As many of you know, before starting Highroad Global Services, I frequently traveled solo to the far corners of the world on a limited budget. As a young adventurer in my twenties, I had no desire to eat at a Pizza Hut in Bangkok or take a two-hour tour of India’s Taj Mahal. I wanted something deeper from my travels, so after my first trip abroad I declared myself a traveler, not a tourist. My question to you is this: What is the difference?
Before we ever set foot on a plane to visit foreign lands, we build expectations, myths, and preconceived notions about our destinations. We might dream of India, trains barreling down the tracks, flying by blurred fields of grass, and cows painted pink for the festival of lights. We might dream of Greece, with its ancient wonders and powerful gods. Images imprint in our minds from guidebooks or stories we have read, from National Geographic and from the far recesses of our subconscious.
But how much do we really know about the cultures we visit? Beyond what we learn from indirect sources and the overt observations of a short trip, how do we know what motivates the people of Nepal or what the people of India value at the core? How can we assess cultural differences between the people of Greece and U.S. Americans? The more I traveled the more these questions haunted me. Was there a substantial difference between a tourist and a traveler? Even if we, the visitors, thought so, did the locals agree?
On my first trip to Nepal, I rode a bus from Kathmandu, Nepal to the small town of Pokhara, about an eight hour trip. Toward the end of the journey, a Tibetan man boarded the bus to sell handicrafts to the tourists. One British passenger became indignant.
“Don’t treat me like a tourist!” he said to the Tibetan vendor.
A girl in the front of the bus piped up, grinning.
“What makes you not a tourist?” she asked.
“Well,” the British man replied, “I never spend time in the big cities. I’ve been in Nepal for awhile and I only go into town to take care of bureaucratic business. Other than that, I stay in the villages.”
I thought hard about this, listening in. Could I take his reply to mean that he understood Nepali culture and society just because he avoided big cities? I could see nothing about him that separated him from the rest of us except one thing: he didn’t want to admit he was one of us. He didn’t want to be a tourist.
In many cultures, however, travelers and tourists alike are viewed as outsiders. This distinction is not intended to exclude or be rude to visitors, but rather to express a cultural value which forms a strong line between those in your family and community and those outside of it. This “in-group” value exists in part to protect the culture from outside influence. Friendships with outsiders are possible, but they take a long time to gain depth. If we travel to a country where we do not know the language, the protocols of the society, the values or the history of the country, we will likely be considered tourists.
I am still unresolved on whether a difference exists between a tourist and a traveler. The idealist in me would like to believe that my fifty-five hour train ride across India or my camel safari in the Thar desert would qualify me for some special status. In the end, however, I’d rather consider myself a student of different cultures forever. That way the adventure goes on.
Are you a tourist or a traveler? Is there a difference? Share your thoughts with us by posting a comment!
Watch for details on Vicki Hudson’s new travel book “I’m Not a Tourist, I’m a Traveler!”