Are You A Traveller Or A Tourist When You Go Away?

“All that is gold does not glitter; just as not all those who wander are lost.” — JRR Tolkien

When I returned from my first prolonged period of travels — sixteen months backpacking around Latin America — I called myself a ‘Traveller’, without really thinking about the term. Then a family member asked me the question, “Who is a traveller?” And I found myself trying to defend my new identity.

However, it was a justifiable question. My partner (at the time) and I had experienced amazing off the beaten track experiences; from climbing a desolate snow peaked volcano, being stalked by a puma and learning salsa in Guatemala. However, our journey had been sprinkled with more traditional touristy activities. So to an outsider, our travels might have seemed like a prolonged series of tourist events and excursions. But we knew we’d experienced a different way to visit foreign places.


I’ve always felt an independent traveller is someone who approaches travel with ‘insiders’ eyes, that is, they take the time to see things more as they are, beyond taking a photo and ticking off another tourist site.

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.”

This is Paul Theroux, the celebrated travel writer, says on the matter. And Rolf Potts, one of my favourite travel writers has this to say on the subject:

“As for the tourist-circuit, slowing your travels down will automatically lead you off the tourist trail. When you aren’t racing from attraction to attraction, you’ll quickly discover that the best experiences come from diversions along the way.”

You might ask why am I questioning this concept.

“I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” — George Bernard Shaw

Well, I recently visited Spain; researching and developing ideas for my second book, in my Reluctant Pilgrim series. And I’d felt like a traveller. That was until I arrived in Estepona. It’s gracious and more restrained than much of its high rise neighbours, but nonetheless, it’s still the Costa del Sol. Estepona was never on the itinerary but a series of signs took me there, and I’m learning not to resist signposts when they come. However, as soon as I ordered a cold beer on the beach, I instantly began to doubt the reasons for the side trip. I greeted the Spanish waitress in Spanish and ordered the beer, she responded to me in English. Then my ears picked up on all the English speakers around me and I thought, “What have I done, I’ve ruined my authentic Spanish trip. I’m in Tourist Hell!”

I’d jumped to a conclusion of course: I hadn’t understood the obvious. But it took me a couple of days to realise this — as soon as I’d arrived at my lodgings I’d been greeted by ‘wisdom’ in the shape of.., well I’ll keep this secret for now as I believe it’s going to weave its way into the novel. But my accommodation was a great find; a grounded blue campervan shaded under a Nispero tree. Paradise!


“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

When I reflected on the ‘wisdom’ it helped me consider myself in relation to the American and English tourists propping up that beach bar. I was seeing things differently, I was experiencing our (British/American) holiday culture from an almost Spaniard’s perspective. However, what I later realised is that the tourists were confident, having fun and totally in the moment as themselves; it was me who had a problem with my identity. I now think what’s most important is that we stay true to whom we are when we travel.

I’ve also come to realise that we crave different experiences depending on our moods. There are times when I want to eat with the locals or ride a horse like a Gaucho. But there are other occasions when I just want to sit in a bar and drink a beer with an Englishman. Sometimes I’m a traveller, sometimes I’m a tourist. It doesn’t really matter how you classify it — as long as you’re true to yourself — you’ll embrace the journey. It’s hard work being a chameleon.


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