Ten real differences between travellers and tourists

When I was backpacking years ago, I came across all kinds of travellers. It was like a cast from one of Dr Seuss’ books – there were small ones and tall ones and fun ones and searching for sun ones.

Milford Sound New Zealand

Milford Sound, New Zealand - another one off the bucket list or part of a lifetime adventure?

For some, travel was a means of running away, as it was for me, at the start. But as I wandered around with the backpack that weighed more than I did I realised something – I was never going to arrive.


Somewhere on the Indian-Pacific train journey, mid-desert between Perth and Sydney, I realised that the destination wasn’t the point at all, it was the journey that mattered. At that moment I learnt the difference between being a tourist and being a traveller.

What’s the difference? Here’s my handy list. Would love to know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.

1. Packing – travellers carry little and take away lots. Tourists carry lots and take away little. (Unconvinced? Here’s two phrases for you – discount airlines and paying for baggage!)
2. Distance travelled can demonstrate a stark difference in approach. Travellers’ journeys can last a life time. Tourists’ journeys are a 7 day search for a full English.
3. Tourists are all about the people they meet. Travellers are all about the people they are becoming.


4. Tourists’ holidays come to an end, travellers’ journeys never end. In some ways the effect of a place, the experience itself never pales into insignificance.
5. Tourists go to see something or cross off a bucket list, travellers go to be somewhere.
6. Tourists want to see places through their own culturally rose-tinted glasses. They don’t want to be surprised, they want to be entertained or amused. Even if it is to peer at locals living in relative poverty. Tourists want everything translated and laid on. They want ample deck chairs, happy hours at 5pm and a local ‘Nag’s Head’ – even in the heart of Bangkok. Travellers want to be educated about other lives, about themselves, their life and their place in the world.
7. Tourists colonise with their cultural imperialism or their religion.  Travellers meld into the crowd and hope to learn something new that may challenge their preconceived notions of life and lifestyle.
8. Travellers learn more from the things that go wrong on their trip than from things that ‘go right’. Tourists sue.
9. Tourists follow maps and guides preferring to discover through someone else’s recommendations, travellers go off piste. Sometimes getting lost is the best way to discover something surprising that challenges you and your view of the world.
10. Tourists often cannot wait to go home and show off their suntan, travellers often never want to leave, or never want to stop travelling.

What would you add? What do you think are the biggest differences between tourists and travellers?



'Ten real differences between travellers and tourists' has 18 comments

  1. March 14, 2012 @ 1:32 pm Midlifesinglemum

    I think you are spot on about travellers and describe a wonderful life-long adventure. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to be so scathing of tourists even though they are clearly different from travellers. I was never a traveller. Even when I travelled a lot in my 20s and went far – I was always a tourist. It’s a different mindset, granted, but it’s not all about abusing other cultures, being spoilt and superior, and showing off about it afterwards. Maybe it’s more to do with firm roots and ties to one’s home, allowing shorter forays to other cultures for rest, relaxation and a change of scenery. Tourists are stepping out of their real lives where they are growing, learning, experiencing, and living. That’s the difference I think.


    • March 14, 2012 @ 2:00 pm vegemitevix

      Hi MLSM interesting that you found it ‘scathing’ it was supposed to be a little tongue in cheek. Sorry if I offended it wasn’t my intention. When you talk about the travelling you’ve done I have no doubt in my mind that I would count that as travelling, not so much tourism. You are right, it is so much more about a mindset and a spirit of openness than it is about where you stay, or whether you’re on a sun-seeking respite from the day to day of your life. After all, I’m shortly about to be heading out to a fabulous luxurious 5 star spa in Cypus but I don’t see that as a tourist trip, rather more a chance to revive, restore and hopefully to see a little of Cyprus. I don’t think it’s about whether you push a trolley case or slap on a backpack, as I’ve definately known backpackers who were pretty much ticking off their bucket list of things to see, and missing the very real experiences right in front of them.


      • March 14, 2012 @ 2:36 pm Midlifesinglemum

        Don’t worry, I’m still talking to you. I wasn’t offended and there are definitely those brash tourist types that you describe. I just thought it a bit unfair to tarnish them all with the same brush. Maybe I’m a traveller among the tourists. maybe ‘tourist’ is just a nasty word that no one wants to be called. I don’t have a car but call me ‘pedestrian’ and I’d be offended. I don’t have all those attributes that you give to travellers though, so what could we call someone who likes to visit other places and relax, eat good food, be entertained, and generally not have to worry about complicated travel arrangements when she’s on holiday?


  2. March 14, 2012 @ 7:51 pm JTH

    travellers walk, explore and enjoy the place they are in for what it offers. Tourists expect it to be hotter but just like home! I’m a fully signed up member of the travellers club 🙂


    • March 14, 2012 @ 10:14 pm vegemitevix

      I agree with you, but I still think it’s a shame. You can learn so much and gain so much perspective if you really tap into the place you’re visiting.


  3. March 14, 2012 @ 8:07 pm Steve

    I’d like to be a traveller… sadly I think I’m destined to be always be a tourist.


    • March 14, 2012 @ 10:15 pm vegemitevix

      From what I know of you Steve, I don’t think so some how. I think some of those who have travelled the furtherest, haven’t actually ever left their own country. 


  4. March 14, 2012 @ 8:38 pm Jody Brettkelly

    One thing I found really interesting about traveling in terms of backpacking everywhere and staying in scummy places was how competitive everyone was about who had stayed in the worst place and experienced the knarliest most obscure thing…and I was probably just as bad as everyone else. These days I don’t even pretend to be a traveller, I’m such a wimp.


    • March 14, 2012 @ 10:17 pm vegemitevix

      That’s what I was meaning about the ‘bucket list’. For backpackers (in particular) often that list includes all the hardest, roughest, toughest places in the world. “What d’ya mean ya haven’t walked the Sahara desert in bare feet, only catching a meal of lizards every second day? Whaddarya?” I think real travelling is a state of mind not a state of luggage. 🙂


  5. March 14, 2012 @ 9:15 pm Expat Mum

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a tourist, as long as you behave yourself, which of course some don’t. I may be a traveller in spirit but with three kids and the ridiculous amount of vacation that workers get in the States (or that they allow themselves to take, as in my husband’s case), we don’t go anywhere for more than a week or two, so that makes us tourists.
    Last year in Paris, our 16 y/o died of embarrassment every time we got a map out, but really, what’s wrong with wanting to visit other people’s cities and experience a tiny bit of their lifestyle?
    On the other hand, with your definition of a traveller (which I don’t disagree with) you can actually be a traveller without leaving your own country; it’s just a different mindset when it comes to experiencing things.
    (And don’t get me started on the natives who complain about tourists and grockles. The economies of most of these places would be in the toilet if it weren’t for tourists.)


    • March 14, 2012 @ 10:21 pm vegemitevix

       I wanted so much to introduce my teens to travelling whilst we are based here in Europe but just haven’t had the funds and really when would we have done it with the kids’ school schedule? What’s a grockle? If it’s a local handicraft then I definately agree, that it’s important to help support the local community. And that’s what I was meaning by my definition, it’s a state of mind that can last a lifetime.


    • March 18, 2014 @ 5:03 pm uaeute

      As a father of three (9, 7, and 5) I was thinking the same thing. TWK (Travel with Kids) is different. It’s still quite enjoyable, but just different. I always swore that I would NOT make my kids an excuse for not traveling as so many do. I’ve kept that promise and my kids have visited almost as many countries as their ages. We do our best to instill a mindset in our kids when we travel: “We can learn something about this place and the people who live here.” We talk to them about what they are seeing. They ask questions and make observations, and we teach them about how this place we’re visiting fits in with the rest of this huge planet. As much as I would like to go off piste more than we do you have to “manage risk” when you have three other lives depending on you. Not to say going off piste is life-threatening, but there are reasons the herd stays “en piste”. I agree that travel is all about your mindset and how you choose to take in what you see and do, no matter how touristy that thing might be. Our kids still talk about trips we took years ago and as they grow older they’re able to relate things that they are learning now back to those trips, and things they learned on those trips to what they are experiencing now.


  6. June 13, 2012 @ 12:11 pm DirectorV

    I loved reading this posting and fully agree! I’d add that traveler’s once they come back home can’t wait for starting a new journey!


  7. September 22, 2012 @ 11:04 am Ravi Prakash Agrawal

    Human life is something that keeps on oscillating between being a tourist and a traveler … For a tourist, its important to see something beautiful or ugly … For a traveler, everything is beautiful … If u think deeply and analyze … and if u read Bhagwat Gita, u will realize that the message communicated by the link tht u posted is almost similar as given in Gita, “Karmanyevadhikaraste mafaleshu kadachana” … Traveler is very near to this shloka … and it agains prove … that essence of happy life remains the same … it may appear in different forms in different walks of life … yet its always the same …

    hawaon se na poochho, unke raaste kidhar hain …
    Unke naseeb mein sirf bahna likha hai ..


  8. May 8, 2013 @ 11:53 pm Mike D Duran

    Tourist go away then return home refreshed. Travelers go away and come home a new person entirely.


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