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The Last Article On The Traveler/Tourist Distinction You'll Ever Read

by F. Daniel Harbecke Jan 30, 2008
F. Daniel Harbecke tackles the traveler/tourist debate that never seems to die, and finally puts the issue to a much deserved rest.


It hung heavy on the air, swollen with contempt. It wasn’t a bad word, at least as far as I knew. Yet here it was, shoved against the scene just occurred.

My buddy Joshua and I were standing in a slight line at a kiosk. The man in front of us was trying to buy a pack of batteries with a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Normally there’d be nothing to forgive in this. The problem was that we were in Rome.

Some people seem to wallow in their ignorance abroad, but when do you make the jump to the other side of the continuum?

“I’m sorry, signore,” said the woman behind the counter, “I cannot take this money. Only lire.”

Sir was not used to hearing no for an answer. “What’s wrong with my money?”

“The money is good, but only lire, signore.”

Checkmate. Quivering with fury, he slammed the batteries down on the counter. “Well… you… can take those batteries… and shove them up your ass!” Spinning on his loafered heel, he stormed away to another kiosk, his white shorts blazing in resentment.

The woman said nothing, sighing in disgust; it was Joshua who labeled him a tourist. A Melbourne native studying art in Florence, he spoke enough Italian to capture our regret for the man’s behavior.

She replied that it was common and she was used to it. All three of us wanted to put it behind, but it was most difficult for Joshua and me.

Aren’t We All Tourists?

I wish I knew enough Italian to say something as elegantly as my friend – something to erase the embarrassment of being unconsciously tied to such a lame display. The last thing I wanted was to be associated with such ignorance as we’d just seen.

Joshua and I were travelers – not like him. Not tourists.

Funny, though. I’d always thought of myself as a tourist, but it was only then I began to see differences between tourists. I knew of the Ugly American (being an American), but surely novices from any country run equal risk of looking stupid.

“Stay in Europe long enough,” said Joshua later, “you’ll come back with a Dumb Tourist story. Everyone has one. It’s just a matter of time.”

“What’s yours?” I asked.

“If I had to pick…” he mused for a moment, “it might be the college students who told me my English was very good, ‘even though I’m Australian.'” The last few words he delivered with a heavier bush accent.

I winced. “Wow. Where were they from?”

“Don’t ask.”

I wondered if Joshua commented on my mistakes when I wasn’t around. Granted, some people seem to wallow in their ignorance abroad, but when do you make the jump to the other side of the continuum?

What Is a Tourist?

Writer and inveterate traveler Paul Fussell wrote on the explorer-traveler-tourist distinction in his 1980 book Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars.

Since exploration is a significantly rare and deeper investment than casual travel, the emphasis today is placed on travel and tourism – in other words, the difference between inner and outer-directed experience.

The tourist is seen as making little or no attempt to delve into anything beyond their guide book.

In essence, tourism is an experience that’s catered to, the exotic locale witnessed from a safe distance.

On arrival, the tourist is guided to the most obvious spectacles as the sole object of the journey. Because the stereotyped experience is deemed the primary importance, the “foreign” culture is considered an oddity, a nuisance at worst.

The tourist is seen as making little or no attempt to delve into anything beyond their guide book.

Fussell lamented the disappearance of “true” travel, which he saw as being increasingly absorbed by tourism. To him, travel was in all aspects a matter of direct contact with transformative experience.

In his day, the mystery of distant places was preserved by the simple fact that they were still remote. In the early 1900s, travel was shaped by scarcity of air flight (not to mention landing strips), a lack of formalities between countries, and the absence of information needed to span cultures.

Today, thanks to television, movies, color photos and other sources, everyone has an idea of what a mountain looks like: the awe of Kilimanjaro is bled away, the Grand Canyon demystified by the saturated media.

To Fussell, travel is a pursuit steadily drained by excess comfort and modern amenities.

Travel Today

As the human frontier expands, the outlandish is harder to come by.

Travel in the Age of Communication has evolved into an adventure of interpersonal discovery. Yet because tourists and traveler now bump elbows in the same settings, the distinction between the two turns into a question of how the journey is pursued.

As a result, the depth of the experience is judged less by its own merits but by other criteria.

The irony is that “travelers” begin to define themselves against the habits of “tourists” – by external indicators rather than internal. Travel is judged by “how meager the lodgings” or “how low the budget,” rather than a personal navigation of the transformative experience.

Many backpackers feel travel is only about “keeping it real” – if you’re paying for clean clothes, three meals and a roof, you’re somehow missing the point.

Likewise, some consider travel a luxury of wealth. While the tourist only lacks insight, this class disparages the budget traveler who’s excluded from “the finer things.”

Travel becomes an arrogant show of financial success over the peasant backpacker – and again, the point is lost.

The Fallacy of the Anti-Tourist

Fussell commented on the anti-tourist, one whose angst of being “just another tourist” propels a forced consciousness.

Travel becomes tourism when focus shifts from the experience itself to the vehicle of experience.

Anti-tourists wear the garb and eat the food, but fall well short of “going native” because they’re so fixated on their appearance as tourists. They’re culture chameleons – adopting the trendier fashions of their hosts and shedding them on leaving.

But can this definition not extend to the anti-travelers, who consciously avoid the dialogue around them to be of the “experiential elite”?

Travel becomes tourism when focus shifts from the experience itself to the vehicle of experience. In this sense, the snob becomes as much a tourist as the novice, because both are shut off from the wider sense of the dialogue.

Neither privation nor unlimited funds guarantee the Moment, any more than simply going abroad versus staying home. Frequent fliers may be more familiar with a place, but thumbing their noses at the newbies speaks more to their own insecurities – and, paradoxically, how poorly-traveled they are.

What grants authentic discovery is opening your awareness.

Travel Tomorrow

The whole point of travel is to pursue the meaning behind the milieu: to discover oneself in the mirror of the Other.

Travel isn’t dictated by fad or tradition, but by curiosity. It is internally directed. Fixation on the role or material affairs only distracts from issues of real importance.

We are all tourists. We learn by doing. Our knowledge comes by the fine art of making our screw-ups something beautiful. And unless you’re willing to go down roads unfamiliar to the cowards and cynics, the art never arrives.

It is upon these roads where we are made travelers.

As the Global Village becomes more neighborly, the future will belong to the fluent – the ones able to accept the unknown and welcome it.

The test of that fluency will rest in our patience: not how well we speak, but how well we listen.

Outside the limits of preference and convention await new possibilities, the “undiscovered country” of our potential. Only by asking questions do we encounter anything new; only by challenging our assumptions of the world will reveal our place within it – as one voice in a chorus.

And only by honoring differences of those around us will shed light upon the ignorance that keeps us as tourists in our own lives.

F. Daniel Harbecke (just call him Daniel, the F’s a family thing) is currently working on “A Philosophy of Travel,” which envisions travel as a metaphor for the meaningful experience of life. Daniel has lived in Europe, South America and Asia and is trying to fund his tony lifestyle in Sweet Home Chicago.

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