Famous gondolas of Venice

Why Being A Tourist Is Totally Okay

I recently had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion hosted by a well known travel media company. On the panel was Andrew Mason, former CEO/Founder of Groupon and current Co-founder of Detour, Caterina Fake, Co-founder of Flickr and current Founder of Findery, and Darren Bauer Kahan, Vice President of R&D for trip planning app, TripIt.

The topic of what makes someone a ‘traveler’ versus a ‘tourist’ came up, and lively banter ensued. This has been a recurring theme in tourism industry circles for some years now. In fact, during my career, I’ve played an active role in driving these discussions and sculpting them into convincing marketing messages, aimed to attract a certain type of travel consumer.

But, during the event, I got to thinking: what is actually so wrong with being a tourist?

Does categorizing oneself as a ‘tourist’ mean you are subservient to your ‘traveler’ masters?

Or, is this dichotomy purely an invention of us, the tourism industry, and if so, might we be turning away the very people who purchase our products?

If you work in travel, you might have heard the following rough definitions applied to ‘tourist’ and ‘traveler:’

  • traveler

[trav-uh-ler, trav-ler] noun: A person who explores a destination beyond the usual attractions. Often, this person explores solo, with a companion, or in a small group of friends. Ventures out with a backpack and nothing more; would rather sacrifice their first-born than check a bag when flying.

  • tourist

[too r-ist] noun: A person who visits a foreign country, but not one with spicy food. Most often found sitting on a coach bus with 50 other people while he or she is schlepped from one museum to another. Often travel with three roller bags and matching red hats.

Red-hatted throng of tourists

Obviously neither of these definitions is entirely true. Before we as an industry started this debate, most consumers wouldn’t have cared how they were classified among the traveler and tourist groups. And many still don’t.

If the difference between a ‘traveler’ and ‘tourist’ is just a label, then why do we as an industry make such a point to differentiate in the first place?

A Few Hypotheses

First, more people are traveling globally today than ever before. According to the UNWTO, in 2014, international arrivals totaled over 1.1 billion. Yes, billion with a ‘b.’ That’s a staggering number and an increase of nearly 5% from the prior year. Additionally, arrivals are expected to grow another 4% this year.

This makes it tougher to truly escape to a quiet corner of the world where you won’t be met by hoards of your closest friends. Of course, this leads to a conversation around sustainable tourism and overcrowding, but let’s save that for another post.

Secondly, the rise of social travel — selfie sticks, Instagram, widespread WiFi — has led to the ‘look at me’ traveler. Long ago, Facebook became the place to flaunt that you were on some beach in Thailand while your friends were freezing their asses off in a New York snowstorm. Entire companies, like Boastable, have been started on this ingrained need to show off.

Boastable’s tag line reads: ‘I’m leaving town. You’re not.

To the ‘look at me’ generation, being a traveler comes with a degree of ‘one-upmanship.’

Our industry — tour operators, media companies, travel startups — saw these macro trends and decided there was a need to somehow demonstrate that they offered a different experience to what was being experienced by the huddled masses. That somehow, their products could only be appreciated, and thus consumed, by real travelers. Tourists need not apply.

It was almost like some of us said:

‘Screw that photo of the Eiffel Tower that your friend posted. Wanna see something really cool? Take a selfie of you eating a scorpion on the streets of Bangkok!’
Scorpion on a stick — her face says it all

But who are we talking to?

I think the answer is Millennials and the small sliver of Americans who can call themselves veteran international travelers.

Not counting Mexico and Canada, most outbound American travel is still to places like France, Italy, and the U.K. You can pretty much bet that many of these people would fall under the ‘tourist’ umbrella, with their group tours to the Louvre and the Spanish Steps.

So does this mean that ‘tourist’ is synonymous with ‘group traveler?’ Travelers who opt for a group tour versus independent travel still seek authenticity. No one honestly leaves their home country thinking ‘on this vacation, I want canned experiences.’ On the contrary, it’s all about choosing the best trip for your travel style; whether you’re a novice or seasoned travel veteran.

Besides, many small group tours can be quite insightful with tons of local interaction and genuine encounters with local culture. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling on multiple guided tours and have had my fair share of deep conversations with locals and meals at hidden neighborhood cafes.

Given this, do we as an industry really want to turn away such a vast swath of potential revenue generating customers by subjectively assigning them with the less-than-flattering ‘tourist’ label?

So today, I’m calling for an end to this debate!

It’s likely that no one will listen, but I’ve never publicly called for anything so figured I’d give it a shot!

I’m not suggesting that we halt all creative marketing efforts or development of new, unique content and product to acquire market share among certain demographic targets.

Just the opposite really.

The ongoing theme of ‘don’t be a tourist, be a traveler’ is a bit played out in my opinion, so let’s challenge ourselves to move beyond it with different messaging that perhaps isn’t so elitist and exclusive.

We’re all travelers and tourists alike. Most leisure travelers venture off to a new destination for similar reasons — whether it’s their first trip or their fiftieth.

At the end of the day, our customers, the ones that trust us with their hard-earned vacation time, just want to enjoy their 10 days off a year. They don’t necessarily care if they’re seen as ‘tourists’ or ‘travelers’ so long as they come away with lasting memories and perhaps a different perspective on a place or its people.

If this is the end result, haven’t we done our job as an industry?

Jared Alster is VP of Marketing & Co-founder of Stride Travel and has been a tourist in over 40 countries. All opinions are my own.