I’m a Traveller, not a Tourist . . . hmmmm, is that so


I recall a time when I humped a bag on my back during my travels, hitching rides where possible. When cheap accommodation was unobtainable I would lay my sleeping bag atop my plastic rain cape, use my backpack as a pillow and sleep at the side of the road or in a field, or wherever.

While I fancied myself as a ‘Rover’ or ‘Wanderer’ and a free spirit, some may have viewed me simply as a ‘Bum’, my mode of travel synonymous with being a ‘Vagrant’, ‘Tramp’, or ‘Pilgrim’. This was the early 60s and many of us on the road were being influenced by authors such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles. Though certainly not the first well-heeled author-travellers to write of their experiences in exotic countries (Wilfred Thesiger, Gertrude Bell and Jan Morris to name but a few), in those heady times they sufficed to inspire us with a sense of experimental, unfettered freedom and wonderment as we explored foreign lands.

In those days there was a wide gulf between the casual traveller and the well-heeled ‘Tourist’. The term ‘Backpacker’ was not yet in vogue and the ‘pack’ remained the realm of Mountaineers, Trampers and Campers. Wheeled suitcases didn’t exist and ‘Travellers’ were usually the author-adventurer type mentioned above.

The backpack was, however, the logical means to carry your belongings while walking. But fast forward a decade or so and the innocent low-budget long-distance traveller of the time had become seduced and usurped by a burgeoning Tourist Industry. ‘Backpacker Hotels’ began to proliferate along with designer travel accoutrements and a plethora of How To – What To – and Where To – literature.

My memory of the discomfort of wearing a backpack still lingers: in hot climates it was uncomfortable to wear and whatever you needed to access would mysteriously have lodged itself deep within its bowels. Having long forsaken any form of backpack I sometimes wrestle with which label should best describe the nature of my travelling – am I now ‘Tourist’ or ‘Traveller’, or something else? I can no longer be called a ‘Holidaymaker’ as, being retired, every day is a holiday. These days, with on the one hand an affluent and globally-mobile youth, while on the other cashed-up retired persons all utilising a melange of proffered travel means it is a fine line that differentiates any sort of ‘Vacationer’. Most of us, somewhere along the line, have been drawn into the commercial tourism web.


Interestingly, there are some folk who seem to have the means to enable them to travel continually, moving often. Could they, perhaps, be categorised as modern ‘Nomads’, grazing globally. And few of us who venture away from our homelands in search of some diversion and difference could deny an element of voyeurism in our travel, which brings to mind another anachronistic word, ‘Voyager’.

My personal etymological wrestle with travel nomenclature continues, though these days I harbour a preference for the simplistic term ‘Traveller’ as portrayed in Laurie Lee’s autobiographical ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ – if only in that I prefer to avoid tours and tour groups; can’t abide Cruise Ships or Resorts; incorporate a rubbery flexibility into daily decision-making while travelling; carry my own bags and can’t see the value in 5 Star hotels.

To add greater confusion to the issue, the word ‘Traveller’ is now disparaging polite-speak in the UK for Gypsies and other ‘Itinerants’ who would live like them. It is used to describe, contrarily, those who settle for as long as they can on someone’s land until ordered to move on – a form of ‘squatting’.

Recently, I saw what surely must be the final nail-in-the-coffin for any lexical differentiation between those two words, Tourist and Traveller. Advertisements are now appearing on the internet proudly heralding a ‘new’ type of tourism catering to the “REAL Traveller”, and they spend some time differentiating this from that pampered creature, the “TOURIST”.

The Tourism industry, creative and adaptive as ever, has set out to capture another niche market of innocent ‘Venturers’, this time appealing to those consumers with an adventurous (but not too adventurous) spirit, but who still seek a little guidance, organisation and the company of others of their ilk. Like the humble ‘Hitchhiker’ of old, we see the commercial usurpation of our inherent spirit of adventurous independence and, somewhat regretfully, I’m sure it will succeed.

2 thoughts on “I’m a Traveller, not a Tourist . . . hmmmm, is that so

  1. Very interesting. I feel for these ‘backpackers’ that are all over Taupo in the season: packs almost bigger than they are in some cases, that have to be taken with them everywhere they go. I once spent some time with a colleague who was going through a protracted period of personal difficulties and went along with his suggestion that we should do a bit of backpacking around Coromandel and the Far North of NZ. I wouldn’t describe it as an unqualified success: there is about the backpacking lifestyle a lot to be desired, I find. The last time I tried it I woke up in a dormitory with about 12 Japanese schoolgirls. It wasn’t as much fun as you might imagine. The quality of the BP hostels was extremely variable. Other people’s cooking smells, inadequate and badly situated toilet facilities, absolutely no security for your wallet etc, and one’s fellow travellers weren’t particularly friendly either, I found. One exception: I met a very pleasant Canadian student at the top of 90 Mile Beach who accompanied me on a combination walk/hitch for a significant distance before we stopped at a predictably mediocre BP hostelry. It did however have the advantage of free transport to the nearest bus depot at Kaitaia.

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