“The Tourist” vs “The Traveler”

I often find myself in discussion with people about their reason for travel.  

Is it to engage in cultural exchange or to treat yourself to some relaxation abroad? Is it to eat all of the foreign cuisines you can or be pampered in an all-inclusive resort? Or, is it a mix of it all?

Recently, a friend shared his experience traveling in Thailand with me. It was his first experience traveling abroad. He and his roommate spent a month traveling through Thailand. Though it was not his roommate’s first time traveling to Thailand he explained to me that this was his roommate’s first time as a traveler instead of a tourist. Instead of staying in a 5-star hotel and getting recommendations from Googling, “top 5 Must Sees in Thailand,” they stayed in residential neighborhoods and looked for experiences off-the-beaten path in Thailand. He described hidden waterfalls that they found, the beachfront huts where they stayed and the local Thai people they befriended during their adventures. He was elated that he was able to push his roommate out of his comfort zone to get a “real” Thai experience.  

This is not the first time I have heard somebody reference the “traveler” experience as the real experience. This framing, assumes that the tourist experience is not “real” and therefore, not as valuable as the experience of a traveler.  The traveler vs. tourist conversation sparks a lot of debate in many online travel groups. Despite my personal preference of travel, I often wonder if it is fair to say one travel experience is more authentic than the other.

My last trip was to the Philippines. I began my trip in Manila and then spent time on the island of Boracay. For the first part of my trip I stayed in an AirBNB with a man who was from San Diego, CA who had been living in Manila for many years. He lived in a small, bustling neighborhood outside the city limits. In Boracay, I traveled by myself and stayed in a hostel with women from all over the world. I ate amazing Filipino favorites and often left the tourist grid to explore the less crowded areas of the island. Technically, these experiences would make me a traveler.

I also acted as a tourist for parts of my trip. I visited the most popular tourist attractions, went to one of the most popular international nightclubs in the Philippines and took selfies on the beach. I ate at restaurants that the average Filipino resident would not be able to afford and shopped in one of the biggest malls in the world. Does this take away from my authentic experience?

I don’t think so.

At the core of it all, traveling is about seeing new parts of the world. Whether we travel for a different experience from home or to spoil ourselves in luxury, all travelers have an urge to see something different.  

I will admit, the best experiences I have had traveling have been spontaneous and often with people who are local to the country, but is it fair to say that those who want to travel to see the city and not so much involve themselves with the local community have an experience less authentic than others?

Share your opinion with me! Comment your thoughts below.