Tourist vs. Traveler

I’ve done some thinking about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Neither is intrinsically better than the other, and many times a tourist turns into a traveler and a traveler into a tourist. Of course, I’d rather be a traveler, but I also know that’s not always possible. So, anyway, what’s the difference?

A tourist is looking at things with home as the reference point, concerned about sharing the experience with people at home, showing things to people at home. Souvenir shops are a real draw. Everything they see demands a photograph. There is something between them and the place they’re visiting. They have objectives and destinations. They often have their bucket list of sites and experience they want to “cross off.” Tours are designed for tourists. They are organized, timely, hit the main sites and offer comfort and convenience.

The biggest difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the traveler is not thinking about home. Therefore, a traveler has no list of destinations, can’t imagine anything in a souvenir shop that would represent what they’re traveling for and is generally more curious about what is around them. The traveler seeks a more intimate relationship with a place than the tourist does. The traveler will not see as many things, but they will see what they do see more deeply.

I first recognized this when my best friend came to visit me in the People’s Republic of China in 1983. She was a tourist. I was living there; I was a traveler only because I knew I would not be staying. When she first arrived I asked her what she wanted to see. Her response was, “You have been living here; just show me what you have liked.”

A traveler isn’t going to see the sites; only accidentally. I didn’t know where all the temples were, the pagodas, the jade shops. I knew where there was one temple that had taken on a spiritual and human significance to me (and so I returned often). I knew where there was ONE pagoda because it was near that temple. I had no interest in or money with which to buy jade, so I had no idea about that. What I did know was which peasant in the nearby open-air market was my friend and saved the best chilis for me, or potatoes, or any other thing she’d learned I liked. My friend was quickly frustrated by the local bus that I took all the time to go into town — if I didn’t ride my bike which was usually what I did. Our cross country journey to Hangzhou in the Aeroflot plane scared her and the public bus trip frustrated and angered her. Inconvenience was a fact of life in the People’s Republic of China and my friend became angry at me for accepting that. That people went home at noon for two hours and things closed was, to her, reprehensible and could only happen in a communist country where people were paid whether they worked or not.

The biggest problem was China was not her IDEA of China, but it was its own place. She would never have had to deal with this if she’d chosen to be a tourist rather than link up with a traveler. Unfortunately, because I didn’t “get” it (I could have arranged a tour for us) she had a bad time and left almost 2 weeks before she’d planned to. “You love this place,” she said. “I can’t love it. In fact, I hate it.” She’d suffered during the two weeks she’d been there; near heat-stroke, roaches, broken-down busses, scary toilets, scarcity of food, unpredictable transportation — basically everything that would describe the People’s Republic of China. She’d been forced to travel.

My then mother-in-law, who was also with us on this adventure, was a traveler. When she was gently mocked for carrying a fork everywhere, she learned to use chopsticks. When waiters didn’t understand, “Green beans” or “Ice cream” she learned to say those words in Chinese. The scary toilet was “No worse than in Greece. They’re actually more hygienic since you don’t have to touch anything.” Never mind that this 72 year old woman was obliged to squat and carry her own toilet paper. She didn’t care. On the breaking-down bus, she stuffed tissues in the windows to keep them from rattling. When we found ourselves obliged to hitch-hike, she was interested in the scenery. I think her month in China and Hong Kong was a major highlight of her life. She was born to travel. A tour would have been OK, but she’d likely feel she hadn’t seen “real China.”

Because of my friend, I saw things in the city in which I had been living that I hadn’t seen the whole year I’d lived there. And, during her tourist visit with me she took these photos (and more) and I’m so grateful now that she did. Because of my mother-in-law I was able to relax and share the experience of living in China. I benefited greatly from both perspectives — and my friend went back to try again. I think she enjoyed it more the second time around.

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8 thoughts on “Tourist vs. Traveler

  1. Interesting comparison of tourist v traveler. Goodness, your friend sounds very close-minded to the whole idea of traveling…which is probably why she was not a traveler.

    • She had pretty intense culture shock (to be expected) and I should have been more aware that was likely. But she was also very insistent that she live in our apartment building and do everything WE did. I warned her, “It’s not fun and games. You’re better off in the nice hotel with hot showers, no roaches, and taxis.” I think there was a bit of a “macho” thing going on. She didn’t realize we’d had 11 months to get used to things. My husband at the time was overwhelmed by it the whole year. It wasn’t easy — I just wanted to be there. For me is was a dream come true.

  2. Everyone has a different perspective. If you travel no matter how, there will be always be the unexpected and if you can’t deal with the curves then you should stay at home.

  3. Very interesting. We love road trips and thus exploring foreign countries. Are we travelers or tourists? We love to visit historic places when on travel. Are we travelers or tourists? We love to have experiences for example to participate in reindeer races when on travel. Are we travelers or tourists? Our interests are cultural, local habits, art and handicrafts (wooden carvings, quilts and patchworks) when on travel. Are we travelers or tourists? We love hiking on our Arctic Hills among free roaming reindeers. Are we travelers or tourists?

    Happy weekend!

    • In my mind, tourists check items off their bucket lists. Travelers understand that they might miss a few bucket lists items because they’re captivated and involved where they are. BUT a lot of times tourists turn into travelers, and some travelers have bucket lists. Maybe it’s a process…

      Anyway, I would love hiking your arctic hills among free roaming reindeer. Forever. What would that make me? 😉

      I looked at your blog — I see you are from Finland (my dad’s grandmother was also from Finland; his mother was a Swede) — and I think you are a traveler.

      Thank you for stopping by! Have a lovely weekend.

  4. Hello Martha.

    Wise answer. Maybe one good word would be visitor – compare visitors centre. Very interesting to read about dad’s grandmother. I have been everywhere in Finland and have also photos nearly from everywhere, could I ask from where she was?

    Here is example of hiking among reindeers:

    North of the Arctic Circle 3

    Happy Sunday!

    • Good morning! I wish I knew where in Finland my great-great-grandmother came from. As far as I know she went to Canada from Finland in the early 19th century, probably with her parents. She married a French Canadian named LaRoq. They lived on the northern shores of the Great Lakes. That’s all I know about her other than she lived a very long life. I don’t know anything about her daughter, my dad’s grandmother, either, but I have a couple of photos and I inherited her left eye! 😀

      Visitor is a good word. I feel like that’s what I am all the time.

      The landscape, the reindeer and the trails are enchanting. ❤

      I love an extreme climate, and I live in one — I live in the San Luis Valley in Colorado — it's a rift valley between two mountain ranges that sits at 2300 meters. It's the largest such valley in the world. The Rio Grande winds through it. It's considered a high altitude desert. We have Rocky Mountain Sheep (up in the mountains on both sides) elk, deer, moose, bears, a wide variety of small mammals like raccoons and badgers — and my town (4000 people) is a stopping point for Sandhill Cranes in their migration which is going on right now. Our first sign of spring is flocks of cranes calling to each other in the sky.

      • Hello Marth. Thank You for You kind answer. You live in a very interesting and beautiful place. We have lived in many places in Finland. Some years ago, we lived by the lake on the Lakeland area. We are born in Helsinki and now we live there. In addition, we have small apartment in Oulu (middle of Finland). From there we have short trip to Lapland (Northernmost Finland). It is the most magic part of my country.

        Happy new week!

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