What’s the different between travel and tourism?

Sålta Kaverns

No one who buys a plane ticket and works hard to pack their liquids into tiny 3 oz bottles would call themselves a tourist.  Why would they?  It’s the curse word for the herds lugging suitcases and oversized backpacks.  A tourist must be other, they are the people getting in your way, stopping to take a photo of the iconic sight down the road or buying postcards at markets.

Yet, someone has to be a tourist, right?  What is the distinction between traveler and tourist?  Perhaps most importantly, which one are you?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot recently, both in light of my adventures around Europe this year and the class I’m taking about Italian travel writing.  It’s tempting to make easy, black-and-white delineations between the two categories.  Travelers interact on some deep level with a place.  They search the authentic, original and find it, without needing markers or an outside force to corroborate their discovery.  Tourists, on the other hand, have a superficial relationship with what they see.  Their cameras are filled with photos of Notre Dame and the Rialto bridge, but forgo the less-than-idyllic side streets.  They want to experience the authentic just as much as anyone else, but they need to have their nutella crepe in a cone decorated with the French flag as a manner of assurance that this is not an experience they could have enjoyed in the comfort of their home.

Do you agree with these classifications?  I don’t.

Stockholm Street

The more I travel or tour or whatever, the more I think that our trips take us through the different levels of travel and tourism just as much as they take us to different places.  Travelers don’t go to Skansen and they don’t love to say U-Bahn.  Tourists do that.  Yet tourists won’t go anywhere for coffee and they are more interested in confirming their ideas of how Italians eat, rather than thinking critically about their preconceived notions.  Travelers do that.  In any trip, the individual divides their time between being a traveler and tourist, negotiating the two identities without much thought.

But we should give it some thought.

Traveling is what happens when we make a city, a place or a moment our own.  Unlike tourism, which involves a camera and worshipping at the altar of something different, travel is a wholly participatory act.  When you travel, you aren’t consciously thinking about it.  When you tour, you are always aware that you are there, different.  The tourist is an identity.  The traveler is a fact.

Let’s think about what travel means and what tourism means.  The two words aren’t mutually exclusive.  At least, they don’t need to be.  I’ll try and stop describing the high line as touristy. Maybe you can drop the word traveler into a conversation today.  These words don’t need to be as charged as they’ve become.  Tourism is a part of travel, maybe we can find a way to make travel a part of tourism.

Would you describe yourself as a traveler or a tourist?

4 thoughts on “What’s the different between travel and tourism?

  1. Danielle

    I actually don’t often call myself anything, but I’d avoid the “tourist” classification like the plague.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve found that modern travel journalism, whether on the web (blog/site) or in print, is offering “off-the-beaten-path” or “authentic” guides to places. And doesn’t that make the real travelers referencing them tourists in some capacity, too?


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