Travel & Identity – Part I: Traveller or Tourist – Does it Really Matter?

Tourist or traveller? Local or gringo? Travel confronts us with diverse aspects of identity. We encounter new ways of living and remember things we hate and love about our home country. Recently, I’ve been thinking about how travel shapes personality, and decided to write a small series about travel & identity. First part: The tourist – traveller dichotomy,

Have you ever caught yourself looking down on tourists, while you, obviously, are a traveller? I have, but then I changed my mind…

I had pretty clear ideas of how to be a cool traveller when I first hit the road in Brazil at age 19. Of course, I wouldn’t even consider staying at a hotel. That was for snobs! (I didn’t have the money anyway, tbh). I would sleep in dorms and campsites, living the real life.

The real life? Seriously?

My trip was a blast. But I realised pretty soon that you are not any closer to a country’s culture in a hostel than in a hotel. Honestly, why would you be?

I immersed in Brazilian culture while working at an NGO for a year (and still remained a foreigner, experiencing only one particular reality of a huge diverse country).
During the summer holiday trip, I did not. Because in a hostel, you are surrounded by … other touri travellers, most of which probably would grill you for dinner if you „mistakenly“ name them “tourists”. And tell you what? I find that pretty stupid.

Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing wrong about wanting to be a “traveller”. The general idea of a traveller as someone who makes an effort to get to know a country’s people and culture corresponds to my idea of exploring the world. I fit more into the criteria of a traveller than a tourist, a term which, as stated by Sophie Hoeller, „has become an insult, a culturally insensitive stereotype found sunburnt and selfie stick in hand“ . Thing is: A DSLR and sufficient sunscreen do not guarantee you cultural sensitivity. I’ve seen plenty of culturally insensitive so-called travellers, and I certainly have been one of them at one or the other point, even though I never intended to.

An "authentic" traveller photo of mine (Maybe this photo really was taken without my notice. Honestly I don't remember...

An „authentic“ traveller photo of mine (Maybe this photo really was taken without my notice. Honestly I don’t remember…)

That’s why I’ve come to find it pretentious to look down on others‘ travel styles, or to consider oneself badass for traveling low-budget. And I have found that the sharp dichotomy of tourist and traveler, well illustrated in these graphics, is quite artificial (I don’t have the copyright to share the graphics, but they show several distinctions of traveller and tourist, such as DSLR cameras vs. selfie sticks, bed vs. hammocks, taking a cab vs. hitchhiking).

While some friends shared and liked these graphics, I couldn’t help but find it simplifying. As for myself, I have a reflex camera and a tripod, and I love to mess around with it until I get some aesthetic shots. But I also take selfies (without a selfie stick though, I’d probably constantly hurt bystanders regarding my clumsiness) – because why the hell not? I love sleeping in tents and in hammocks, but – I also enjoy an impeccable hotel room once in a while. And while I don’t rush to all tourist sites, and generally seek to explore cities with the help of their habitants (→ couchsurfing), I don’t cautiously avoid tourist spots – there is generally a reason why they are popular. Long story short: I seem to be a hybrid tourist-traveler.

There is one exception that, according to me, fundamentally shifts your experience from pure tourism to a more profound exchange with local culture: Hospitality networks such as couchsurfing (there are non-commercial ones, but this is the one I’ve used so far). Staying at peoples‘ homes for free, with the aim of sharing culture, food and life, has provided me insights into places and cultures I would have been deprived of otherwise. Still, I don’t always have the energy to look for a couch and immerse myself in the adventure of crashing someone’s home – and I also understand that couchsurfing is not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve also had spontaneous yet long conversations with hotel employees or 13-year-old girls at a village square.

Rather touristy: Me and my Lama friend at Machu Picchu

But as much as I immersed into culture: I always remained a foreigner. It’s useless to try hide your status as a guest – you might buy Brazilian havaianas, eat the „craziest“ street food, whatever – you will always be spotted as a foreigner. So why not embrace this identity and carry it in a respectful manner?

Because honestly, local people don’t give a shit if you call yourself a tourist or a traveller. They might not even use this distinction in their language.
They probably also don’t care if you sleep in a tent or at the Marriott’s.

They care if you are polite, if you smile, if you show interest in their ways of living, try to grasp a bit of their language, willing to share your stories and listen to theirs.

That being said, I am happy as a tourist-traveler hybrid. Because at the end of the day, what matters is trying to be the best version of myself.

Links: Oneika the Traveller: Are you a travel snob?

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7 Antworten zu Travel & Identity – Part I: Traveller or Tourist – Does it Really Matter?

  1. Karin schreibt:

    Wieder ein schöner Text, der mir aus dem Herzen spricht.

    • Rena Föhr schreibt:

      Das freut mich sehr! Inwiefern spricht er dir aus dem Herzen? Hast du auch schon oft diese Spezies „selbstüberzeugte Reisende“ getroffen? Würdest du sagen, diese Diskussion gibt es schon lange? Ich fragte mich nämlich, ob das so eine Modeerscheinung der letzten Jahre ist…

  2. dorie schreibt:

    This is SO GOOD! I just noticed that without even noticing, I always made this difference. But what you say is so damn right and from now on I try not to look down to tourists. Because I seem to be a hybrid too. It’s just: the word tourist nowadays has such a… „bad“ meaning in a way. You know?
    Have a good one! Dorie

    • Rena Föhr schreibt:

      Hey Dorie,
      thanks for the compliment!
      I agree with you, „tourist“ has become almost an insult in the „traveller“ community. I started reflecting about the whole topic when I noticed that local people in some countries referred to me as „turista“, or asked me if I was touristing / „turisteando“, and while I felt offended at first, these expressions were not negative or value-laden at all to them.
      I also heard that sometimes „classic“ hotel tourists even have a better reputation among locals, since they tend to be less thrifty than low-budget backpackers… never had thought about that one before. There are so many perspectives and aspects of identity in travel!
      So, let the journey continue…

      • dorie schreibt:

        This is interesting! Yes, let’s just travel as human. I think that’s what we all are :)

  3. Andrea Goro schreibt:

    It’s a pleasure to read you, Rena! Funny thing, I am going on a trip tomorrow. Well, it’s not really an exotic place but I am changing countries for a few days anyways. I will try to keep in mind the last words of your article.

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