Posted October 3, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Backpackology 101

“Are You a Tourist or a Traveler?”

“I’m just glad to be off that fookin’ island!” shouted Jon in his Irish brogue, slamming down his beer.

“But you were only there for a day,” I smirked. “I don’t get it. Everyone else loves Cat Ba.”

“That’s because they’re a bunch of fookin’ wankers,” he mumbled.

We were sitting at a sidewalk bia hoi joint in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, down a crumbling alleyway near the old Chinese East Gate.

Jon leaned across the table. “It’s as simple as this: are you a tourist or a traveler?”


“No. Are you a tourist or a traveler? Do you know the difference?”

“Sure,” I said. “Travelers are pretentious tourists. Also they wear Toms and eat vegan.”

“What? No!” he shook his head. “Cat Ba is designed for fookin’ tourists, not travelers! Travelers want to immerse themselves in the fookin’ culture and have a real, authentic experience.”

I peeled the label off my bottle. “Sounds pretty pretentious to me.”

Until recently, I was annoyed by people who distinguished themselves as ~*~*travelers*~*~ instead of tourists—as if that made them more intrepid and cultured than the rest of us guidebook-waving mongoloids. Perhaps this is because I’d never given the subject much thought; at least not until I visited Cat Ba Island…

The ferry from Haiphong deposited me in the island’s main town—a strip of two lonely, parallel roads gazing out across an emerald bay of gorgeous, karst peaks. Somehow, every storefront in town was exclusively geared for foreign tourism. There were no friendly locals to meet, but instead hordes of frumpy tourists clutching brochures and wearing rice hats, wandering into busy traffic with expressions of confusion and awe.

Shrieking for their attention in every storefront were Vietnamese women dressed like prostitutes. “Boat Tour! Boat Tour!” they screeched. “Massage! Massage!” Some of them bore down on pedestrians with menus, hawking banana pancakes, gentrified spring rolls, or “Western pasta dishes,” which were so offensive to Italian cuisine that the Spaghettio’s mascot would have committed suicide.

This wasn’t Vietnam.

This was a nightmare.

I was hoping to explore this topic in last week’s story (Grandma Fang’s Vomit Cabin Experience for Authentic Travelers), but I cut out my diatribe for brevity. It’s been brought to my attention that this is a travel blog and not a Russian novel and most people don’t have time to read nine page epics about how I tortured my intern with landmines. So, for this week’s quick (read: SHORT) tidbit of Backpackology, I want to shed a little  pop-philosophy on our notions of authentic travel and what is and is not “touristy.” I can’t claim all the answers; I don’t wear Toms or eat vegan. I simply hope to strip away the pretensions and explore the differences between the tourist and the traveler. It’s up to you to decide which one you are.

Before one can understand the difference between tourists and travelers, it is very important to understand the difference between muffinheads and fuckwits. Both of the latter terms hold the same basic meaning (“idiot”), yet each is designed to color the subject with a different quality and nuance—a muffinhead is probably harmless and oafish, while a fuckwit sounds more loathsome and irritating. Which word you choose paints a different subject. Consider the words Big and Grand: both mean “Large”, but Grand was borrowed from the French word Grande to also imply sophistication and elegance, because France used to be classy. It is through this manner that new words are created and the English language expands.

“Tourism” is a very new word.

Until recently, “travelers” were adventurers. They didn’t play bingo on cruise ships; they went to the Orient to stuff monkeys in glass jars and distribute Bibles. Travel was only commercialized after WWII, when Thomas Cooke started selling guided tours to Europe, bringing families to the battlefields where their fathers, husbands, and sons had fought and died. Thus was the birth of the “Tourism” Industry.

The word “tourist” has a commercial element to it. A tourist is a consumer; they buy a product—an experience of a country that has been designed, packaged, and planned for them. Just look at the root word, ‘tour’—the subject is being guided.

The term “traveler” lacks that commercial connotation—a traveler seeks to completely immerse themselves in another culture, to make a unique connection with their destination that feels intimate and “authentic,” perhaps to find a sense of belonging or a broader perspective of their place in the world.

To argue this makes a traveler more respectable than a tourist would be vain and foolish. In fact, I’d argue that very few people categorize as strictly one or the other. By such definitions “Tourist” and “Traveler” aren’t mutually exclusive, but two ends of a gradient scale in which we all fall.

I, for instance, want to have an “authentic experience,” but I don’t want to spend all my time in villages shitting in the mud and eating porridge with my hands. Occasionally I like to go take pictures of pretty tourist sites and watch drunk Australians break stuff in hostels that smell like semen.

A destination can only be as ‘touristy’ as you allow it to be. By subscribing to the brochure experience, the only locals you’ll likely meet are the hotel staff or tour operators. If you’re not willing to brave the traditional food, adopt the quirky local customs, or stoop to local transport instead of a luxe tour bus, then you’re insulating yourself from the very culture you came to experience. While it takes luck and effort to reach out and forge a bond with an unfamiliar culture, by doing so you’ll no longer be viewed by locals as an economic opportunity. You’ll be a guest and friend.

When I look back at two years on the road, the moments I dwell on aren’t seeing the Taj Mahal, climbing the Great Wall of China, or taking a boat tour from Cat Ba Island. Instead my most cherished memories are of little things, moments when seemingly nothing was happening at all—sipping chai with a screaming Indian woman in the slums of Mumbai, haggling for a goat with my armed bodyguard Zia in Pakistan, playing a game of Chicken Scull with drunk women of the Black Hmong Tribe.

Human connection is the soul of “authentic travel.” It opens the doors for friendships and incredible experiences that could never be designed, packaged, or planned. Such fleeting moments are rare—but that’s what makes them so special. That’s what makes them magic. It’s these moments that drive the traveler.


Backpackology has a Facebook page and YOU WILL LIKE IT.

For a tirade against package tourism, check out “The Backpacker’s Manifesto

For an “authentic experience” check out last week’s adventure, “Grandma Fang’s Vomit Cabin Experience for Authentic Travelers

For more tips and tricks for budget travel, click the “Backpackology 101” tab in the menu above.

Like Be the first one who likes this post!

Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.