“The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that a tourist doesn’t know where he’s been and a traveler doesn’t know where he’s going.”Paul Theroux
This is probably the most popular quote differentiating between a tourist and a traveler, though there are many like it and myriad blog posts to back it up. Somehow, over the years, the word “tourist” has developed a negative connotation, bringing to mind bumbling middle-aged men in khaki cargo shorts and nose white with sunblock, having his kids trample some revered native plant in order to get a picture with the local attraction, and then taking the family to McDonald’s so they can eat something familiar.
The reality, though, is that while those people do exist, tourists are just like anyone else: there are some that are very thoughtful about the way they travel, and there are some that are really shitty about it. Unfortunately, in an attempt to try to distance themselves from these terrible tourists, people have started describing themselves as travelers, which is just as pretentious as people referring to themselves as “foodists” to avoid the “foodie” stigma (and yes, that’s a thing).
I understand that language has an ebb and flow over time, and the definitions or common uses of words change and shift, but currently Merriam-Webster simply defines a tourist as “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” So, sure, I guess you could call yourself a traveler if you’re not traveling for pleasure, but if that’s the case, why call yourself anything at all?
What’s more, anyone outside the specific community doesn’t care. Do you think someone who isn’t interested in travel cares if you refer to yourself as a tourist or a traveler? Do you care if a Star Trek fan differentiates between “trekkie” and “trekker”? Or if someone tries to explain the difference between “foodie” and “foodist”? Probably not. People inside the community, the ones who would potentially follow your travel blog or see the things you do, will know whether you’re a good tourist or a shitty tourist, regardless of what you call yourself.
When I first started traveling, Americans abroad had a bad rep, and so I would tell people I was from Canada. It wasn’t hard—my wife at the time was Canadian and I had been to Canada multiple times, so I knew what I was talking about. But then I realized, if I pride myself as being a good tourist, why shouldn’t I tell people I’m American? Americans will never get a better reputation abroad if the good ones pretend to be Canadian. So I tell people I’m American in hopes that I can help out. Don’t be ashamed to be a tourist—help improve the world’s view of them.
Everyone is traveling to experience something different, and there’s no reason to shame someone because their travel goals are different than yours. Whether you’re taking overnight buses through Peru or shuffling your kids from museum to museum in New York, whether your Instagram shows you wistfully gazing at a far-off mountain range or holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, you’re a tourist. Embrace being a tourist, but try not to be a shitty one.