Once 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.
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.
What are your thoughts? Is there a meaningful difference between a tourist and a traveler?
— written by Brittany Chrusciel