Tourist or traveller? What are you… and what’s the difference anyway?

July 13, 2018

Tourist or traveller?

If you’re already tired of the immigrant vs expat debate like I am, you might enjoy thinking about the new online tempest in a teapot.

It’s just as inane, but apparently affects even more fragile hipster egos.

So: are you a tourist or a traveller?

I, personally, am not sure what I am.

But I lean towards tourist…


My travel strategy is basically get out of Madrid once in a while, go somewhere nice, check out the museums, ogle the locals, eat massive quantities of regional cuisine and get tipsy on whatever booze they have available.

I hardly plan and hardly pack – just get a cheap flight or train ticket, hop on to find a reasonably priced room, and throw half my closet in my carry-on.

That’s about it.

I just wanna go places, and I usually figure the rest out when I get there.

And as I’ve written elsewhere, you won’t see me getting all pretentious about the soul-expanding marvels of travel.

Not that I don’t believe.

It’s just that there are already plenty of other people doing that for me.

And I’m certainly not the first person ever to have crossed an international border. What right do I have to preach the wonders of travel to the whole internet?


Tourist or traveller: What’s the difference?

As far as I can tell, most of the tourist vs traveller debate boils down to the fact that “tourist” has a negative connotation for the youngsters.

They think of their dad in his socks and sandals, massive camera slung around his neck and straw hat on his head… Maybe some of that awful white zinc sunscreen on his nose.

He’s in the Starbucks outside the Louvre in Paris, loudly ordering a pumpkin spice latte and complaining about how the whole country seems to be speaking a language that sounds like a donkey with a severe case of pneumonia.

And so our young traveller says, No, no… I’m not a tourist like that. I’m a traveller!

cultural differences between spain and the united states
Spanish women never wear big flamenco dresses. Except when they do. Puerto de Santa María, Spain.

I’d never (he or she continues) do anything lame like gawk at the timeless works of art at the Louvre – instead I ditched my dad and walked a few blocks away, “off the beaten path” to a quaint little café where I spent the morning eating croissants, watching “the locals” and writing about it in my Moleskine.

‘Cause I’m clearly a superior being of some sort.

Parisians just love croissants – I saw it in a Woody Allen movie once – and I also got to use my whole hard-earned French vocabulary while I was there: Bonjour, croissant, s’il vous plait. 

Nope, no touristy stuff for me…

Instead, I had a “real” “authentic” “experience” in “off-the-beaten-track” Paris.

Who knew you could get it just four blocks from the Louvre?

Pat yourself on the back,’cause now you’re a traveller…

Ok, I take that last thing back.

Actually, you’re just annoying and pretentious.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

You’re not “living like a local” on your 5-day jaunt to Paris or your two weeks in Mexico.

As a guy who’s lived abroad for over a decade, I’d say I wasn’t really “living like a local” for at least my first two or three years. (And I might not be even now, if we’re gonna be honest.)

There are a lot of things that locals do you’re not going to find out about just by taking a walk. Some of it will bother you, at least at first. Some will just be incomprehensible.

If you think you’re “blending in” after 20 minutes studying French on the plane and two or three trips on local public transport, I’ve got news for you…

You’re just delusional.

tourist or traveller in barcelona
Barceloneta beach, in Barcelona.


In researching this article I read a dozen others and found that most of what’s written about this debate is mind-numbingly stupid.

However, the Guardian (as usual) came through with this little gem, in an article about the efforts of some companies to rebrand tourism: “Un-tourism relies upon exclusivity; it is all about preventing other people travelling in order that you might legitimise your own travels.”


Tourism is cool when you do it.

‘Cause you’re sleeping in a yurt – whatever that is – with no wifi. You’re obviously lightyears ahead of a guy like me, who values showering and being connected.

Tourism is cool when you do it.

What’s not cool is when some lame, badly-dressed middle-aged folks want to do the same, and clutter up your photos in the process. 

Tourism is cool when you do it.

What’s not cool is those morons in their tour groups, having monuments explained to them by a guide… I mean, who cares about monuments? History is over, man…

Get with the times.

“Travellers” want to go to faraway places and not see others like them standing around and taking selfies. They want to keep up the illusion that they’re unique little snowflakes who are the only ones ever to have an idea like “OMG let’s go to Paris!”

And for that, they need to shame others who go to the same places but seem, somehow, different.

The hypocrisy of this seems lost on them.

So get one thing straight…

Travel is not a competition

Here’s the thing, young traveller…

I hate to break it to you.

But you’re not gonna get some gold medal while lying on your deathbed for having visited the most countries.

In almost anything you can do, the experience is its own reward, and travel is just one experience out of many.

Call yourself whatever you want – tourist or traveller.

Then get on that plane. Or don’t. Life goes on, either way.

You can travel off or on the beaten track, and I’m not gonna judge you…

‘Cause I don’t think the beaten track is all that bad, a lot of the time. Some things are popular because they’re actually worthwhile.

And while I’d love to hit some less-known spots when I travel, it’s usually impractical for various reasons: no transport, not a lot of infrastructure. No easy way for a tourist (ahem!) like myself to arrive or find somewhere to eat or sleep either.

(Looking at you, Serranía de Cuenca…)

tourism and travel in cuenca
Cuenca, one of my favorite Spanish cities.

I guess if I were rich and had all the free time in the world, I could do more to get off the beaten whatever.

But as it is, it’s easier – and sometimes cheaper – to hit the places everyone else goes.

So be careful, because…

You might just be a travel douche

“Chicago style? Please! I only eat pizza in Naples.”

“Everything in India is like, so spiritual, y’know? You’d never get the true meaning of enlightenment like I have without spending a long weekend on an ashram in Kerala.”

“People in poor counties are just so happy. Why when I was in the slum tourism across Latin America, you wouldn’t believe the fun those kids had with a soccer ball and a patch of dirt. They’re really better off than we are…”

If you find yourself saying any of those things, take note: you might be a travel douche.

And according to the competent authorities, there is no known cure.

So keep it real out there, kids.

You can be a tourist or a traveller.

But realize that nobody else cares that much.

Just go somewhere. And while you’re at it, have fun.


Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I should mention that in my attempt to discover whether or not anyone else had used the term “travel douche” to describe this sort of thing, I found that the industry of travel-sized douchebags is alive and booming. Good to know.

P.P.S. Want a real intercultural experience? Try dating a Spanish girl… That’s when the real fun begins.

P.P.P.S. I wrote this article sort of a long time ago, and never published it. In the meantime, I’ve moved to Barcelona, and I’m right in the middle of mass tourism. It’s right outside my door… But it doesn’t yet seem to be ruining my life. Anyway, what do you think? Tourist or traveller? What’s the difference?

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Once more right on the button, Mr C. I feel kind of superior, living like a local, when drifts of tourists get in my way when I’m rushing to the bus stop, but after 4 years in Madrid then Cádiz, the reality of adapting and ’embedding’ is beginning to bite. And the ‘croissant and Moleskine’ fits me sometimes too. I quite like it though, now and then. That bridge in Cuenca is very scary. I had to walk across it very fast. Thanks again, and all the best in Barcelona.

    1. Thanks Julie! Yeah, integrating into a culture isn’t as easy as just buying some new clothes… As recently as last week, someone heard my C2 level of Spanish and said, “Ah, so you speak a little bit of Spanish too?” 🙂

  2. I enjoyed your perspective, didn’t know there was a debate or age was involved…for me a tourist is the one on the cruise, or who stays at the all inclusive resorts, or the tour group…never to even begin to attempt to hang out with the natives.
    One who travels, well selfies have nothing to do with that, and I don’t know if you are aware, but selfies are not age nor country specific, have you seen the Asians when they travel? Selfie sticks around…no the Traveller, just goes when the urge hits them,they hang out with the locals, not one of them, but with them… Anthony Bourdain was a Traveller..Rick Steves is a tourist, and nothing wrong with either approach. It’s two different approaches to something wonderful, seeing the world and having new experiences and creating memories. Without calling names or disparaging others.
    As for expat or immigrant, well it’s quite simple…racism. the country and colour of your skin determine what you’re called. To say otherwise, is a flat out lie.

  3. Great post! Very reflexive on what is really to travel and experience different cultures. I have never stop to think how ridiculous those travel group tours look like. The best experience you can get is to blend in with the people and experience what it would be everyday life in the place you are visiting. Yeah visiting historic landmarks is cool, but more interesting is getting to know the people around, because after all, is the people who makes the place different not the inert monuments that have been around for hundreds of years.

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