.”

WOW. I stared at him in complete disbelief. I don’t know if I was more shocked by his sheer arrogance or by how quick he was to judge me. There I was just minding my own business and within a matter of minutes I’d had my “way of travelling” completely shot down. Me merely referring to a guide book for some inspiration on where to go as a solo traveller with limited time, suddenly meant I must be that “kind of traveller” – one of those terrible “tourist” types.

Tourist Vs Traveller

Image credit: Bored Panda

I continued to give him a glare (the kind that was basically telling him to piss the hell off) but completely oblivious he whittled on…

“Seriously, ditch the book. Don’t be a tourist…you should go check out blah blah blah and try this blah blah blah…that’s so much more authentic and blah blah blah…blah blah….blah blah….” (well at least those are what the words out of his mouth sounded like to me – I lost interest the moment you rolled your eyes at me Mr Know It All!)

I may have been more open to his advice had he not started off the conversation by trying to belittle me. Instead I grabbed my Kindle, made my excuses and left. In hindsight maybe I should have challenged him further (instead of ranting about it here), but it’s the kind of travel snobbery I just can’t entertain.

If he had actually taken the time to get to know me, then he may have been surprised to learn that yes I like to research the places I am visiting, yes I like to see some of the tourist spots (they’re popular for a reason by the way…) but equally I am also a firm believer that people should travel out of their comfort zones to uncover “off-the-beaten-track” places or experience somewhere on a deeper level.

But the point is, why should we be told to travel one way or the other?  

I’ve backpacked on a budget and I’ve gone on 5* all-inclusive holidays. I’ve lived in a developing country for five months and I’ve ventured to Europe for a luxury weekend city break. I’ve spent hours getting lost discovering secluded pockets of paradise and I’ve gone on guided tours around the main attractions. I’ve joined the hoards of tourists using selfie sticks in front of famous landmarks, and I’ve just sat peacefully in remote locations enjoying the beautiful views. I’ve eaten in a Michelin star restaurant and I’ve sat down and had a home-cooked meal with a Vietnamese family in their home.

Tourist Vs Traveller

Image credit: Bored Panda

So what type of traveller does that make me?  

The way I see it is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to travel. Surely everyone’s journey is their own and however they choose to travel is up to them. Surely the fact that we all share a desire to go out there and see this world is all that truly matters? Why does it need to be a competition?

There are so many different ways of travel available to us now, in my eyes it’s about seizing the opportunities that are available to us. And more importantly, it’s about how we choose to utilise those experiences and learn from them. As long as we are travelling in a responsible way, who are we to travel-shame others?

And in truth…aren’t we all tourists?  

As soon as we set foot in a country that is not our own, we are essentially a tourist. If we are going to define one another here, lets refer to the good old English dictionary:

Tourist: “a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure”

So I hate to break it to you Mr Know It All but you are indeed by “definition” a T.O.U.R.I.S.T. And if you truly believe that local guy you had dinner with at the top of a mountain in some off-the-grid location thinks you’re not one, then think again…

Perhaps next time I come across one of those pretentious backpackers I think I will simply walk away heckling behind me “hey when you have something more interesting to say, you’ll find me over there with my guide book and selfie stick doing silly poses in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, just like all the other tourists. And after that you might find me in a hidden hole-in-the-wall café somewhere enjoying some top secret local delicacies…but good look finding me!”

Because I really couldn’t care for this stupid debate. I really couldn’t care if you’re a so-called “traveller” or a “tourist”. I am going to carry on travelling my way and I hope that you will do too.

What do you think to the whole “traveller” vs “tourist” debate? Does it really matter? 

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61 Comments

  • Reply
    Cathy
    March 2, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    Love this! I’m proud to be a tourist, even in my home state. There is so much to see and some of the most popular places are great! I am also a traveler who finds unique spots and hidden treasures. It is all good!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 6, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Thanks Cathy! I like to think of myself as an “all-rounder” too!

  • Reply
    Sam Heim
    March 2, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    Yes! I agree the semantics behind traveler and tourist is irrelevant. Rather than creating a hierarchy of people who leave their own country (or city), let’s celebrate our shared love of adventure!

  • Reply
    Ben Finch
    March 2, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    We had a guy couchsurf with us in the middle east who was trying to travel the world on a dollar or so a day. He said to Anna: “How do feel good about yourself living here with your western lifestyle? Shouldn’t you leave it all behind?” Anna was like: “Well I work and live here, I need to eat and have somewhere to live.” He ended up staying with us for three weeks despite some polite and impolite hints, and expected us to buy him food. And he was travelling with his laptop and gopro so everyone could watch him on youtube. His arrogance knew no bounds :/

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 2, 2016 at 10:30 pm

      Omg I would have thrown him out! Some people are so clueless.

      • Reply
        Ben Finch
        March 2, 2016 at 11:07 pm

        I think that as you travel you become more and more confident in yourself and it tipped over into arrogance with him. But we probably should’ve done, aye

  • Reply
    Mara Kuhn
    March 2, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    I love this! I personally like a balance between the two also. And like you said I don’t believe there is any right or wrong way to travel.

  • Reply
    Amy
    March 2, 2016 at 10:55 pm

    Love this post!! Until I started blogging, I was unaware that such a strong debate even existed. I believe in playing by your own rules. Enjoy seeing somewhere exactly how you want. It’s your time, your memories, your desires. Each trip we take has different goals, and therefore different paths and journeys. Great job calling out those who pass judgment!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 6, 2016 at 4:47 pm

      Agreed! Very true that we have different goals with different trips. That’s what makes travel so varied and interesting!

  • Reply
    Aimee
    March 2, 2016 at 10:56 pm

    You hit the nail on the head! I share your immense dislike for pretentious ‘travellers’ who think they’re above others based on the way they like to travel. For many people, world travel is not only an opportunity to see and experience new lands and cultures, but to find like-minded people and become part of a community they might desperately need – to create some sort of backpacker class divide is completely contradictory of this outlook. Well done for walking away, I would have found it difficult not to put the guy in his place!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:33 pm

      Thanks Aimee….I agree, it’s such a contradiction! I really had to bite my tongue.

  • Reply
    Katie
    March 3, 2016 at 12:03 am

    YES! What a complete douche, I would have told him to go F&*% himself – but I have absolutely zero patience for a-holes like that

  • Reply
    Ailish in Wonderland
    March 3, 2016 at 12:42 am

    Absolutely perfect response to a debate that has been annoying me a lot lately. What in God’s name makes people think they have the right to knock how other people travel? Travel snobbery is just the worst!

  • Reply
    Ash
    March 3, 2016 at 1:25 am

    Great article. We are total tourists by the way. As you said, tourist places are generally popular for a reason, and they are generally the things you see in someone else’s pictures that make you say wow! Plus there is more to it than ‘know the culture or not”. Some of us are go, go, go by nature and the world is a big place. Spending 2 weeks in one place would drive us crazy!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:37 pm

      Exactly. Not everyone has the luxury of spending months, maybe years, at a time exploring a place. And like you say, this might not be for them anyway. Each to their own I say. And I believe that attitude should be applied to most things in life.

  • Reply
    Amy
    March 3, 2016 at 6:26 am

    Ugh, I can’t believe someone said that you to! Obnoxious. And I totally agree with you — I’m over the whole traveler/tourist distinction. I use the words interchangeably when I write.

  • Reply
    Chris
    March 3, 2016 at 6:30 am

    No it doesn’t, unless you are locked in an all inclusive resort for two weeks.
    I’ve seen this before XD

  • Reply
    travelingaddress
    March 3, 2016 at 7:46 am

    i agree with you: although i’m annoyed by some so called tourists there are also annoying so called traveller and when you dig you realize they are just the same but with more experience or more time in front of them

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      thanks “travellingadress” – cute name! I have met my fair share of annoying travellers…this guy included!

  • Reply
    Sara
    March 3, 2016 at 8:16 am

    Ohhh, I really like this article!
    I can totally relate to this. I am NOT a travel blogger (yet) and I got a full time job, so when I go on holidays, I have to “plan” some of my activities to make the most of it. I love taking bus tours or guided tours, but I also love to explore whatever I want to see. I hate to look like a tourist, but if it’s the first time in a foreign city… I AM a tourist.
    Not everyone has the privilege or courage to travel solo or stay with strangers in a foreign country.
    I’d say I’m 40% tourist and 60% traveller, but I would never judge anyone who defines themselve differently.
    We’re all just here to follow our dreams and see as much of our beautiful world as possible… on our own terms.

  • Reply
    LisaLDN
    March 3, 2016 at 9:25 am

    This post is PERFECT! I agree with everything you’ve said 🙂 I consider myself somewhere down the middle – if it’s my first visit to a place, you’re damn right I’m going to do my research and make sure to visit the main attractions. But I’m also going to browse the internet and blogs for more ‘non-mainstream’ things to do and see. Mixing the ‘traveler’ and ‘tourist’ is the perfect way to see a country/city/place, if you ask me 🙂 And I can’t stand backpackers belittling typical tourists. Great post!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:45 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Mixing it up is the way to go for me!

  • Reply
    Bridget
    March 3, 2016 at 10:36 am

    I can’t agree more! Don’t understand thi stuppid debate. What is beautiful in traveling is the fact that whatever the way you travel is fine as longe as you enjoy it 🙂

  • Reply
    Camilla
    March 3, 2016 at 10:44 am

    I completely agree with you! Even before I started reading the post I was thinking that we all really are tourists whether we like it or not. I think it’s bullshit that some “travellers” would judge other people’s way of travelling, and consider their own superior.
    Camilla | http://cammi.dk

  • Reply
    Katie
    March 3, 2016 at 11:21 am

    Well said! Nothing annoys me more than everyone trying desperately to shove everyone else into boxes, and travel snobs are the worst!

  • Reply
    Al
    March 3, 2016 at 11:44 am

    Great post noods. We’ve been experiencing similar judging about “minimalism” and what defines a “minimalist”. I love how the guy said ditch the guide book but tried to guide you on what to do, essentially making himself a hypocrite!

  • Reply
    smiling notes
    March 3, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Oh I agree with this post 100%! This whole tourist vs traveller debate is getting really old and I just do not understand it. That guy you met in Vietnam was so judgemental ughh. I would have straight away rolled my eyes after he started speaking 😀

  • Reply
    Emma
    March 3, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Finally! Completely agree with this kick-ass article. There’s no right or wrong way to explore. People move from place to place for a whole host of reasons, that doesn’t mean we should get shot down for our particular travel style. I’ve camped under the stars in the Australian outback and had a luxury spa weekend in the UK… So What does that make me? Pretty sure it makes me human. Well said noodles!

  • Reply
    Liesbeth
    March 3, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    I say amen to this! If I read one more of those articles pretending that you’re not a ‘real’ traveller unless you only sleep in hostels and have like 2 guys vommiting in the bunk bed next to you and 2 other guys (or girls or both or whatever :p) having sex in the other bunk bed on the other side, I’m gonna scream or something!!! I mean puh-lease, those people are so arrogant and full of shit, and why the hell do they even care about how other people travel? OK I gotta stop ranting now :p Haha, great read!!!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:51 pm

      Hahaha thanks hun! I’m sorry but surely NO-ONE wants to hear two people at it! Euw. Luckily I’ve never encountered that. Does that mean I’m not a “real” traveller? Damn! (give a shit!)

  • Reply
    Dan
    March 4, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Amen to this. I wrote a similar post last year – We are all tourists at the end of the day, just some of us are better at it than others and some do it differently. As long as no one is getting hurt, who cares!

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:47 pm

      Totally agree with you Dan! Would love to read your article 🙂

  • Reply
    Travel Blogging Life: February in Review | Dan Flying Solo
    March 4, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    […] The Traveller vs Tourist Debate (And Why It’s a Load of Crap) Nikki from Where is Noodles is discussing the elitism of travel and how quick people seem to be to judge… is it necessary? […]

  • Reply
    Jenny Wenham
    March 4, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Travel isn’t a “one size fits all” experience. There are no rules, so it’s impossible to break them.

  • Reply
    Vee N Ric
    March 7, 2016 at 7:30 am

    Hi Nikki.
    Did not even know
    There was a traveler
    Versus tourist debate.
    The things you learn
    Day after day.
    Thanks for enlightening.
    Loved the tale in Ho Chi Minh.
    Great post.
    Enjoy your week.
    Regards.

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      March 7, 2016 at 7:49 pm

      Haha well they say you learn a new thing every day! It’s been an ongoing debate for many years now. It’s so tiresome! Thanks for reading!

  • Reply
    Lauren
    March 8, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Ah thank you for this! I was reading a book that mentioned this debate recently and it annoyed me that anyone who comes with a list of must-see attractions instead of letting the wind carry them to some hill top is seen as a lesser person.

    Yes, certain attractions are popular for a reason, and being a snobbish anti-tourist doesn’t make you better than anyone else. I’ve been on guided tours that gave me such a great introduction to a new city, even though these are seen as the domain of the “tourist”. I think it’s the mind set you go in with that’s important (for example, bringing a sense of curiosity and embracing different ways of life), not what you see or do, or how.

  • Reply
    Tamz
    March 11, 2016 at 4:55 am

    Nikki,
    Thanks a ton for this post.
    I was getting sick of all the cliched quotes and memes on “Travelers and Tourists” on social media.
    High time for this topic to be washed off the “Debates” list.
    Well done 🙂

  • Reply
    Amanda
    March 11, 2016 at 7:38 pm

    Love. Love. Love this post. So true. There a lot of travel snobs, but you find snobbery in everywhere. I’m a bartender too and boy are there some cocktail snobs out there too. Everybody needs to relax, enjoy life and not judge and let other do their thing! Sometimes those touristy things are touristy for a reason…you should see it!

  • Reply
    Cristal
    March 11, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    I used to be one of those “traveler only” types but since I’ve traveled more and more I’ve realised that it is a silly distinction and that you can be both whenever you need to.

  • Reply
    Amanda Williams
    March 11, 2016 at 8:36 pm

    You are so right! This debate was around when I was first backpacking 20 years ago. I can’t believe it’s still going!! I can be a traveller, a tourist, a business traveller, a nomad – why put yourself in any one category and limit your opportunities.

  • Reply
    Lisa Martin
    March 11, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    This has got to be one of the most pretentious attitudes going. I heard a girl going on and on once about how she wasn’t a tourist – while we were on a Great Barrier Reef sightseeing boat! If that isn’t a tourist attraction I don’t know what is. I can only laugh though, it puts me in mind of The Inbetweeners movie when they’re in Australia, and the girl is rambling on about ‘being spiritual’ with zero context. Total trash. How can these people really see where they are ‘authentically’ when they assume they are better than everyone?

  • Reply
    Ana Wildgust
    March 11, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    Yes it’s all a load of shit! Everyone is going to have a different idea of what the “best travel” is, but whether we want to admit it or not, we are ALL tourists. Who are we to judge someone’s choice simply because it’s different then ours?! That’s ridiculous. Should we try not to be the “stereotypical, annoying” tourist? Absolutely, be respectful, have an open mind, embrace new ideas. Great article!

  • Reply
    Jaimee Nicole
    March 16, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    THANK YOU!!!!!!
    Someone had to say it. I am so sick of all this bullshit. I was actually in the process of writing something really similar when I stumbled upon this a few days ago!
    Travel how you want!

  • Reply
    Neil
    April 1, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Love the article! My other favorite is the people that think doing a tour (like Contiki or G Adventures) makes you less of a tourist. To each their own, but one is not “better” than the other. I have this image in my head of some dude with a scruffy beard (since the “real travellers” like to grow that as a symbol to the world that they’ve been on the road and haven’t had five minutes to shave). That guy looks down on the group of people getting off of a tour bus, all smiling, having fun, and talking with one another. He thinks he’s better because he hasn’t showered in ten days and is probably hasn’t changed his underwear in a week either so he’s more “rugged” and “in touch with the locals”.

    After he makes a couple of condescending remarks about the happy tour group, the tour group moves on to engage in the culture via the LOCAL tour guide that is part of the tour who is teaching them about the local customs. Scruffy Bohemian guy now jumps in a taxi he flags down. During his taxi ride, he realizes he’s not in an official taxi. The driver upon arrival tells Mr. Traveller that the price is three times what he thought it would be. A fight ensues. Police are called. Mr. Traveller who doesn’t speak the language is now getting bullied by the local police that want some sort of bribe and won’t give him his passport back. Tour bus with all of the fake travellers pass by the scene on the road, still laughing, smiling, and enjoying their trip, on to the next stop in which they will visit a temple in which they’ll each receive a blessing from a monk and learn about their way of life.

    Mr. Traveller has lost all of his money, is in the middle of nowhere, and still has not showered in ten days. But don’t worry everyone, he’s a real traveller.

  • Reply
    Annika
    April 13, 2016 at 7:54 am

    I love this post so much! Spoke to my heart. I find it so pointless and the funny thing is that it is usually the so-called travelers who come with such air of superiority not the tourists. Also, mind you, back in the day when the Beach came out and was new and exciting you may have been off the beaten path as a backpacker in Thailand but today so many countries have a backpack trail that it is quite ironic to consider yourself original as a backpacker. Also I like the sentiment that famous sights are famous for a reason.

  • Reply
    Paola
    April 24, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    I guess I’ll never be considered a traveller then since I love doing touristy stuff (and some “off the beaten track” stuff,too!) especially in a place I’ve never been to. But then again, it’s my vacation and I’m having fun, no one should judge me or anybody’s way of travelling 😉

  • Reply
    Sean Hogan
    May 5, 2016 at 2:56 am

    I’ve met so many people like that in my time traveling. Even when I’ve lived in places I’ve never looked down on ‘tourists’. You can’t ‘immerse yourself’ everywhere you go, and sometimes I’ve just wanted to go and see the big attractions. I knew a guy who hitch hiked across China and tried to tell me the best places to go and how he was meeting real people even though I’d lived in the country for 6 years. The city I lived in was apparently too ‘Western’ so my experience wasn’t real.

  • Reply
    ace
    June 7, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    Travelers are still better than tourists 🙂

  • Reply
    Katie Featherstone
    June 11, 2016 at 11:33 am

    I love this. Travel snobbery is just the worst, I really try and stop myself from thinking like that!

  • Reply
    Katrina Elisabet
    July 8, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    THIS! THIS! THIS! I’m in the middle of writing my own rant against the traveler vs. tourist snobbery, thanks to one of my FB friends delving into that mix this past week. Oi.

  • Reply
    Jeannie Sosa
    July 13, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    Totally agree with you, noodles. The first time I heard the reference to being a traveler vs. tourist I was on an escorted coach tour, can’t get more tourist than that. The tour guide used the term but it was about being open to new experiences, cultures and customs vs. Comparing everything to “how it is back home”. It’s about observing courtesy as a visitor in soneone else’s home. It’s more a state of mind than a way of traveling.

    • Reply
      whereisnoodles
      July 13, 2016 at 7:27 pm

      Glad you agree – you took the words right out of my mouth

  • Reply
    twoplustwocrew
    December 1, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Like you’re take on it, seems there is loads of travel snobbery out there ……. we travel with our kids now and the cheapest way to travel for us is on package holidays… big no no in the true “traveller” rule book… but we always hire a car download a guide book and go explore!! our experiences are a million miles from the people who stayed exclusively at the resorts! but we were on a package holiday.. Think we need to take our hats off to anyone who decides they want to get out and see the world however they choose to do it.

  • Reply
    Giwreh
    January 15, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    If I’m nota ‘traveler’ anymore these years (= only very scarcely) , it’s not because I became a ‘tourist’ , but because I simply do not have a budget for travel anymore .. 🙂 … I stay at home 97 % of the time, because there is no money to go away.
    That’s another way of looking at the subject ! 🙂 We often leave ‘money’ out of this discussion, but many of those self-baptised ‘travelers’ (for months-&-months on the road) do NOT have specific financial problems in the first place !!!
    Poor people don’t travel. Financial fact.
    Rich people could travel at bulging ease. Another financial fact.
    Backpack kids, 6 months on the road with feelings of superiority, usually have rich parents, and do their THING because they know they DO have a plan B back home…
    People with a bit of EARNED money, then can accordingly travel a bit. (their way of spending to their own taste.)
    But arrogant people divide the world in self invented castes.

    🙂

  • Reply
    Justine Cross
    July 29, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    Nice! I just had to comment as you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this. I was researching for a similar article I want to write of why should we choose between being a traveller or a tourist, and found yours right at the top of Google. I have a very similar outlook to travel as you do: with doing a bit of both depending on how much time I have, where I’m going etc. Some places call for us to be tourists (who could possibly go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower just once)? Whereas, other places call for off the beaten track travels. Why can’t we do both? And why do we insist on criticising each other for how we travel? If you want to stay off the beaten track, that’s great – enjoy it. Do you only want to see famous landmarks? Cool – have fun. Do you want to do both? Fab, go right ahead. I completely agree that this whole argument of traveller vs tourist is a load of hoo-har, and it’s so refreshing to see someone who shares that opinion!! That is why I had to comment… 😉

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