Are you a Tourist or a Traveller?

I want you to think – right now – whether you identify more with being a ‘tourist’ or a ‘traveller’


Regardless of what images and emotions the two words conjure in your mind (and which one you identify with more) we’ll get to the implications of your thoughts in a few minutes.


As humans we all naturally gravitate to identifying ourselves as part of a social group.  This begins with the family and country we’re born in, the school we studied at, our friends, the sporting team we support, and extends even to the particular brand of shoes we prefer.  This behaviour is evolutionary.  More specifically, it springs from one of our most ingrained survival instincts.  From the early stages of our evolutionary path we discovered the benefits of belonging to a group, the most identifiable benefit being personal security (think of all the bears, lions, and hostile tribes roaming around).  This group concept was so successful that it better enabled us to hunt, protect our offspring, and grow our average group size until we had thriving societies which eventually adopted agriculture and new technologies.


Nowadays, as physical security is no longer the primary concern in our governed and policed societies, we predominantly seek emotional security in groups.  I’m going to define emotional security with an arbitrary threshold.  If a person is below this threshold then they are not emotionally secure.  They are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression and display poor decision-making.  If a person is above this threshold then they are emotionally secure.  They have a healthy resistance to mental illnesses and exhibit better decision-making.


So what does all this have to do with being a tourist or a traveller I hear you say?  Well, I am willing to guess that most of us identified as travellers.  Let’s try to understand why through the group-belonging concept and maximising our emotional security.


For those of us with imaginations susceptible to stereotyping, the word ‘tourist’ usually conjures images of DSLR-laden, suitcase toting, hotel lobby-frequenting, please-rob-me looking, sandals-sporting, cruise-ship loving people of undefined age and gender who congregate in herds near the biggest and most impressive monuments.  On the flip side, the word ‘traveller’ usually brings up images of adventure, going solo, backpacking, exploration, less-trodden paths, bucking the trend, quality cultural encounters, and unexpected discoveries.  As such, the word ‘traveller’ has less stereotypes attached to it which is what enables us to appropriate positive qualities to the word which we desire others to see in ourselves.


I identify most as a traveller.  This implies I have a natural bias against anyone who is not in this group, especially those identifying as “tourists”


The implications of examining the most stereotypical versions of the two words are clear, whether or not your mental images were more diluted versions of the descriptions I provided above.  It is only natural that we choose to identify with a social group which we believe maximises our emotional security (whether or not it actually does is another matter).  I’ve experienced this numerous times while chatting to other backpackers.  In sharing our stories we would often bemoan “all the damn tourists” crowding a particularly popular place, or exalt in how “travelling opens your mind”.  I bet you’ve never heard someone say “being a tourist really expanded my previously narrow worldview”.


Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a tourist as “one that makes a tour for pleasure or culture” and a traveller as “one that goes on a trip or journey”.  Even in the linguistic definition of the two words we can see the potential broader appeal of the word ‘traveller’ as being associated with a ‘journey’.  A trip is a trip while a journey is something personal.  A journey can transcend the mere physical transportation of your body from place to place.  This is why there’s a kernel of truth in the saying that it’s not the destination that matters most but the journey.



Note:  Whether you identified more with one group over the other may have absolutely no correlation with the number, quality or depth of the experiences you’ve had while exploring the incredible planet earth.

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