Let’s Define Travel, Once And For All

MikeachimTravel31 Comments

I don’t know where to start with this.

Well, let’s start here:

Holy seekers go looking for oracles, tombs, sites of revelation. Tourists like to visit ruins, empty churches, battlefields, memorials. Tourist kitsch depends on a sterilized version of history and a smug assurance that all of our stories of the past are ultimately redemptive — even if it is only the tourists’ false witness that redeems them. There’s no seeking required, and no real challenge, because the emotional voyage is preprogrammed. The world has become a frighteningly small place.

Oh, those damn tourists ruin everything, don’t they?

But the real issue here is the age-old problem of definition. When the New York Times Opinionator section uses the word “tourist”, it clearly has a very specific definition in mind (a kind of human locust, something that descends on a place, gorges itself on priceless, irreplaceable things and then flies off, leaving a cultural wilderness in its wake).

I don’t agree on this definition. And from the comments on that post, a lot of other people don’t either.

We all need to agree what these terms really mean.

So, let’s do that, right here, right now. Let’s slay a few of these beasts, and vanquish the circular arguments around them on social media, at water coolers, in hammocks on remote Thailand beaches – everywhere these terms are being used in the wrong way.

It’s time we defined Them and Us, once and for all.



Someone who tours in some fashion, ie. travels about. Some kind of moving between geographical points is implied, usually abroad and usually somewhere the person in question doesn’t usually go, and seeking some form of meaning balanced with a degree of comfort.

Traveler  / Traveller

Someone who travels, eg. tours around somewhat. Some type of movement is ideal, often overseas and typically somewhere unusual. Experiences are ideally fairly mind-broadening and not too horrible.


Travel Writer

Someone who writes about travel to some degree, as long as it’s not “hardly at all” or “virtually never”. Travel is necessary, however occasional. Online or offline originally-arranged words are a requirement, whether in a blog, non-blog website (I hear there are still a few around), print publication or something else that words get heaped on.

Travel Blogger

Someone who writes about travel either a bit or a lot, and has a blog, and travels (a bit or a lot). They could also write elsewhere.


Authentic Travel

Doing as the locals do.

Inauthentic Travel

Going along with the awful things the locals do.


The Noble Savage

Perfectly in harmony with nature, like in the old days.

Modern People

Hacking down trees, throwing crap into the sky, ruining the land, all sorts of feckless behaviour.


I hope this clarifies things.

So come on, people – pick your sides!

What…what are you waiting for?

Further reading: this from Jess; this from Gary.

Image: Mike Sowden

  • pam

    I’m a tourist.

    • Mikeachim

      Only if there’s cake nearby. Otherwise, I’d say you’re a traveler.

  • Actually, who cares what you are or aren’t? Because in the end, the local in that foreign country you’re visiting is just considering you as a TOURIST.
    He doesn’t care if you’re an authentic traveler, or if you go off the beaten track or not.. You are just a foreigner, visiting his country and providing him with $$$.

    That local actually prefers “tourists” who are willing to spend money than the stinky authentic barefoot backpacker who’s going to eat in the cheapest place possible, never leave a tip and bores people with stories no one wants to hear.

    I don’t care what I am. I just travel and I’m happy.

    • Mikeachim

      Well said. These endless tussles over definitions are usually one-sided affairs. Another reason why they’re such a waste of energy, and have very little to do with actual travel itself.

      Although I hope you’re not suggesting that my definitions don’t have lasting universal value and won’t act as a reference point to all the concerned peoples of the earth. Because I’d have to disagree.

      I totally nailed it here, and you know it.

    • Liv

      So true. I’ve lived in this small Italian town for 2 years and every time I open my mouth, people ask me “Are you here on vacation? When are you going back to America?” I like to think of myself as a traveler but what’s the point of doing so if I’m only ever viewed as a transitory being… no matter how long I stay?

  • I’m an inauthentic travel blogger tourist. I think. I mean, I go some places and live in other places and do stuff in a lot of places but I don’t really file them into definitive categories because I really suck at being organized.

    • Mikeachim

      That is indeed the way I’ve always seen you. You do stuff and live in places and you’re somewhere between organised and disorganised. I’ve always admired how you’ve made that so uniquely your *thing*. Other people could learn a lot from that approach.

  • Tourists — They climb mountains like animals, stupid and sweating, one has forgotten to tell them that there are beautiful views on the way up. — Nietzsche

    • Mikeachim

      As my old grandpa used to tell me, “Never trust a man who goes mad after hugging a horse.” (http://everything2.com/title/The+Death+of+Friedrich+Nietzsche)

      But I think Nietzsche was probably talking about English people there. We are heroically single-minded, and view everything strenuous as an ordeal to suffer our way through, stoically, wallowing in the misery of it – just a little. You can’t do that if you’re spending all your time looking at beautiful views.

      It’s all about priorities.

      • Rich P

        Ah…. this is also a description of Korean tourists: “Quick, we must get to the V&A, you have 5 minutes there, then you’ve ‘been’ there, and we can move on for our five minutes at the Tower of London… chop chop!!!”

    • pam

      Mad dogs and Englishmen.

  • Haha, oh this old debate. I’ve written a post about it, too, and concluded that I don’t really give a crap. No definition will fit every style of travel. I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.

    • Mikeachim

      Yep, it’s a worthless debate (and as Daniel says up there, a thoroughly one-sided one).

      Yet I seek not to judge, but to resolve. My radically differing definitions for these terms have, I believe, settled the issue for all time. I do this not for my own glory (although I definitely deserve it, because defining these terms wasn’t easy) but for the betterment of both travel and tourism (which are obviously two enormously different things, it goes without saying, although I’m saying it in case there are any tourists reading).

      • Liv

        Yeah. Not even worth a debate. Who cares? Call a spade a spade. Myself, I am a very important traveler because I LEARN LANGUAGES and EAT LOCAL FOODS and ESCHEW COMFORT and STAY A LONG-ASS TIME! It is a waste of time trying to list all of the ways I am better than a tourist. My awesomeness speaks for itself.

        • Mikeachim

          Damn, that gives me a GREAT idea – a scoring system, to decide how good a traveler you are! Kinda like The Pitching Game (click the tab at the top of the page), but more useful.

          “Tourist”: minus 50 points
          “Off the beaten track”: plus 2,500 points.
          “Leather Sandals”: minus 50,000 points

          • Liv

            I don’t care how you score it, just as long as I’m the boss of everybody.

  • The landscape architect in me adores your definition of Modern People. Feckless? Well played.

  • … love your take on this… you should contact UNWTO about them formally adopting your definitions! :)

    I so, so hate that stupid discussion on ‘authenticity’. Really makes my blood boil. The following is a quote from “Reclaiming culture: indigenous people and self-representation”, a very interesting book/study by Joy Hendry:

    “What some ‘purist’ travellers are perhaps seeking, then, are remnants of an
    imagined past when the cultural features were ‘pristine’ and as yet unaffected by
    the invasion of almost every corner of the world by Western goods (and sports).
    In fact, change is an integral part of every culture, and visitors who worry about
    this kind of ‘authenticity’ would again seem to be trying to freeze living people at
    a time in their ancestral past. Worse, they are doing that freezing at a time
    decided by them, the visitors, as ‘pristine’, simply because it was prior to contact
    with the societies from which they, the visitors, came.”

  • Great post! I have no idea what the heck I am anymore, it changes day by day and I like it that way!!! :)

  • Dammit, you beat me to the punch here! First, though, thank you for pointing me to the “Reclaiming Travel” article yesterday. The funny thing is, there are some excellent moments in their article, especially the ending:

    “Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.”

    I couldn’t agree more with them on points like that, but! it was like they couldn’t help themselves but slide back into the same old debate. I spent a lot of time yesterday brainstorming a response to them called “Reclaiming Humility.” Because ultimately that’s what is really missing from the tourist vs. traveler debate – humility.

    I love this quote from Ezra Taft Benson: “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” All the insistence on whether or not we’re a tourist or traveler is just to make ourselves feel better. Like Daniel said above, it in now way helps the locals we’re visiting or those we’re traveling with, so what’s the use?

    PS – I’m fully expecting your new post to be the traveler scoring system…can’t wait!

  • Unashamed Modern Person here

  • I’m me :)

  • To me, the difference between a tourist and a traveler is the general purpose of the vacation. A tourist is focussed on the destination, a traveler is more focussed on the road to get there (what happens on the way).

  • Sharon

    What they all said…bottom line: as long as you don’t spend your life sitting on your ass complaining about “them people”, without ever meeting “them people”, you are OK by me. Especially if you search out cake, or pie, or even other pastry I haven’t yet met.

  • I love where you went with this, the longer I travel the more I realize it doesn’t matter how or where people travel as long as they do it.

  • wow – you did a fine job with those e- but like almost everyone on here – not sure we could “peg” what we are. We are travelers that do touristy stuff. The huge advantage of traveling with a dog is locals tend to assume you are – well … a local. We also rent apartments rather than go to hostels or hotels etc. So we get to “feel” like a local… BUT we are still doing what tourists do. Seeing monuments, eating local food, going to museums, finding hidden gems to share with others … or not (we can be selfish that way), and allowing ourselves to be inspired by another culture and its people. I like what many here have said. You are you … definitions, boxes to organize … semantics are Oh so annoying.

  • Great post! I guess I… visit places and blog about it.

  • I would like to add something to this. I think traveler should be the one who seeks to travel to places with adventure and probabilities in his/her mind and a tourist is the one who seeks to travel with a good amount of luxury and comfort. A tourist is more interested in a non-adventurous and planned trip while a traveler is ready for any adventurous and unpredictable situations.

  • I believe the correct usage for “traveler” is for those who are frequently moving from one place to another while “tourist” is for those who are on a short, pleasure visit.