The Backpacker’s Paradox – Traveller vs Tourist

Backpackers Paradox Traveller Vs Tourist Maya Bay Thailand Crowd

“Why do tourists hate other tourists?”

It was a pretty straightforward question from the middle-aged Burmese man we met at a small pagoda in Bagan. He was just curious why we asked which temple wouldn’t have a lot of ‘foreigners’ on it for sunset. To him our desire to avoid other people seemed crazy. I tried to think of a way to describe to him our particular mindset, yet I struggled to come up with a logical answer for his simple query.

Is it because tourists ruin culture?

Because tourists don’t show respect?

Tourism drives up prices?

They wear Hawaiian shirts?

It can be all of these things (but there’s nothing wrong with Hawaiian shirts). However it seems kind of hypocritical to say I want to avoid tourists when I am actually a tourist myself.

Traveller vs Tourist – Is There A Difference?

Unfortunately in the backpacker world, there seems to be a huge egocentric movement going on. Where one person’s method of travelling is considered to be less worthwhile compared to someone else’s. Thinking that if your pack is bigger than 20 litres you’ve got it all wrong or if you stayed in a hotel you missed out on seeing the ‘real’ country. Let’s call it the backpacker’s paradox – being a traveller or a tourist.

Travellera person who is traveling or who often travels.
Tourista person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.

Is there really a difference? Ask a ‘proper traveller’ and they will tell you they are different because they immerse themselves in the culture, eat the local food, catch public transport. Is a tourist someone who doesn’t do these things? A packaged holiday-maker? Is that what the differentiation comes down to – where you eat?

Backpackers Paradox Traveller Vs Tourist Angkor Wat Crowd
The crowds at Angkor Wat.

If you ask me (and you have, by reading this far), the whole ‘traveller vs tourist” argument is bullshit. What makes someone a better traveller than someone else? Do experiences not count if you didn’t hitchhike through a war zone to get to them? Is your Vietnamese noodle dish less delicious because you paid $10 for it instead of the $0.50 I paid? Does sleeping on the dirt floor of a Namibian family’s mud shack make you more extreme than the humble traveller who paid for a comfortable private room? Or is being a better traveller simply about listening to the locals and the environment?

Travel means different things to different people. For some the idea of a 10 day all-inclusive vacation is a dream come true. For others, travel is their life. I belong to the second group, but that doesn’t mean I am doing things the right or wrong way. I know plenty of people who go on short vacations in ecologically sustainable places and do more for a community in two weeks than someone achieves on a two year round-the-world journey.

Backpackers Paradox Traveller Vs Tourist Mui Ne Sand Dunes
The spectacular sand dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam – tainted by a traveller’s sense of humour.

The only thing I believe is that people need to learn respect and courtesy when they travel, and think about the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t matter which street food vendor you eat at or which mode of transport you took to get there. If you have a proper understanding of these basic things, it doesn’t matter how long you travel for, how and to where. You are already a good traveller.

Another Conundrum – The Desire To Avoid Each Other

Backpackers Paradox Traveller Vs Tourist Angkor Wat Sunrise
Just because there were thousands of tourists there didn’t make this sunrise at Angkor Wat any less beautiful.

Of course when many of us travel there is a desire to get off the beaten path. To explore places that not many have seen before. Perhaps it’s a deeply-ingrained exploration trait that is present in most people, myself included. It’s why we take detours down little-known back roads. One reason we go trekking to isolated regions. To see what is out there, away from the masses.

But when we visit an attraction or destination that is known for being a tourist hotspot, we cannot become jaded about it. Tourist attractions are popular for a reason. If you decided to avoid the Pyramids of Egypt because you don’t like stones piled on top of each other, that is your own personal inclination. If you skipped them because there were too many people there, you may be looking too far into the situation. If you thought Angkor Wat was not worth visiting because other people were visiting it too, you need to spend more time admiring the temples themselves.

To me it is ironic that someone would travel to a tourist destination and then complain that there are tourists there.

Backpackers Paradox Traveller Vs Tourist Lesh Motorcycle Vietnam Back Road
Lesh and her motorcycle on one of the back roads we took in Vietnam. We went 5 days without seeing another foreigner. Is that really what travel should be about?

Tourism infrastructure has been built to make it easier for us to get around. If you want to avoid tourists, don’t visit anywhere that has got infrastructure for them: transport, restaurants, hotels, etc. It is quite simple. If you’ve made the choice to visit somewhere that has all these things setup to make your travelling life easier, you cannot complain that other people are taking advantage of this as well.

Want to avoid tourists? Go to Central Africa. Ride a bicycle across Siberia. Go camping in the Darien Gap. If these places are not your cup of tea, and instead you want to visit London, you’re going to have to accept that there will be tourists.

I met someone who hated the Taj Mahal because it was so packed with people. Did they really think it wouldn’t be? Did they believe that they deserved to have one of the wonders of the world all to themselves?

But who cares if there are tourists there? We are all sharing this beautiful world together. Exploring incredible locations. As a good friend reminded me the other day, we need to keep in mind the ‘one love’ policy. One world, one people, one love. We are lucky enough to be able to travel, so we should not be upset when other people have that opportunity as well.

Christopher McCandless penned, “Happiness only real when shared” on one of his final days alive. How true this is.

[box type=”info” size=”large” style=”rounded” border=”full”]What is your opinion on the traveller vs tourist debate? Leave a comment below and let us know! [/box]

Backpackers Paradox Traveller Vs Tourist Own Beach
A beach to ourselves in Vietnam.
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Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award-winning writers and professional photographers behind this blog. We have been travelling the world together since 2008, with a passion for adventure travel and sustainable tourism. Through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. As one of the world's leading travel journalists, our content and adventures have been featured by National Geographic, Lonely Planet, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Business Insider, Washington Post, Yahoo!, BuzzFeed, Channel 7, Channel 10, ABC, The Guardian, and plenty other publications. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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50 thoughts on “The Backpacker’s Paradox – Traveller vs Tourist”

  1. I loved this blog post so much, such a great insight on different experiences while traveling.

    • Thank you so much. 🙂

  2. Excellent post, I agree with everything! And with all the comments declaring that at the end of the day, it’s the behavior that matters, the attitude towards your surroundings, sites, cultural differences and locals.
    Labels don’t mean much in this case, since we are always visitors in a foreign place, no matter if we stay for 1 day or 5 years. But I understand the usefulness in differentiating between someone that’s on a 2-week vacations to relax, and someone who travels long-term having other goals than just sight-seeing.

    I recently had an argument with a friend who told me “I’m never visiting the Pyramids, pics look different than reality and I can’t enjoy anything surrounded by all those Asians taking photos and the self-important backpackers”. I mean, there are behaviors that are annoying or even harmful to some monuments (for example the constant stories about tourists destroying sites while taking selfies). But you can’t say “I’ll never visit any world wonder cause it will be packed”, there is a reason why it’s named a world wonder! And of course it doesn’t exist only for *your* eyes!
    So, my strategy for visiting popular places, is to go during off-season months, and try to be there as soon as the place opens. Or visit some time before closing time.

    And anyways, whenever I find that a place I’m dying to visit is crowded, I do a mental exercise where I ignore everyone around me and get inside my own bubble where only I exist in the place, trying to imagine how it was in older times. Or, go to lesser-known monuments from the same era. For example, you can find Khmer temples in the Isaan provinces of Thailand. Mini Angkor Wat experience without the crowds! (witnessing a sunrise in Angkor Wat was magical for me too though, despite the tourists.. sorry, I meant travelers! haha)

  3. A tourist goes for the destination (and doesn’t care how to get there), a traveller goes for the journey (and doesn’t care where they end up). Completely different mentality, and logistics, makes it unsurprising that the two groups rarely mix.

  4. Great Article! I think as long as people make the effort to get out and see the world, they shouldn’t be judged for being a ‘tourist’ or a ‘traveller’. I have to admit to being frustrated sometimes though when certain places are completely overrun, although the irony is definitely not lost on me. It’s the foreigners that are irresponsible, closed-minded and lack any cultural awareness or sensitivity that I like to avoid, particularly in those tourist hotspots – those types can come in the form of both tourist and traveller.

  5. Great article and well written! Def agree that it can be frustrating when the beautiful places are crowded but they’re crowded for that reason! We’ve met so many people while travelling whose main complaint on a place relates to how touristic they are… Did you really expect that beautiful place you read about in the Lonely Planet to not be!? That book is published world wide and bought by millions! I think like you’ve mentioned it comes a lot down to respect and how people behave in that environment as when others become loud & pushy it then impacts on your experience of the place…. I like your point about how when travelling there can be judgment of how others have travelled – everyone looking for that unique more extreme, off the beaten track experience. It’s great when it happens but it’s also awesome when you can speak to others about somewhere, get advice or even check it out on good old TripAdvisor! I tend think of backpacking as travelling tourism and find it funny when tourism is mentioned like it’s some kind of dirty word… Ultimately how you travel is up to you, it’s a great privilege to be able to experience other cultures so just get on and enjoy it – responsibly of course .

  6. Great post. There’s no difference to be Honest between tourist and travelers. I came here and found this blog because I am in Japan currently and there is this guy in this hostel boasting with his opinion that he hates being with the crowd and he wants to get away and find hidden out of the way places. And here I am thinking I want to punch that guy so badly or at Least speak up against him. It’s the same, tourists and travelers, there’s no difference in meaning. I just hate it when I hear travelers/tourists badmouthing other people like that because they “like to avoid the crowds because they have the need to be alone and feel special amongsts the locals” there’s no need for hate and discrimination in the world of traveling. he even said that mt Fuji is stupid coz there’s too many people. Oh man I’m just burning with rage. As a 2 year long rtw traveler/tourist, sometimes I become tired of these people. Traveling is fun no matter the method or what sites you visit. To each his own and be respectful. Those people need to stop looking down on other travelers/tourists. It’s really saddening. I’m coming back home next month from my travels, and I’m looking forward to finding a job and settling down for a bit. I’m not going to miss those people who talks down on other travelers that for sure. I’d rather be ripped off by local vendors than hear another word about those haters, coz that’s what they are.

  7. “Tourist vs traveler” is bullshit, but “vacation vs traveling” is legit.

  8. This is so true! The long term traveler vs the tourist. We go rounds about this all the time. People do not understand why the traveler does not buy things…. Well I’m on year two of our RTW where will i put that 1,000 dollar rug? Maybe rolled up on my backpack. (india) Also the tourist does not think twice if someone rips them off a few bucks. Most of the time they say it’s OK it’s only a few bucks. Where the traveler it’s the next meal.

    • It is a fine line with allowing someone to blatantly rip you off and only slightly inflating the prices for a tourist. If we know a piece of fruit costs $1 for a local but they try to charge us $1.25, we never question it. But if they try to charge us $5, well that’s when we speak up. Thanks for reading David!

  9. I am a backpacker. Though I don’t disrespect ” TOURISTS” I try to avoid them. I like calm and quite places . But yes I do agree the holier than thou attitude should not be there.

    • We like calm and quiet places to, Arpan, so we know exactly what you mean. Thanks for reading 🙂

  10. I think it all has very little to do with traveling at all. A jerk at home is a jerk who travels. An elitist at home is the same on the road. An idiot is an idiot and so on.
    People get caught up in the destination and not the journey too often. Watching their phones instead of whats outside the window. They get an idea of what something is supposed to be rather than take in an experiences for what it is.
    For every worldly well traveled person there is out there; I can assure you there is a thoughtful well rounded and intelligent individual who has never had the desire to take a 14 hour flight followed by a 2 hour flight, followed by a 2 hour ferry, 1/2 mile hike in shallow water to the shore so they can sleep under a mosquito net and get up before dawn to hike to a viewpoint and be back before lunch so you can go ride an elephant.
    Your character is not who people see you to be, but who you are when there is no one to see you.

    • Your personality at home definitely comes out when you travel as well. Thanks for reading Andy!

  11. Great post! I agree, travel means different things to different people. People whom I would call tourists would be those who live in the bubble of their home country and carry it around. They expect little villages of Africa to be clean like European cities. They rant about how different things are and fail to find a positive outlook.
    To me, a traveler would take effort in doing his research and be open to new experiences… And accept a place as is.
    But yeah… It’s funny how tourists want to avoid each other!

    • Great points about how some tourists expect everything to be the same as back in their home country. The idea of travel should be to experience new things!

  12. Yep, cannot put it any better myself.
    Have fun in Vietnam!

    • Thanks Phuong! We love Vietnam 🙂

  13. Hey there legends.

    Such a great read. I’m glad I stumbled across your Instagram. These topics are so enjoyable/useful to read. Looking forward to more post!

    • Thanks very much Kel! Happy travels 🙂

  14. My view on this would be the same as views on everything in life from religion, to jobs, to hobbies. You should try to do things that you enjoy and make you happy and that you believe in, as long as it doesn’t negatively impact other people and you don’t try to force it on others!

    • Well put! Thanks for reading Brian 🙂

  15. Great post here! I think your comparisons are absolutely spot on. One difference we’ve noted, and in all honesty it’s in ourselves from when we used to do the touristic 2-week package holidays to now when we’re backpacking around Asia (ps. There’s definitely nothing wrong with having a 20kg backpack, but SO many feel it’s ok to tell us otherwise…we’re the one carrying the bag!!) is an appreciation of the consequences of your actions.

    For example, 5 years ago we (shamefully) paid to see a monkey show in Koh Samui, because we were non the wiser about the awful treatment these animals receive and we didn’t even think about the fact that we were feeding this awful type of tourism. We went to shows and expected a certain level of ‘animal entertainment’ whereas now we go to sanctuarys and conservation centres. We recently spent a lot of time in Borneo, and we were absolutely over the moon to catch just a glimpse of wild Orangutans. The holiday makers next to us, however, were disappointed because the Orangutans weren’t taught to do tricks and we couldn’t touch them like you can with the Tigers in Thailand.

    I guess the difference is quite simply an understanding of where you are and the culture you’re in. Whilst many holidaymakers (from what we’ve seen) wil gladly give $5 to a child in Cambodia as it’s worth little to them, this only encourages parents to force their children to beg to earn money, whilst keeping them out of education which is a sad truth.

    Of course, this is a massive generalisation and there are many holidaymakers out there who do feed tourism in the right way. But I think however you do it, in luxury or on -a budget, the main thing is to have respect for your environment and those around you, and more importantly to think about the consequences of your actions whilst travelling – however big or small!

    • Thanks so much for the awesome comment, Alicia. Learning to appreciate the consequences of your actions makes a massive difference in the way sustainable tourism can be carried out. We have seen it all across Southeast Asia, where travellers start their trip in Thailand, go to Tiger Temple and ride elephants, only to find out later how ethically irresponsible these actions are. They almost always have some form of regret, and then tell people not to make the same mistakes themselves. If we could only break through to people before they undertake such activities, it would be a great success.

      It doesn’t really matter how long you travel for, to where or how heavy your backpack is. As long as we travel responsibly and respect our environment the world will be a better place. There is no need for the whole, “I am a better traveller than you” argument.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Happy travels, Alicia. 😀

  16. I must confess I hate really touristy sites for a number of reasons, the foremost is that I feel my ability to connect with the atmosphere of a place is being severely disrupted.
    I remember the distinct difference in visiting various Mayan ruin sites in Mexico. Chichen Itza and Tulum, where at any given time at least 12-20 tourist buses are lined up, where you have to funnel through lines of souvenir vendors to get into the place, where you sometimes have to wait 20 minutes to be able to take a single photo of a beautifully detailed stone carving without some tourist standing in front, where on narrow sections of the walkways you get pushed along by the stream of people, unable to turn and look behind you, take in the perspective of the place from your current viewing angle.
    In contrast those hidden gems of ruin sites in the jungle, more difficult to reach, over 100 kilometers from the next tourist town, like Bonampak and Yaxchilan, which we had almost to ourselves. Tranquility, you could hear the tropic birds screech in the trees, howler monkeys in the not so far distance (they fell silent as soon as the first small group of noisy Americans arrived “Isn’t that marvelous? Oh, loot at that! Stand over there, no, further to the…”). You could sit half way up a stair case, undisturbed, take in the view to the next pyramid poking out over the tree tops, let your fantasy imagine pictures of what it would have been like to live in a place like this, to work on such impressive structures. The peace and quiet made for a much more profound visit, although we might have spent less time than at Chichen Itza.
    So I’d rather visit a place without well developed tourist infrastructure, which don’t have extensive signage in three or four languages and crowds bustling around. Where instead I can sense the magic of an ancient place and leave with powerful memories, like I have of Yaxchilan.

    • We felt the same in Chichen Itza, especially after we had done the 5 day, 130km trek to El Mirador in Guatemala. But We still loved being there. Didn’t regret it for a second. Yes, it did feel a little bit like Disneyland with all the tourists and stalls selling stuff, but it just made us appreciate the other 9 Mayan ruins we saw in a different light. Thanks so much for reading, Juergen.

  17. Great post! I feel that this is definitely something people not only talk about, but argue about! Like some of the other comments, I believe it’s how you conduct yourself, and what you want to get out of it. I think the words “Tourist” and “Traveller” are simply English words that people are trying to making a deeper definition of. I agree that it doesn’t matter how you travel, as long as you are respectful when you do. If you want to go to Paris and check off the main sights, go for it! And if you want to explore outside the main area, good for you! We tend to judge each other too much and trying to compare ourselves. I figure, to each their own. Go and explore the way that best fits you!

    • People just like to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Even if it means arguing over pointless terms. Just like you said, each to their own! Thanks so much for reading, Jessica.

  18. Fantastic article!! During my travels I have definitely found that people treat you differently on how and where you travel. One thing that really irritates me is that people often look down on you if you stay in a hotel rather than a hostel – sometimes I like to splurge a little bit more to have my own space after being on the go for 3 months, you know?! Everyone has their own way of travelling and I think people need to start accepting that 🙂 x

    • Spot on, Kelly! While Lesh and I prefer to stay in budget accommodation, we can appreciate why others would rather spend more to have comfortable surroundings. Doesn’t make them any less of a ‘traveller’ than we are. There is nothing wrong with wanting some air-conditioning and an ensuite when exploring the world. Thanks for reading.

  19. This is a great post! I often find myself struggling to find a balance between the traveler/tourist dichotomy, and what I think of each. It’s easy to generalize both groups and to devalue one based on the other. But traveling is traveling! I can respect anyone who has an interest in seeing the world and makes it happen for themselves – even if the way they do that is totally different from the way I would. However, I think that the reason we sense a problem with ‘tourism’ is that more of the negative attributes of visiting another culture – some of which you listed – tend to be grouped with the ‘tourist’ category more so than the ‘traveler’ category. My general perspective is that we should do our best to be ‘casual anthropologists’ while traveling, so as to respect the culture and environment we’re in while appreciating the amazing things it has to offer.

    PS – I’ve just discovered your blog, and I’m a huge fan! You’re a huge inspiration, and your trip sounds incredible!

    • I love your term “casual anthropologists”! I think it fits rather well for those just soaking in the culture.

    • Casual anthropologist! Brilliant term! Couldn’t have put it better ourselves. We agree with every word you say, Taylor. Thanks so much for reading, and really glad to hear you are enjoying our blog. We appreciate the love 😀 Happy travels.

  20. I consider myself neither, just someone who’s gotten pretty darn drunk in more places than most other people.

    • And indeed you have been more drunk than most, in more places than most!

  21. That’s a big debate in the tarvelling community. I personally think that no matter if you are a tourist on a short vacation or travel is your everyday life, what it matters the most is the behavior and how responsibly people travel.

    As you said touristic places are meant to be crowded so we shouldn’t complain about it because it’s to be expected, we should just make the most of them because no matter how many people are there, these places are still beautiful. I personally don’t like crowds and they in some way effect my whole experience, but as I said for those kind of places it’s to be expected. That’s why I love to find more off-the-path areas, those are the best! 🙂

    • Very well put, Franca! We are the same as you, and prefer to go to the off-the-beaten-path destinations. However some places are, in our opinion, must-sees and they usually are packed with people. It will not stop us from visiting these great attractions, we just prepare ourselves for it. Cheers for reading 😀

  22. Good blog.

    I grew up on a Scottish island that was a popular place for people to visit. Those visitors may have stuck various labels on themselves, but to us locals they were all simply visitors.
    The only way we differentiated was how they conducted themselves. Basically, if people were okay or if they were pricks (dicks). I still apply that measure when I travel and meet people 🙂

    • Exactly! The local people don’t look at foreigners and say, “oh, watch out for that one – he’s a tourist, unlike his mate who is a traveller”. It is only other people travelling who feel the need to name themselves. It is just about being a good person. Thanks for reading, Jack!

  23. We are all travellers, no matter the journey or time constraints surely. I think we need to not concentrate any effort on distinguishing ourselves to be different, just live in the moment and experience where we might be fully. I enjoy reading your posts guys, you have such humour and insight.

    • Thanks so much for reading our blog, Jane. We really appreciate it 😀

      Definitely agree it is all about just living in the moment, without the need to distinguish ourselves to be different. Great point!

  24. Hey Jazza, love this article! I think tourists tend to be on shorter term journeys or vacations, whereas travelers tend to be in it for the longer term and thus maybe have developed a mindset of trying to mesh more with their surroundings. But I do agree with Helene from above – it’s mostly about behavior. I’ve met both “tourists” and “travelers” who were just badly behaved, no matter what label they identify with. As to potential enjoyment of well-known tourist attractions I think that how you perceive any situation depends on how you approach it 🙂 Walk in with an open mind and a positive perspective and you’re almost guaranteed to have a better time.

    • Hey Morgan, thanks so much for reading. Keeping an open mind is the absolute best way to travel in our opinion as well. It will create so much more worthwhile experiences. Like Helene mentioned, and you reiterated, it is also important to maintain good behaviour while on the road. Cheers 😀

  25. The difference? It’s very simple:
    Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.
    Travelers don’t know where they’re going.

    • That’s definitely one way to put it. Thanks Suzanne 😀

  26. Hi Jazza, totally agree with you. I’d add that, for me, it is more about the behaviour of some tourists/travellers that can put me off. As you mentioned in a previous article, the inappropriate clothing is one, then the loud voices in quiet places (be it temples or red wood forests), refusing to follow local cultural norms and so on. I travelled with a (now ex) friend who insisted on trying to turn Europe into her version of Australia, yelled at people that they should stand in a queue in Italy, sat at outdoor cafe tables when we’d bought takeaway ice cream (and then ignored the very upset Italian cafe owner), and the usual speaking louder and louder in English when talking to a French shop assistant who said she didn’t speak English. Unfortunately both tourists and travellers (means the same really) can be awful or fantastic depending on their level of manners and understanding. Some people are just cringe worthy.

    • Great point, Helene. Behaviour is the most important aspect in how we decide to travel the world. Sounds like your (ex) friend failed to take this into account when you were in Europe. Thanks for reading. 🙂

  27. This is excellent! There’s great insight, healthy perspective, and an evident heart to love the world. Well done!

    • Thank you very much, Dawn. Glad you liked the article 🙂

      • a great point made, just because someone may not have the chance to skip off long term doesn’t mean they aren’t there to have an authentic experience. family, money, work all these things can get in the way of a long trip but fair play for visiting somewhere interesting in the 2/3 weeks they have and not just hitting the Spanish costas. We should all respect each others experience and you’re right, if something is worth seeing then you will not be the only person that thought of it.

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