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Traveler versus Tourist: A Discussion on Modern Vacation Vocabulary

If you’ve peeked at any influencer’s Instagram bio recently, you might see a trend. These people are calling themselves “travelers,” “vagabonds,” “wanderlusters,” and “nomads.” At the core of these titles is what they spend their time doing: touring other nations and relaying what they find to their viewers. Following our friends, family, and favorite Instagrammers around the world is a great way to gain inspiration and show our support, but a debate has arisen between those who spend their savings on flights. Travelers no longer want to be referred to as “tourists.” This title comes with heavy connotations, placing the assumption that the person it’s referring to is rude, ignorant, wasteful, and carries a selfie stick to every overcrowded viewpoint and building. While a person may prefer to be referred to as a certain type of traveler, the title matters less than how one acts abroad.

We should shift the conversation from “traveler versus tourist” to how we can all work to explore more consciously.


As of now, the term “traveler” is viewed more favorably than being deemed a “tourist.” A traveler is someone who moves slowly throughout their trip, truly experiencing the culture and discovering what the nation has to offer. A person who is considered a traveler appreciates the small things in life and does not necessarily require luxuries such as infinity pools or room service. Their Instagram page is generally filled with long captions about the amazing people they’ve met and the lessons they’ve learned while roughing it in a foreign land.

On the other hand, “tourists” are now being vilified. They are the stereotypical Western vacationer who lugs oversized suitcases into fabulous penthouse rooms, only leaving their resorts to go on manufactured excursions. Their selfie sticks protrude from their purses, and they make sure to hit every single trendy spot before jumping on a plane back home. Being a tourist now means fast, surface-level travel that is void of deep human connection and educational experiences. Why is this? Why are vacationers being pitted against each other in such a way when they actually have so much in common?

Instead of casting judgmental labels on others as we merely observe their vacations, it’s important that people who value traveling instead band together. Maybe the person you’ve deemed a “tourist” is on their first international trip, filled with anxiety about not seeing everything the nation has to offer — so they’re running around, navigating public transportation and an unknown language, trying to make the most of their vacation. Or maybe the person with the selfie stick is a solo traveler who hasn’t seen their friends and family in months and needs a picture to send home. The “traveler,” with mud on the bottom of their pants and sweaty hair, is staying at a homestay because they’re on a budget.

We, as people who indulge in the tourism industry, should understand the impact of our words and actions. 


In place of contributing to this harmful binary, we have the opportunity to replace these terms with words that can improve the industry and our tourism experiences. One of these words is “sustainable.” Now, instead of being labeled a tourist, one could be a sustainable traveler, who tries their best to minimize the waste they produce on the road. They can choose hotels that have committed to recycling and water conservation, or they could make an effort to bring reusable cups, bags, utensils, and containers on their trips. These tourists may choose to walk or bike instead of drive for a  portion of their trip or buy carbon offset options on their next flight. This traveler has rejected judgmental labels and replaced them with one they are passionate about and feel describes them more.

If sustainability doesn’t sound like the right fit for you, maybe focusing your travels on being more “ethical” is your speed. If you are an ethical traveler, you focus on activities that respect people, animals, and the planet. You don’t partake in animal or child tourism, and you find ways to respectfully give back to the places and cultures you visit. Your trips are based on following your core morals and heading home knowing you’ve done no harm to your destination. If you live your day-to-day life with your personal ethics at the center, then maybe this is a title that suits your travel style.

Those who love a good book or segment on the History Channel may identify more with being called an “education tourist,” one who travels in search of gaining knowledge. These travelers are fiends for museums, long-lost relics, breaking language barriers, and learning traditions. They marvel at centuries-old castles and love imagining the people who may have lived there long ago. These tourists return home with a wealth of knowledge about the people, places, cultures, and connections that they have experienced, brimming with cool factoids to share. If learning from your destination is your main goal when hopping on a plane, you could identify with this label as well.


In the end, the reality is that we don’t need to label ourselves at all if we don’t feel called to. What matters is knowing that the “traveler versus tourist” argument has become heated and unnecessary. As long as you’re doing no harm on your trips, go ahead and claim or dispel any or all vacation-related titles. As the tourism industry continues to expand, more and more humans will enter this conversation. Instead of judgment, we should practice compassion. We should bond over our passion for exploration, not isolate ourselves over small differences. Coming together as a community will only improve the way we travel and bring the world closer.

How do you feel about the labels that have appeared in the travel community? What title do you feel describes your vacation style best? Let us know, and start planning your next adventure by booking a trip with Acanela. To us, there’s nothing more important than supporting local communities and artisans as we travel, and all of our trips are designed with our guiding principles in mind.

Xoxo, Grace Poulos

Follow her adventures on Instagram!