By Kenneth Surath – Dubai


“We are not tourists, we are travelers”… “I hate seeing tourists moving as a pact with their umbrellas on a sunny day”… “Hostels are dirty and scary”… “I hate standing beside a smelly backpacker.” These are just some of the comments I’ve heard during my past trips. Some of these came from people who are labeling themselves as ‘travelers’ while others were from the people labeled by the travelers as ‘tourists’.


I don’t know what the deal is with these labels. But from where I am sitting, it seems that a lot of people, especially millennials, want to be tagged as travelers – the term apparently sounds more travel-savvy.


As someone who loves traveling, I was never really conscious about the difference between the two words, until my backpacking trip in Copenhagen. I was in a walking tour with two new friends I met from our hostel and when I was taking photos of the ‘Little Mermaid’ I heard one saying to the other — “Oh, he is a tourist.” I felt offended by the apparent derogatory comment and said to myself that I am not a tourist. I am, in fact, a traveler. I realized then, that that I became part of this Traveler vs Tourist debate. And so, I thought of creating a comparison based on the basic things that we all do when we travel.


A traveler packs very light. A tourist packs heavy.




This is always one of my problems. I always plan to pack light and just bring three basic shirts plus two pants and just mix and match them, but I always end up over packing. By the end of every trip, I typically use only 30% of what I brought and end up buying new clothes to wear during the trip. So am I a traveler or a tourist?


A traveler explores the hidden gems of the city. A tourist goes to every landmark, most of the time on a travel agency tour.




One of my best experiences during traveling is discovering hidden gems away from the crowd. I remember walking aimlessly in Venice and finding myself in a beautiful and peaceful side of the city with open canals, doves along the pavement without anyone bothering them and at times, a gondola passing by. In Norway, climbing the Lyderhorn Mountain in Bergen was one of the highlights of my trip. Among the 7 mountains of Bergen, Lyderhorn is frequented by locals, while most tourists go to the usual Mount Ulriken and Mount Floyen.




Having said that, as a first time traveler in Venice, I still made sure to walk around San Marco Square, ride a gondola and cross the Rialto Bridge. I think I will never forgive myself If I didn’t climb the Eiffel Tower even though I spent hours in line, same with riding a big bus tour around Barcelona. So am I a traveler or a tourist?


A traveler hates cellphone selfies, but taking a shot of one’s feet on the sand is apparently acceptable. A tourist aims for cliché shots like pushing the tower of Pisa or pinching the top of a pyramid, aside from selfies at every tourist landmark.


I love photographs! I am not a professional photographer but people tell me that I have an eye (or perhaps I just have really good friends). I always travel with my camera with me. If I find something interesting, I will take a photograph. This is not only for souvenir, but also for my travel blog.




On a trip in Germany, my German friend commented, “Oh Kenneth, you are a typical Asian tourist,” referring to my frequent photo taking. The ‘traveler’ in me wanted to walk-out. But I realized that he might be right. Although, from my perspective, I am an artistic photographer, not just a selfie-taker. However, for some people, holding my camera and taking snaps of a mountain, a sunset, an open field and a landmark is a bit too much. Then again, do I still take time to lower down my lens and enjoy the view and enjoy the moment? Yes, I do. So am I a traveler or a tourist?


A traveler loves to try local food. A tourist demands for a more familiar set of menu items.




I love food. Almost 50% of my blog posts are about food. I’ve sample native food in different countries including bugs in Bangkok. Having said this, in Barcelona and in Stockholm, my very first meal was a McDonald’s cheese burger and in Sri Lanka, although I love Sri Lankan food, I was excited to see steak and pasta as part of the buffet. So am I a traveler or a tourist?



A traveler prefers living in a budget-friendly shared hostel dorm for a longer stay. A tourist prefers spending on a luxury hotel for a shorter stay.




While a lot of my friends in Dubai will never stay in a hostel, I am in love with everything about hostels – the vibe, the people and the experience. I think the best way to meet people and to learn things while you travel is by spending a few hours at a hostel lounge. The cheap price comes with a bit of a sacrifice though – like sharing a ten bed dorm room with all the stuff strewn on the floor. Plus, people come in and out of the room even at odd hours. So, if you are looking for comfort, this is not a place for you.


On the other hand, in Phuket, I stayed in a villa suite. Alone! It was one of the most luxurious rooms that I have ever stayed in while traveling. It even included my very own outdoor Jacuzzi and room service massage. With all the luxuries and comfort though, I missed out meeting other travelers and trying street food as part of my trip. So I told myself, the next time I go back to Thailand I will book a hostel. So am I a traveler or a tourist?


Considering all these, it is clear that labeling yourself – whether a traveler or tourist – is total nonsense. Surely, deep inside us we are a little bit of both. We travel to experience and collect memories, taking from both paths, we achieve all of these.


My Norwegian friends who both backpacked around the globe for 5 months echo the same sentiment. They said, “These labels are ridiculous. As long as you are enjoying your trip, you should not care what other people are saying”.


My point exactly.


So, regardless whether you feel like you are a traveler or a tourist, the most important thing is that you should make the most out of every trip. How to achieve that? Only you can answer.



Find more travel articles on our ‘Places‘ section on Illustrado Life. 

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