Hands up who has ever done a Contiki tour? My hands are up. Twice. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the appeal. It’s cheap, everything is organised for you and it’s a great way to meet new people. That’s why I booked them too. In fact my first ever overseas trip was a Contiki tour in North America in 2006. Followed up three years later by a Contiki tour in New Zealand in 2009. Anyone who has ever done a Contiki tour will know the days are packed with sightseeing and the night presents the opportunity to party. Back then I would have happily considered myself a tourist. Oh how my travel style has changed.
So, what’s the difference between a traveller and a tourist? Well, close your eyes and think of a tourist. What do you see? I see someone that stands out from the crowd with a camera around their neck or an iPhone firmly out in front. They’ve got a full itinerary, probably a map in hand and manage to see quite a lot in the time they have but barely scratch the surface.
Now close your eyes again and try to imagine your own version of a traveller. I see someone who blends in more with the crowd, makes an effort to learn the local language, takes the time to learn the local culture and history and chooses things to see and do and places to eat and drink that are off the beaten path and support the locals.
Given my love for animals, I feel the need to differentiate between a tourist and a traveller in this regard too. I’m embarrassed to say that in 2010 I rode an elephant in Thailand and as recently as 2013 I went to the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. I was most definitely still a ‘tourist’ then, and again, happy enough to be considered one. Perhaps ignorance is another key difference between a traveller and a tourist?
I’m now much more aware of ethical animal experiences and in comparison to the above, my partner and I were the only people from our Highlights of Russia tour last year choosing not to attend the Great Moscow Circus. Seeing a bear riding a bicycle is not entertainment to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’d cry. I understand that like running with the bulls, there is a cultural significance and continuation of history and traditions but we’re an evolving human race and I think these forms of entertainment, whether for locals or tourists, need to evolve too.
Despite my strong opinions, it’s only been the past four years that I have made the shift from tourist to traveller. Check out the more recent examples of my travel style and see if you agree:
- sleeping under the stars about 80km deep in the Sahara Desert in Morocco
- exploring Vietnam in 12 days with local travel company Hanuman Travel
- spending Christmas in Cambodia with a fellow Aussie expat living there
- volunteering at Care For Wild rhino conservation project in South Africa for three weeks
- kayaking in the UK for five days with a team of women to raise awareness about plastic pollution
Come to think of it, even a shift in choice of tour company can help you on your own journey to becoming a traveller, not a tourist. We chose Intrepid Travel for our 10 days in Morocco because of their commitment to providing local experiences off the beaten track in small groups. Hanuman Travel have a similar offering however focused on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and can customise itineraries based on your interests. TravelLocal is a good place to start to check out local travel companies recommended for your destination and one of the benefits of using local travel companies is that the money stays in the country instead of a head office somewhere else in the world.
Don’t forget to do your own research too and make sure you see and do what you want based on your interests. Not just the typical tourist trail. An example is our recent trip to Bern in Switzerland where one of our favourite things to do that no-one suggested was to ride the ‘tin toboggan’ at Gurten Park. The views of Bern are spectacular from there and it was a cheap activity for what we discovered was truly an expensive country. Listening to the accents around us, we were the only tourists there at the time but I guess the locals need to keep some of it to themselves!
While I’ve just made myself out to be the perfect ‘traveller’, my journey is not over. I don’t always learn the local language, I sometimes opt out of opportunities to explore that little bit further for a glass of wine on the balcony instead and, well, you get the drift. Which is why I’m now going to contradict myself and say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist sometimes. If you blend in too much, you might just forget you’re on holiday!