What is the difference between a tourist and a traveller?

Written on 12 October 2020

Surely you have heard of the difference between tourists and travellers. Those who identify themselves with the second category usually do not want to be confused or have anything to do with the first. On the other hand, those who appreciate the advantages of being a tourist, usually look at those who use the term “traveller” with some mistrust and consider them to be rather snobbish. The divide between these two categories is so marked that there is now also room for jokes and parodies about what has become a true cultural stereotype of contemporary society. But what is the difference, really, between tourists and travellers? Just scroll through the definitions in any dictionary to discover that, literally, the term “traveller” means “someone who travels”, while the term “tourist” means “someone who travels for pleasure”. Is that all? Of course not. In our culture, these terms have taken on quite different meanings.

Travelling alone or with others?

The difference between tourists and travellers can be observed even before the journey starts, in the choice of travelling companions. Tourists usually travel with their families, or in the absence of family, they prefer group travel. It is the company that gives meaning to the tourist’s experience, which is why it is not uncommon for them to spend some time identifying the right friends or family members to share a particular trip with. The traveller, on the other hand, is a loner. From time to time they may agree to travel as a couple or with a friend, as long as the other person shares their interests and enthusiasm – otherwise, they lose themselves in endless quarrels about which excursions to choose and where to eat. The traveller’s experience is individual and has more to do with living experiences rather than sharing them. The traveller does not take guided tours of museums but explores them on his own, perhaps with an audio guide, stopping in front of each work of art for as long as they wish and savouring what they like and are most excited about.

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All-inclusive package vs unpredictable adventure: tourist and traveller dealing with accommodation

It’s a cliché, of course, but when we think of tourists we are reminded of the large facilities that offer all-inclusive packages. From Riccione to Benidorm, from Sharm El-Sheikh to Sibari, there are facilities where you can spend an entire holiday without ever leaving, without exploring the region or the nearest town, and without ever having to take out your wallet to drink or eat. This type of holiday, very popular among families with children, is often full of relaxation and entertainment and includes days by the pool and planned activities. This is the typical “tourist” choice, that horrifies the traveller, who prefers open routes, sustainable facilities, and experiences that bring them as close as possible to the daily life of the local communities. The traveller carries a backpack, chooses to stay on a local farm, perhaps devoting a few days to “voluntouring”, i.e. offering their work for associations or charitable enterprises, often linked to the conservation of nature and fauna. The tourist chooses the highest category room they can afford, the traveller often moves around with their tent on their back, reading the reviews of the camping areas, or using couch-surfing platforms to get to know the locals and their culture.

Sustainability vs mass tourism

When travellers find themselves passing the facilities where tourists are staying, they often shiver and cringe. Faced with a heated swimming pool in winter or a ski slope in the desert, the traveller raises the question of sustainability. The same happens when contemplating the environmental impact of fast food or air travel. Tourists cannot or do not want to think about all these aspects (and, as we shall see, the industry does not help them). The traveller does not buy plastic souvenirs made elsewhere but chooses pieces of local craftsmanship. He does not bring back stones, sand, or other natural elements, but takes a lot of pictures. If they can, they also learn a few words of the local language, partly out of respect and partly out of curiosity.

Tourist and traveller? You can be both!

Actually, these two words are not at all antagonistic and the two definitions have a lot in common, despite the generalised idea that being a tourist is too “common” and even a bit vulgar. However, it has to be said that not everyone can afford the mystical and spiritual exploration of uncontaminated places, limitless backpacking, and a fully authentic experience of the culture and life of the place they visit. This vision, in fact, excludes those who have limited time, those who travel with small children, those with disabilities or special needs, both physical and cognitive, and many other categories that do not necessarily prefer unsustainable travel styles or superficial experiences, but are often left with little or no choice in the matter. The solution, therefore, could be to move towards inclusiveness, not necessarily trying to convert every tourist into a “traveller”, but trying to free the concept of “tourist” from its negative nuances, making sustainability and meaningful experiences accessible to everyone.