Traveler vs. Tourist: What is the difference & Does it Matter?

What is the difference between a traveler and a tourist?

Arrogance? Attitude? Budget? Ego?

Or all of the above?

One thing’s for certain, the difference matters a lot more to one half of the debate than the other (looking at you travelers).

It’s been many years since I’ve slept in a hostel but I remember the happy hour conversations well, the unspoken competition determining who in the group was the more intrepid traveler.

“Once in Morocco I slept with the Berbers under the milky way, we spent hours researching the humane treatment of the camels first, of course, treating them better than our own household cats. It was very cheap, because I didn’t book it with one of those online platforms (said with disdain) but directly with a Berber I met on the corner at 3 in the morning, I trusted him because I am not racist.”

Maybe I made that up.

But you catch my drift.

Tourists, on the other hand, go on one vacation a year (thanks to the restrictions of the US work culture).

They scrimp and they save and, god forbid, they go to an all inclusive in the Caribbean.

Maybe they venture further to Europe but they’ll stick close to the capitals, ticking off a list of landmarks and speaking loudly everywhere they go.

Tourists don’t mingle with the locals but they do go home very happy with their experience and if we can all let go of our egos just a bit, we might realize that that is all that matters.

So, let’s delve deeper into the difference between tourists and travelers, why does it matter and when it doesn’t.

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Tourist vs. Traveler: Why it matters

Having lived abroad for 16 years (I promise I’m not going to toot my own traveling horn here), I have to admit to identifying more as a traveler than a tourist.

I love the feeling of unfamiliarity in a new place, of finding somewhere without crowds, of speaking with the locals, trying new foods, being lost, all of it.

Growing up in a small town in rural Texas, my worldview has expanded immensely since I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone.

I heard on a podcast once that it is impossible to hate someone if you know their story. Travel removes the fear of the unknown, that fear that leads to a lot of distrust. It tells you a culture’s story firsthand.

All of that said, I understand the way that I personally travel isn’t for everyone, whether it’s due to interests, time or budget.

So, for these tourists, getting by with just a week at the beach or the capital cities, are they WORSE than us travelers?

No, of course not. But I do have some requests to make of them.

Dear tourists, I do think it’s important to step out of your comfort zone when you’re in a new place.

Tired from a hellish year? Then take the week at an all-inclusive! Treat yourself!

But while you’re there, look for a cooking class in a local’s home. Take a food tour in the markets. Go to a local futbol game.

Be an intrepid tourist.

You don’t need to sleep with Berbers and camels in the desert. A simple organized tour with a local will teach you so much about a new place.

You’ll come away from your vacation much richer, and still have spent plenty of time to sip piña coladas on the beach.

Traveler vs Tourist, do you spend all of your time at the beach with a cocktail or do you mingle with the locals? You can do both!

Difference between a Tourist & a Traveler: when it doesn’t Matter

Do you go on vacation?

Or are you a traveler?

I do believe there is a difference but I don’t believe it always matters.

Vacation would be a week on the beach with fruity cocktails. The itinerary is empty and involves a lot of lounge chairs and buffets.

Travel is a lot less relaxing. It is a way of life. But I believe it also can grow an ego that can lock us out of great things.

For example, here in Buenos Aires I feel that lust for the local experience causes many travelers to miss out on otherwise fantastic experiences.

Travelers snub their noses at tango shows because locals don’t go to them. But locals do spend their entire lives honing their talent to be able to perform in these shows. Locals play in professional orchestras to accompany the dancers.

It IS a local experience, and many miss out due to ego. While yes, a local milonga is incredible, so are the highly produced tango shows.

They are two sides of the same coin and a traveler’s ego misses that.

Another thing that most travelers don’t want to admit is that to be able to travel as a lifestyle is a luxury.

Personally, it took me a lot of work and years to create this lifestyle. It wasn’t easy.

Not everyone has the interest or ability to dedicate their life to travel, they have OTHER interests that are equally valid.

And finally, most don’t have the time or the money or the energy. I understand if you’re exhausted and want to just relax on the beach for that one week of paid time off each year.

I’ve had a few rough years myself and plan on treating myself to an all-inclusive vacation in the next year. My only requirements include childcare and a beach, not purely cultural immersion this time. And that’s ok.

In a world where self-care is preached from the roof-tops maybe it’s time for even the most intrepid travelers to admit they also want a cushy robe in a hotel spa.

Sometimes it’s good to go home from your travels relaxed.

The difference between a traveler and a tourist: A Summary

At the end of the day is there a difference between tourists and travelers?


But if we’d all let go of our pride, we might realize that each has their own reasons for traveling the way that they do.

Tourists, I hope you add in some experiences in the local communities that you visit. Learn recipes, tour the markets, meet the people. It will change how you see the world.

Travelers, be as compassionate to the tourists as you are to the locals you meet along the way. We’re all doing our best.

And let’s be honest, we’ve all taken the touristy picture holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.

Admit it.

We’re all tourists at heart.

2 thoughts on “Traveler vs. Tourist: What is the difference & Does it Matter?”

  1. Im a traveler since I was 18 and I’m 74 now and still a traveler but, I do enjoy some of the tourist atracciones besides spending time with locals. Good article!

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