Musings on Tourists and Travellers

By Janina Kauz

With the summer holidays drawing to a close, the thousands who have ventured abroad this year are slowly but surely returning to their domestic abodes. As always, the annual mass migration has triggered many sneering newspaper features on how irritating and embarrassing tourist are. Apart from minutely describing the misdeeds (apparently among these: being noisy, blocking the way, wearing shorts and sandals…) that mark a person as a tourist, the authors of said articles were even kind enough to supply their readership with tips on how to avoid the pitfall of being – god forbid- regarded oneself as a brassy tourist and instead assume the air of a sophisticated traveller. Indeed, a strong distinction seems to be made between travellers and tourists, not only in the media, but also in popular opinion. This got me thinking: What exactly is the difference between a tourist and a traveller? Initially, not being a native speaker of English, I put my confusion down to an incomplete understanding of the two terms. Seeking to swiftly remedy this deficiency, I consulted what I hoped would be an efficient arbiter: The Oxford English Dictionary. The search yielded the following two definitions:

Tourist: A person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure

Traveller: A person who is travelling or who often travels; A Gypsy or other nomadic person; A person who holds New Age values and leads an itinerant and unconventional lifestyle

What’s most striking about these definitions is the implication, that tourist is a rather specific word for someone going to a place on a holiday, whereas traveller seems to be a more complex affair: First, their journey isn’t necessarily holiday related, it could also be for business reasons or part of a lifestyle. Secondly, it may also mean that the person described is somewhat hippiesque. While this distinction in itself makes perfect sense, it doesn’t seem that convincing anymore when brought together with the newspaper features mentioned earlier on. Certainly, there can’t be that many newspapers telling their readers not to go to places for pleasure but be hippies instead? Therefore, I decided to ask Google. However, not even the www was able to come up with a coherent answer to my by now not only burning but blazing question (try it yourself: google difference between traveller and tourist and you’ll be confronted with a plethora of conflicting and often facetious, albeit admittedly entertaining, articles). Now desperate for some kind of answer, I looked into when I personally would use which word, subjective and flawed as that usage might be. I realised that, to me, the word traveller has a certain sense of free spirit attached to it, meaning that a traveller might visit a place without a very detailed plan and also for a longer period of time, whereas a tourist would plan the visit in great detail and maybe only spend a few days. Also, I’d describe visitors as tourists if they mentally staid at home, so to speak. By that I mean people who seem to be unable to just embrace the place they’re visiting and take things as they are, but constantly feel the urge to draw comparisons and place all the new experiences and impressions in a tight grate of what they know. In contrast, I’d use traveller for people I feel manage to explore a place in an unprepossessed and unprejudiced manner. I realise that this attempt at classification is highly subjective and also doesn’t provide any final labels because it would allow for the same person to sometimes be a tourist and sometimes a traveller. But then again, maybe we aren’t just either one: Being a traveller by my usage sounds like it takes quite a bit of courage. As a person from Switzerland, you might feel comfortable going somewhere in Western Europe without planning ahead, knowing that in most places, people will speak a language you can make yourself understood in, so you might be a traveller then and just go without much of a second thought. But if you were to go somewhere more remote, say Central Asia, where most of us don’t understand a word of what’s being said, you might feel more relaxed if you knew where you were going to stay the first few nights, and therefore plan your journey in greater detail, which, according to the connotation above, would make you a tourist.

Twisted as the matter is, I couldn’t find a clear answer to my question. However, one thing has become clear: The newspaper articles that made my think about this issue in the first place, were not entirely accurate. Being a tourist or not is not really about bad manners and careless attire. Rather, it is a question of attitude and personality. Therefore, tourist shouldn’t be as insulting a term as in today’s usage it sometimes is. Either way, in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the exact difference between a traveller and a tourist is. What matters is that the kind of travel one does suits the personality, so everybody in the end is able to enjoy the experience – be it more on the planned or more on the adventurous side.


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