Snobbery of the traveller – tourist divide

Bivouac at Erg Chigaga
Camping out in the Sahara

Shoulders aching and backs nearly broken, hubbie and I thankfully dumped our heavy backpacks and collapsed exhausted on the veranda of our tiny bungalow at the lovely and leafy Chiang Dao Nest in Northern Thailand. I was so tired I didn’t even do the obligatory check for spiders before sprawling out across the deck.

We’d spent the last 48 hours without sleep, showers, food and even toilets in order to get there and were too weary to appreciate our surroundings now we’d finally reached our destination. The thought of doing all that in reverse in a week’s time wasn’t too appealing. If only we had enough money for a famous Thai massage, but it was either that or eat, and if hubbie had anything to do with it, the latter would win hands down. We were travellers, and proud, even if a little uncomfortable!

Not one, but two backpacks each, at Chiang Dao Nest, Thailand

Not one, but two backpacks each, at Chiang Dao Nest, Thailand

So is there a difference between ‘travellers’ and ‘tourists’? And does it matter?

When hubbie and I began travelling over 10 years ago, we thought there was, and our definitions went something like this…


Travellers are people, often with youth on their side, who enjoy backpacking and see travelling as an entire experience rather than just a process to reach a destination. Usually to be found tramping along the ‘banana pancake trail’ they crave adventure, as well as a good wash, and look down on tourists who they see as being culturally ignorant and unimaginative.


Tourists have suitcases and tend to keep to well trodden routes to tick off the must-see sights. They stay in resort hotels, often have the trip planned for them by someone else, and like to know where the next meal is coming from. Tourists look down on travellers as rootless drop-outs who think they own the world.

We were travellers

During the first few years of adventuring around the globe together, hubbie and I considered ourselves to be travellers rather than tourists, and woe betide anyone who suggested otherwise. We travelled rather than went on holiday, and wore our belief like a badge of honour, one that clearly marked us several rungs higher up the globe trotting ladder than mere tourists.

Sock washing as La Casa de Don David, El Remate, Guatemala

Sock washing as La Casa de Don David, El Remate, Guatemala

We decided that since we were backpackers, (these 60 litre pieces of kit duly adorned with bold flag patches from every country we’d graced with our presence), and tended to explore off the much maligned ‘beaten track’, we were therefore different to most of the other foreign visitors, and unashamedly looked down our noses at those who decided a package holiday or resort was the way forward.

I have no doubt that many of those tourists we encountered on our travels looked equally unfavourably at us:

We who had to forfeit dinner if we’d splurged on a burger at lunch; who had to do our own washing in hostel sinks which never seemed to have plugs; who could only travel on foot or by rickety old bus; and who no longer noticed the fact that we were wearing far more than our fair share of dirt.

But we didn’t care, it was our dirt, and we were proud.

The luggage revolution

Some years later I bought myself a suitcase for a weekend trip to London. It was shiny and new, and made the country girl in me feel unusually stylish in a city known for its sophistication. The colour even matched my coat. What’s more it was an absolute pleasure being able to pull it about rather than carry it on my back, and I wondered why on earth I’d not discovered this wheeled phenomenon before.

Back home I tentatively put the suitcase idea to hubbie, who to my surprise agreed that they’d be a lot more practical on our next trip, which was driving around South Africa in a hire car. He’d clearly had enough of lugging my backpack around as well as his! The rest, as they say, is history.

Depending on the type of trip, we now choose either the rucksacks or suitcases, but it appears that the latter are becoming a firm favourite. I have to say turning up at Richard Branson’s pad in the Moroccan High Atlas Mountains was a much more refined experience without the backpacks in tow!

Kasbah Tamadot, Asni, Morocco

Spot the suitcases – at Kasbah Tamadot, Asni, Morocco

The future

This photo epitomises where we are with our travel-tourist categories…perhaps we belong to both, or to neither. Should there even be such a divide?

Blurring the lines between travellers and tourists - Have suitcases, will bivy out in the Sahara…

Blurring the lines between travellers and tourists – Have suitcases, will bivy out in the Sahara…

OK, so it remains true that resorts have no place in my world, although I am thankful that at least it keeps those who aren’t there to see the country (and just want to drink by the pool) outta my way. However, as our luggage choices have evolved over the years, so has our outlook on the traveller-tourist divide. As we’ve grown older (and wiser?!) hubbie and I have realised that being a traveller or a tourist don’t necessarily have to mean different things – the two in fact go together quite happily and we’ve settled comfortably between the lines, no longer needing a label or feeling we have to fit into a socially acceptable category.

We no longer consider ourselves backpackers, although we often travel with rucksacks; we take suitcases whenever it’s practical; we like the luxury of an en-suite room with a view, for which we’ll pay extra. We sometimes dress up for dinner, and get our laundry done for us. We visit tourist hot spots as well as wandering off on our own adventures. We take taxis rather than buses, and shower at least once a day.

Does this therefore exclude us from being labelled travellers? I don’t think so. In fact, if being a traveller is all about the journey rather than just the destination, then I can happily say we enjoy our journeys much more now we take taxis or hire drivers, and don’t have to lug our kit for miles in the sweltering heat only to discover we’ve gone the wrong way. In fact this new relaxed and comfortable approach allows us to take in much more of our surroundings, and actually give a damn when we see something exciting, rather than wishing the journey was over and worrying about where the next toilet will be.

For us, there is no longer distinction between travellers and tourists. What’s the point of this urgent need for classification anyway? Everyone is unique and travels in the manner best suited to themselves. Surely all that’s important is to enjoy what you do, and sod anyone else who scorns your choices. Throughout my blog I’ve felt comfortable talking about our experiences as holidays as well as travels, and whilst I don’t think I could ever quite bring myself to answer to ‘tourist’, please feel free to call us just about anything else!


  • Andrew says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. I’ve read so many things on blogs etc trying to outline what ‘the differences’ are or how one is existentially more meaningful than the other. And I get frustrated with the innate smugness or snobbery associated with one over the other.

    As you conclude, there are so many alternative ways to travel these days – monied, curious, packaged, inebriated, budget – that the only important thing it comes down to, whether viewing oneself as tourist or traveller, is that someone in a foreign land is doing their utmost to discover it, taste it, understand it and experience it as much as they can.

    Enjoying your site! Andrew

    • Heather Cole says:

      Thanks Andrew, we really don’t need all these labels do we (although might have to give inebriated a go one day!) to enjoy what we do!

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