Tourist or Traveller? Which are you?

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see. – Gilbert K. Chesterton

Is there a difference between a tourist and a traveller? I think so but how do they differ and at what point do the two cross over?

Tourists, to me, take holidays. They are away from home for a short period to escape the stresses of daily life. They may go to a foreign country and look at the sights, camp at the beach, hike in the mountains, go on a cruise or lie in the sun by a hotel pool with a cocktail in hand. Their holidays entail planning, predictability, an expectation and a limited time frame.


Travellers, however, go out of their comfort zone. They experience a measure of uncertainty and spontaneity. They don’t know what might happen or what they will discover next. Their trips incorporate experiences, engagement and interaction with the local people and their way of life.They might include staying with a family or taking part in a cooking course (or, in my case, Andean back strap weaving!) or even doing voluntary work.

Until recent years, I have taken holidays as a tourist although my style of holiday has inevitably changed with the passing years, stages and experiences of life. My parents first took my siblings and me on holiday when I was a child of nine or ten. They borrowed a tent and tried out camping on a trip to Scotland, a country not well known for weather conducive to living in a tent! I can remember my mother in a campsite near the beach in Nairn sewing up the rip in the tent caused by the strong wind. Nevertheless, they decided this was the way they could afford a family holiday and bought their own.

We made several trips to Rome, where I have an aunt and cousins, camping along the way. We spent one week getting there, stayed for a week and took a week for the return. Dad selected different routes each year. Camp sites weren’t booked ahead but dad knew which town he wanted to stay in. My siblings and I sat, cramped in the back seat of the car, on our bedding, in the heat (it was always in August), for long periods each day.

When we arrived at our destination for the night, I helped dad put up the tent and my sister filled up the water container. Mum arranged the beds and cooked the dinner. The following morning, we took down the heavy frame tent and hoisted it onto the roof rack. Dad packed the rest of the accoutrements of camping and our clothing into the boot or under and around us children.

Camping at the beach
Camping at the beach

One year, the car broke down in France. The ‘big end’ had gone. That was serious! My father decided we should stay and have a holiday at a riverside campsite instead of returning home immediately. Chatting about the trip recently, my brother, sister and I all agreed this was our best holiday. I’m sure my father concurred as he was not spending each day driving long distances on foreign roads. It certainly didn’t suit my mother. She wanted to see and do as much as she could. Staying on a campsite, without a usable car, did not meet her criteria but then her idea of a holiday was most people’s idea of an endurance test!

My parents were not well off so getting to ‘the Continent’ stretched their limited resources. It meant that we never ate at cafes or restaurants and rarely had an ice cream. My mother brought as much food as she could with us and cooked on a Primus stove. The luxury of a camping gas cooker came later. We regarded a Vesta beef curry (dehydrated meal for those who don’t know) a treat. My sister still hates camping!

Whilst not enjoyable at the time, these holidays instilled in me a love of road trips. However, I like to do them in more comfort these days. I don’t rush and love having the freedom to meander down roads that capture my fancy just to see where they go. I have a destination in mind but what happens along the way depends on the day. It is amazing what you find and who you meet without a rigid timetable.

As a young adult the sun, beaches and bars of the Costas in Spain or Greece allured me. I would lie on a beach all day, frying, and adjourn to the bars at night (sunburn permitting!) A holiday such as this would be an anathema now but in those days it was wonderful.

Campervan in Australia
Campervan in Australia

Holidays evolved again with the arrival of children. Unlike my parents, we took easy options. Renting a holiday house or camping, preferably at the beach, and staying in one place for several days seemed like a good idea. Resorts in Vanuatu and Rarotonga with all their facilities appealed. As they grew up, we became more adventurous and rented a campervan in Australia and explored a patch of Northern Queensland. There were also trips back to England to see the family, but I never regarded these as holidays. Anyone who has travelled with three children intent on spending the 24 hours flying time watching movies I’m sure will understand!

Sign post in Bhutan
Sign post in Bhutan

Growing up and older I joined tour groups. Was I a tourist or a traveller? The trips were easy. I didn’t have to think or worry about the details. It was possible to view everything from an air-conditioned bus and stay in hotel chains that are the same worldwide (although I avoided this type of tour). The tours I took were in countries such as Bhutan that I would have found difficult on my own as I had never travelled solo. However, there was still a limited time frame, a predictability and organisation and I wasn’t engaged enough for them to fit my definition of travel. I was still more tourist than traveller but the lines were becoming blurred.

In recent years, I rented out my house and spent three years away, doing a mixture of solo backpacking, house sitting, travelling in a tour group, and visiting family. Now this was travel! When I was backpacking, I rarely planned or booked anything more than 2 or 3 days ahead unless I had to book a flight (and even then it was sometimes last minute). Anything could transpire during the day as I meandered around. Sometimes it was challenging and worrying but now I find I resist any form of organised trip.

At my current stage of life I consider myself to be a traveller but appreciate having a home base from which I can take off for a month or two knowing I have a beautiful place to return to. I am retired and fortunate to have the means to enjoy this way of life. Long term travel is no longer for me although there are many people doing it, taking advantage of the opportunities that abound these days to work and live on the road. Are you one of them? Are you a tourist or a traveller?

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