Tourists vs. Travelers

by Luminous Antonio

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” Paul Theroux

It’s challenging to visit a popular destination without the vibe of tourism thick in the air.  Tourists visit only the most popular places where other tourists gather and a times of high tourist traffic.  Often the tourist will want the separation from the culture and people of the country they visit that naturally occurs with tour busses, cruise ships, tourist traps and selfie sticks.

Visiting the astonishing Bayon Temple at Angkor Wat in 2016 put me in the midst of hundreds of people with selfie sticks and cameras whose only interest in the site was having photos of themselves there.  They took no interest in the sea of over 200 massive stone faces looking in all directions or the exquisite architecture—these things were merely backdrops for posed photos.

This is tourism and it is worldwide. Boasting of a visit to a site and having the photos of themselves there is more important than actually experiencing the site.  The tourist is happy to be trotted through a site listening to the chatter of a tour guide pointing the way and telling them all the “important stuff”, effectively preventing any personal observations or connection.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller  

By contrast, a traveler is someone who may visit the same sites as the tourist, but desiring a deep and personal connection with a place and its people, goes more deeply.  A traveler takes their time, wanders through the site at their own pace and is less directed in the way they travel.  Travelers may be more interested in the mystical, historical or spiritual aspects of a place, rejecting the rhetoric of tour guides. The traveler realizes that not everything will go according to the plan and they are fine with that. They curate their own experiences and don’t rely on others to do the work for them. The experience of traveling and immersing oneself in a foreign (or domestic) culture is the destination and the goal.

Tourists want to have a good time with the “normal” travelling activities while travelers seek to connect and gain perspective, experience other cultures and times through their unique, personal lens.

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

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