Travel Planning. Expert Advice.


May 3, 2013

Discuss: Is There a Difference Between Travelers and Tourists?

Jim Cheney, the Tripologist, and his wife hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in southwestern China.

In his novel, The Sheltering Sky, author Paul Bowles wrote,

“Another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”

This quote really started to make me think, is there a difference between travelers and tourists?

In a gramatical sense, the answer is no. Looking up synonyms of ‘tourist’ in a thesaurus, you’ll find ‘traveler’ as one of the first suggestions. So, in one sense, there really isn’t a difference between the words.

However, in modern terminology, I think there is a huge difference between travelers and tourists, and I think the quote above sums up the difference perfectly.

Having traveled throughout the world and having worked as a travel agent for the past four months, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “Can you believe what they do there?” or “It’s not safe” simply because of cultural differences. While there is nothing wrong with appreciating your home’s culture, refusing to accept the differences you observe in other cultures can be detrimental to both your understanding of the world and how much you enjoy your travels.

That’s not to say that travelers never encounter culture shock. Despite how much I pride myself on being a seasoned traveler, I definitely experienced some culture shock during my time China. However, the difference between a traveler and a tourist, in my opinion, is that a traveler accepts that it’s okay for things to be different, while a tourist thinks those differences make others wrong.

For this week’s discussion, I want to know what you think? Is there a difference between travelers and tourists, or am I just creating a division that isn’t really there? Let me know in the comments section below.


  1. I think there is a difference but I think there are people who fall between the lines. An example of an extreme tourist would be going to somewhere and staying in the hotel by the pool and never seeing outside. An extreme version of a traveller wouldn’t set foot in a luxury hotel. But many people are somewhere in between. I would hate to visit a place and spend the whole time by the pool never experiencing any of the culture, I love street food and I love finding hidden local places with no signs of tourists. But often I’ll also spend more to have some more comfort on a train for example and its hard to escape being labelled as a tourist and treated like one by the locals because they don’t see the difference! Plus, there are so many places catered towards ‘travellers’ that you could just call them ‘budget tourists’…. Interesting debate!

    • I agree with you to an extent, but I don’t think that being a traveler means that you never stay somewhere nice. We all need that every once in a while. Thanks for the insightful comment.

  2. Brendon

    Seems like what you’re really describing is open-minded vs closed-minded… Not sure how the term ‘traveler’ came to mean open-minded and ‘tourist’ to mean closed-minded. Seems a little closed-minded 🙂

    • Not exactly sure what you mean by the last part, but I think that having an open-mind could be something that sets travelers apart from tourists. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I agree with you and actually had an argument about this with someone recently. I think that non-travelers and travelers have different opinions because travelers see more variation in people along the way and exactly how people choose to do this thing called ‘travel’. I think to some extent we put the label of ‘tourist’ on all the people we may see in a popular or ‘must see’ location, which isn’t necessarily true. However, there’s definitely a difference and it lies between scratching the surface of the culture while keeping in the comfort zone, and getting yourself out there, meeting local people, and seeking out and exploring places ‘off the beaten path’ to really attempt to understand the people and culture of that place and to go home with something more than a tan and some photos of cool buildings or beautiful beaches. I think there is a difference and while I consider myself a traveler, not a tourist most of the time, I do think that as travelers we like to separate ourselves from people who are ‘tourists’ and maybe end up over-exaggerating the difference.

    I think that travelers experience culture shock and that tourists make observations but never are immersed enough within the society to actually feel uncomfortable or ‘shocked’!

  4. I do agree to an extent but there’s a reason must-see sights are must-see sights. Personally, I want to visit them – therefore I’m a tourist – however, my favourite parts of travelling have always been the moments where I get lost and end up eating buffalo at someone’s house. But, and this is where I think the ‘traveller’ glory is laud unfairly. There’s nothing worse than hanging out in a bar in SE Asia full of backpackers eating burgers and talking about the places they’ve ‘done’. I just spent three days on an island in Cambodia where some backpackers had decided to stay for a month working in the bar. They’re not tourists, they’d be travellers in a broad sense of the word, but they’re certainly not experiencing Cambodian culture as the only people frequenting these bars are other sunburnt travellers. Where would you place them and the hoards of other backpackers who see more shots than they do landmarks?

  5. Fabian

    Travelers are more intrepid and adventurous than tourists.

  6. I think there is a bit of a difference but like with so many things, it’s a grey area and there can be a lot of overlap between the two so I’m always wary of being too strict with labels like traveller & tourist!

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