“Us and them” in travel literature
Within travel writing, nobody wants to be a tourist. Tourists are amateurs at travel. They have no travel etiquette. They are easily duped and get robbed. Tourists are just on vacation for a week or two, they’re just consumers with mundane lives back home. They take snapshots, get sunburned, then pack up their suitcases and leave.
We travelers are different, says travel literature. We are the master craftsmen of travel. We have artfully escaped the “mundane” and the “back home.” Maybe we started as tourists, but we have evolved. We transcend time zones. We have been everywhere. We take photographs, not snapshots. We are nomads seeking enlightenment. For us, travel is a way of life.
The tourism industry definition
To me, this “traveler” persona is riddled with pretension and cliche. The travel and tourism industry doesn’t care much for travelers either. Based on per-day spending patterns, it would prefer a tourist to a traveler any day. In fact, the industry doesn’t even bother to differentiate between the two. The industry definition, as established by the UN World Tourism Organization, is:
“Tourism: the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business, and other purposes”
Interesting. So that hardcore “traveler” who cycled from Canada to Argentina in ten months? He was actually a tourist. And that “travel writer” who spent six weeks in Iceland for a feature story? Also a tourist. What about myself? When I volunteered for six months at an ecolodge in Guatemala, that was tourism. My summer internship in Albania? Tourism too. Anything away from home for less than a year is tourism, and anyone who is doing it is (gasp!) a tourist.
A more dignified tourism
I’ve been lucky enough to have done a fair amount of travel. I’ve even done some travel writing. I’ve also studied tourism academically and I’m now working within the tourism industry. So I think about this terminology a lot. I’m constantly choosing between “travel” vs. “tourism” and “traveler” vs. “tourist” as terms. I have to consider them strategically.
Is it useful to differentiate travelers from tourists and create this hierarchy, as travel literature would imply? Or, as the operational industry definition suggests, is it all the same until you actually live somewhere?
In my opinion, the UNWTO is right. Until you reside somewhere for over a year, until you are an integrated member of the local community, you are a tourist. You might as well embrace it. And, as the travel literature points out, your main purpose as a tourist is to consume. You might as well embrace that too.
The trick is to dignify the consumerism of being a tourist. Tourism, when planned sustainably and done responsibly, is a beacon of hope for local economies, especially in developing countries. Through development projects and aid organizations and social businesses, these local economies are poising themselves to benefit fully from tourist dollars.
I still prefer to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. In that literary sense and even from a marketing perspective, it just sounds better. When I talk about the other people I have met abroad who are more experienced and longer-term, they are my “travel friends,” not my “tourist friends.”
However, when I think about all the ethical consumerism potential within tourism, and when I see this potential being realized, I can’t help but think: maybe being a tourist isn’t all that bad.