The Great Debate – Tourists vs. Travelers

It’s no secret that Chris and I both have a fairly serious case of wanderlust – we both want to see and photograph as much of the world as possible within our means, and we have an extensive list of must-see places. Just a handful of cities and countries are highlighted on my bucket list page, but a separate list lives on my computer, begging me to plan and book trips. I’m constantly reading travel blogs and books and watching documentaries about travel, and in doing so I’ve noticed that there’s an ongoing tourist vs. traveler debate. You can even find tips on how to be a traveler instead of a tourist, suggesting that one is somehow superior to the other. (Just Google “tourist vs. traveler” to see hundreds of examples.)

My thoughts on that? It doesn’t really matter! And I’m not one to force anyone, including myself, into a label.

Chris and I tend to do a combination of adventure travel, relaxing vacations, weekend mini-trips, and traveling to visit family. And on any of these trips we might do both so-called “cheesy tourist stuff” as well as exploring off the beaten path on our own. We did several small group excursions in Alaska, for example – kayaking, whale-watching, zip-lining, and dog-sledding. Those were some of our favorite experiences of the trip, and I have no idea how we would have had access to any of that without a tour group. Stingray City in Grand Cayman is probably the most touristy thing to do on the island and it was one of the highlights of our trip. We are driving the Ring Road around Iceland this summer and we expect to discover tons of things along those 800-something miles, but we absolutely plan to go see the major tourist sites including the Blue Lagoon. We’re also planning to go inside the magma chamber of a dormant volcano, with a guide of course! I’m okay with not being the kind of person who would just mosey down into a volcano without someone official telling me what’s what, and most importantly, how to get back out. So whether we’re wandering around on our own or doing something with an organized group for the purpose of access or even safety, finding things randomly or using a guidebook to identify major must-sees, it’s all awesome to me. In fact, I love to strike a balance between the two.


I’ve also read several articles that suggest a true traveler is willing to give up all the comforts of home including a permanent residence and a steady career. Would I love to drop everything in my life, sell my house and focus solely on traveling the world? Sure! But Chris and I are so fortunate to have great jobs (knock on wood) and a home that we love. And our paychecks allow us to buy things like, you know, plane tickets, so I’m happy to just travel when I can. Does that make me a less serious/devoted traveler? Nah! When I can’t be out and about, I love to spend my free time reflecting on past travels in addition to researching and learning about places I hope to visit someday. I’m completely obsessed with Google maps for stalking places that are on my travel bucket list. I usually have the next half-dozen trips planned to some degree. (I like to know a certain level about my destinations, but I’m also excited to discover things while I’m there.)

wander_blogquote by J. R. R. Tolkein

I say go be a tourist, a traveler, an adventurer, a beach bum, or any combination there of – just do whatever feeds your soul and makes your heart happy. Embrace it! See the world in whatever way possible if you’re fortunate enough to do so, even if that means just wandering to a new corner of your own town or city and trying to see and experience something new. In my eyes you’re lucky if you’re a tourist or a traveler because it’s amazing to get to travel, period. We’re all individuals shaped from our own experiences and we have varying-sized comfort zones.

There’s no “right” way to see the world, except to travel responsibly with an open mind and respect for other cultures and differences. I won’t judge someone who is wearing a fanny pack, taking a photo of their friend pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or if they duck into a McDonald’s for lunch, but I will definitely frown at someone who is being disrespectful as a visitor. Usually though, I’m just happy when we’re somewhere new and exciting, and not at all concerned about who is a tourist and who is a traveler. Oh, and by the way, I’m almost always going to have a camera with me (unless it’s inappropriate to do so) and I don’t care if that makes me a tourist – the one label I’m sure of is that I’m a photographer. 🙂

So what do you think? Do you label yourself as a tourist or a traveler, or maybe even a hybrid? Or do you shun the labels altogether like I do? Either way, happy/safe travels to all!

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  • Casey - I think the labels are silly. And really? The only legitimate travelers are those that devote themselves to a nomadic lifestyle? That’s completely ridiculous…and outrageously pretentious!

    There are so many ways to see the world… Like the memes that say the slow, fat runner is at least lapping the people on the couch; the black socks-and-sandals, fanny pack-wearing tourist who only travels by bus with a tour group is at least seeing something beyond his/her hometown. That’s more than many people choose to do (or are able to do), so why knock it?

    Like you, I typically do a hybrid of major tourist attractions or stuff that requires a guide and then I like to explore a bit on my own. I agree – some places are far too risky without a guide along to help. But it’s also nice to get lost in a city (although considerably less fun, I’ve discovered, when accompanied by a small, tired child…) and explore on your own.

    I’m with ya – travel. Just travel. And be nice! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Susan - YES! I love that sandal/fanny pack/bus tour traveler vs. slow runner analogy! Just perfect.ReplyCancel