Are you a Traveler or a Tourist?

Are you a Traveler or a Tourist?

I once visited Rio de Janeiro with a friend who woke up one morning determined to eat breakfast at Dunkin Donuts.  Dunkin Donuts…really? The first rule I made for myself from the very first day I traveled was to never eat at a U.S. chain restaurant and this included domestic destinations as well. Even if I was stuck in the Sahara desert and had nothing but a McDonald’s to quench my thirst…I would move on like Moses until I found a local watering hole. I travel to experience something different and for me, eating at places that I can have just as easily at home defeats the whole purpose.

After this incident, I started paying more attention to other foreigners wherever I traveled…and became amazed at how many times I would see Americans gathered in a Hooters in Singapore when there was amazing street food and a local bar right next door…or spending hours inside an environmental museum in Iceland but with no plans to visit just one glacier or volcano there….or watching a group walk up to the most gorgeous cliff in Peru, take selfies and then walk away without spending just one second enjoying the view…I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

So I began to ask around…why would you spend time and money to go somewhere and not want to experience everything it has to offer?

Here are some of the responses I received:

“When I go on vacation, I want the comforts of home and food that I’m used to.”

“It’s just easier to find a familiar restaurant because I don’t have to worry about language issues and ordering something I didn’t mean to order.”

“My ideal holiday is to take what I like at home and plop it into a different scenery.”

“I feel safer being surrounded by Americans so prefer to stay in American places.”

“I just wanted to get a good photo for my Instagram feed.”

This sums up the mentality of the perfect tourist. And in my mind, I imagine the perfect tourist wearing a Northface jacket or clearly branded clothing while clutching their guidebook (most likely in their phones these days) in one hand and a digital SLR camera in the other hand… they will respect the local culture and customs but don’t have a desire to partake in it or learn about it….at a restaurant, they are looking down at their phones more than talking to each other or new company…and in landmark destinations, they are exploring it with their Viator tour group and not daring to veer off the beaten path.

This is what I imagine because this is what I’ve been.

puerto vallarta
on the beach in puerto vallarta, mexico

I’ve been this perfect tourist and don’t think there is anything wrong with it and at least it’s helping the local economy. One example of a perfect tourist trip for me was when I went to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where all I wanted to do was to get away from the stresses of my life at the time and not think about anything. I had to search for a Spanish speaker and swear I saw more Americans than locals. I sat my happy ass on a beach chair every single day and ate whatever the hotel served (still no US restaurants though). I didn’t go visit any local neighborhoods or explore anything outside of our little bubble. I did nothing but relax and it was marvelous. Every once in a while, all I want to do is go decompress and being a tourist is the best way to do this.

But this is not why I travel.

I travel to get out of my comfort zone, experience what is local or native to that area and learn what drives that community and people. 9 out of 10 trips is for this very reason…to open my mind, be immersed in a different culture, volunteer with a group, explore the less-traveled areas…some of my favorite days have been when I’ve gotten myself lost on purpose just to see what was around the bend. I don’t often feel homesick when traveling because the foreign country becomes my home…Duolingo takes a backseat because some of my best language lessons have been during a drunken bar conversation….and I’ve noticed that I don’t spend as much time reading traveling books anymore because I’m focused on creating my own story.  And I never imagined myself being like this…but something happened when I took my first solo trip that brought out this side of me and it’s become my passion. And I’m so thankful it did. But I also know there is still that tourist traveler in me…and maybe I’m writing this as my soliloquy to justify its existence but I’m not ashamed. Nope, not ashamed at all.

So are you a traveler or a tourist? Perhaps you’re like me and you’re a traveler that occasionally moonlights as a tourist. Does it matter? Nah, there’s no wrong way to explore this planet but for me, it’s been useful to realize the difference and just embrace it.  At least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself.

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