Is there anything more cringe-worthy than hearing someone proclaim that they're a "traveller, not a tourist"?
There's all sorts of things wrong with that statement. There's the conceit, for starters, that you're somehow better than all the other people you've seen wandering around the same places doing the same things as you. It's a form of travel snobbery, of one-upmanship.
It's also delusional. It might be nice to believe that you're seeing the world in a more sophisticated, more "authentic" way than everyone else, but you're probably not. You're just doing a certain version of the travel experience, very likely as unimaginative and derivative as the worst of the "tourists". What does your guidebook say?
But still, there's more to it than that. Because applying a label like "traveller" to yourself, assuming an identity – it might feel like freedom, but it's actually restriction. The minute you define yourself as any kind of traveller, or tourist, or backpacker, or flashpacker, or independent traveller, or adventure traveller, or anything else, you put yourself in a box that you'll probably never even consider escaping from.
So you want to be a "traveller", and a not a "tourist"? That's fine, mostly, if what that means to you is getting off the beaten track (though, trust me, that path has probably already been beaten), visiting places that aren't popular, avoiding standard attractions in favour of organic experiences and chance encounters.
That's a great way to travel. But if in doing that you completely shut yourself off from experiences that could be considered "touristy", then you're going to be missing out.
You're going to miss out, for example, on seeing the Eiffel Tower, and on seeing the Colosseum. Those sights are as touristy as they get – but they're also pretty amazing.
You're going to miss out on taking the ferry from Manhattan across to Ellis Island and to the Statue of Liberty. You're going to skip the East Side Gallery in Berlin. You'll take a pass on the Great Wall of China. You'll say no to well-known palaces and cathedrals and temples and mosques the world over.
You'll miss out, in other words. For no good reason.
Same as you'll miss out if you declare yourself to be a "backpacker", a hardcore budget traveller who only does things on the cheap. You only stay in the stinkiest hostels; you cook food for yourself in their kitchens; you always ride public transport; you drink whatever booze is cheap and nasty.
That's fine, of course, if you want to travel that way. It's good. But as soon as you apply a label to yourself, you box yourself in.
What if you decide you want to splash out on nice accommodation every now and then? What if you want to spend a lot of money on a fancy meal? What if you want to hire a car instead of taking the bus one time? What if you feel like trying a bottle of local wine instead of sticking to supermarket beers?
Would you feel bad about doing that because you're a backpacker? Because other people with similar labels would sneer at you? That's a problem.
Any label you give yourself as you wander the world will become a prison. If you decide you're a "flashpacker" you'll miss out on some great budget experiences. If you're a luxury traveller you'll one day realise that there's a whole world out there that you haven't even discovered.
It's ironic that when people travel, when they indulge in this pursuit that's supposed to be all about freedom, all about personal choice, they slap labels on themselves that restrict the things they see, the things they experience, the way they interact with the world.
Travel shouldn't be about that. You can be a traveller and a tourist. You can be a backpacker and a flashpacker and a luxury traveller all on the one holiday. You can go on a tour and then travel solo for a while. You can stay in one place for a month and then burn through four or five destinations in the next week. You can be sober and then a drunk. You can be social and then a loner.
You can change your travelling style day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute if you like.
The trick to travel is to ignore the definitions you once gave yourself, or those that other people would award you, and just do what feels right and necessary at the time.
What's your travel style? Do you like to mix things up, or do you stick to a particular way of moving about the world?
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