Tourist or Traveller?

It seems like every single person who has caught the “wanderlust” fever veers towards one of the two groups; one is either a tourist or a traveller.

Perhaps you can relate to the following scenario — you are walking along the streets of Bern on a warm summer afternoon after acquainting yourself with the local cathedrals and ice-cream vendors when you see, from the corner of your eye, a coach pulling into the parking lot outside the local boutique mall. Out come groups of mostly middle-aged and elderly foreigners clutching their bags and walking hurriedly into the shops, eyes gleaming at the sight of goods worth tens of thousands of Swiss Francs. “Pathetic tourists,” you mumble under your breath. You congratulate yourself for not being a part of that circus as you wonder which tourist attraction you will be visiting today.

The irony calls out the hypocrisy of one self-perceived group labelling the other, especially since traversing in a foreign land ultimately consists of tourist activities, one way or another; the only difference being their respective genres.

Do you find yourself walking through the galleries of local museums? How about that one time you visited Japan’s Disneyworld? Perhaps tourism to you rears its ugly head through photos of pampered relaxation in a spa resort on sponsored influencers’ Instagram profiles with a glaring ‘world-traveller’ label on their headers; the cheek.

n short, arguments are shallow at best. Do you think you are a traveller because you have seen the face of the Matterhorn? There are souvenir shops at the summit of Klein Matterhorn, its sister mountain that is accessible via cable car. That says a great deal about what the locals think of you.

One makes the case that it does not matter what one does in another country, as long as one gets to chase the world.

There is indeed a degree of truth in this seemingly nonchalant statement. We live in an age of uncertainty, and the window of opportunity to catch glimpses of the world dwindles with each passing day, with each act of terror; each murder; each natural disaster. You hesitate at the thought of riding the hot air balloon in Cappadocia; you think twice when you make plans to visit the Notre Dame. The call to embrace each waking moment demands the end of all the judging and nitpicking, and apart from the slight variations of the same senseless argument, it really should.

Perhaps activities alone do not separate a traveller from a tourist. The question we should therefore ask ourselves is not what we are going to do, but why we travel in the first place. Motives are probably one of the few secure secrets left in the world, accessible only by oneself.

Some profess their love for culture, but are frustrated when the local shopkeeper does not speak English. Some declare their desire to see the world, but refuse to leave the bustling city. Some even pledge to disconnect from their daily lives, but at the first sign of Wi-Fi, stop to upload photos on social media, only satisfied once they have received their first ‘like’.

Non-consequential are the acts themselves, but fallacious self-dignifying eventually gets found out.

Some travel with just one eye open; they see their destinations as playgrounds but are blind to the foundations underneath that hold everything together. It is like revelling in Barcelona’s Catalan Day celebrations without remembering the oppressive Franco years, or being entertained at a live penguin show in Nagasaki without acknowledging Fat Man. The widening gap between history and the modern age yields a certain complacency that life is but a comfortable tour coach — itinerary-ready, GPS-led, catering to your every whim. In almost every country, you will find well-maintained historical museums, memorials, and monuments; it is so you will always remember.

Wanderlust is a term so abused in today’s society, even though lust usually carries a negative connotation, that is, a strong but short sense of longing that fizzles out just as quickly as it comes. Following worldwide trends does that to you, too. Travel seems to be the bandwagon that everyone wants to hop on board, even without first searching their hearts.

No, travel is more than just trying to fit in; on the contrary, it makes you stick out like a sore thumb, like a lost sheep in pastures far away from your little pen. Travel does not discriminate; it brings both the good and the bad of a country, uncondensed, onto the feet of the traveller — and he accepts them.

In her book, Riding to the Tangris, Freya Stark writes, “One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one’s own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.”


This post was first published here.

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