Go ahead and be a tourist!
There’s a lot of fear of being labeled a “tourist” in the travel community. But what is a tourist, anyway? How is it different from a traveller?
I’ve heard people describe a traveler as someone who “remains unseen” as the traverse the roads of foreign cities like a local, leaving no impact. A tourist, on the other hand, is described as someone culturally ignorant, who hits all the tourist sites and brings home a superficial experience.
The distinction between the two, to me, has always seemed silly. Some people seem to insist on drawing the line because they want to be apart of an “exclusive club” of cultured globetrotters. My pet theory is that we in the US are particularly sensitive to the label because until very recently our tourists have had the reputation of being loud and obnoxious, and particularly ignorant. (Thank you, China, for stealing that reputation away from us). The idea of living like a “local” is also not the best way to experience a country if you only have a week or two to explore. You miss out on so much!
A traveler and tourist are ultimately seeking out the same thing — to become exposed to a new way of living and culture. But by being a passive observer, trying to live like a local you miss out on a lot of what a country has to offer. So many “touristy” activities and sights are so popular because what they offer are crown gems of that country’s history, achievement, and art.
The barrier between tourist and traveller has been further worn away by the endless resources online. There are people who will build you unique, customized itineraries to get you off the beaten path (like me!), thousands of blogs, and sites like Tripadvisor and Lonelyplanet to show you all the interesting things a country has to offer, big or small. A traveller and tourist inevitably use the same resource to wind up at the small cafe, speaking to the same people, enjoying the same sights, sounds, and foods.
But I’m personally more fond of a person who can call themselves a tourist without a fuss — they seem to be more open to laughing at their ignorance, and have an awareness of the fact that they are not locals so there’s plenty to learn! That mentality is so important because it lets you be openly curious about what’s happening around you. That curiosity, the ability to ask questions and listen, is an essential part of any person’s journey into a new country and culture. Without it, all you take back with you are trinkets and memories of the sights you passed. While some might describe that as “ignorant”, the mere process of being a different country and accepting your ignorance and trying
On the other hand I’ve seen travelers try so hard to be “apart” of the country, or act as if they know all there is to know all about it, that they lose an essential part of the experience. Whatever it is you’ve read in books, or blogs, might not be 100% accurate. It’s always a good idea to try and learn it first hand, to be curious and open to new thoughts and ideas. A traveller trying to appear to be a local just seems to be artificial and forced. So I believe strongly that unless you are open to being a “tourist”, someone open to seeing a country’s most popular sights, and asking questions that might seem ignorant, you’ll return home with a superficial experience no matter what you call yourself.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself is try to shake off the need to be a “traveller” and instead see and do all the things on your journey you want to do! Ask questions, be okay with not being a local, and instead try to take as much as you can from the experience.