Travel-ism or Tourism?

Apparently, there IS a difference

Each time I travel, I am faced by the same dilemma. Must I follow convention and go visit all the tourist-y places in the town first, or  follow my heart that is urging me to pick up a map, walk the street, try the food, meet the people and then perhaps if time allows, go see the tourist-y spots?

Walking in NYC, 2010

 I took some time to reflect on this travel quirk. Last year, I visited Hong Kong and Macau, had a great time. Then my sister and her husband did exactly the same trip two weeks later, and came back with pictures that looked entirely different from mine! Did we visit different places?

When I pondered more, it struck me that I have been to New York about a zillion times, but have never actually taken the trouble to go see the Statue of Liberty. I know great bars, eating joints, my favorite avenues, but no I can’t say I hate or love one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Thoughts accelerating now…I am living in Delhi and I haven’t seen the Red Fort. I was in Boston for three years and I didn’t take the trouble to go on the History Walk, or the Duck Tour (you can’t blame me for this though, this tour is on a “vehicle” in the shape of a duck that first drives you around the city, and then randomly enters the Charles river turning into a boat!).

This is enough to be identified as a pattern. Am I lazy? I don’t think so; I can spring out of bed for  Six Flags at 6:00am.  If the best crepes in town are 2 hours away, I’ll put an alarm to trek there too, just to catch the freshest ones. But an alarm for a packed day of city landmarks…

I’m not saying I never sight see, I do. I have been to Agra for the Taj Mahal and everything. But I do tend towards being a slightly eccentric tourist, for which I recently found a term.  Apparently, I fall under the category of what they call travelers. I spent some time researching this and found this definition that best explains this distinction:

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton

It seems a tourist is a visitor then, a traveler more of a wanderer. When I started this trip, my first alone-trip, the objective was just that, to wander. Without a time schedule to be anywhere (unless it’s a movie), arrive somewhere accidentally and marvel at the places on the way. So I did exactly that…through the streets of New York, the little Italy in Boston, woods of Maine, countryside in Texas and so on. Hungrily walking from one place to the next, only taking public transport when necessary. And I started to make mental notes on 1) handy tips, how you can be a good traveler and 2) why travel-ism maybe picking up as distinct from tourism. The How part first:

1)      Whenever possible, walk. This saves cost and is the best way to feel the pulse of the city, the smells, people, and culture…

2)      Smile at people (try not to be creepy)– There is so much you can learn about the culture of the city if the smile returned (or not returned) is wide and bright (like in California) or suspicious (Hong Kong) or brief (New York).

3)      Food! This is a big one for me; this is one research I do do. From Chandni Chowk in Delhi to French food in California, to the eclectic mix in NYC, I can’t call a vacation a vacation if I haven’t devoured the food

4)      Gain weight: Don’t bother dieting on a holiday! And this is coming from an obsessive weight freak, but I have successfully convinced myself that holiday weight is fashionable, yes it is.

5)      Taste local wine: The best wine I have had was in the oldest restaurant

Casal Gracias, Macau 2009

in Macau. I have never found it after much search anywhere in India, America or even Hong Kong! (picture alongside for reference, if anyone can find me that wine for purchase, there will be a cash prize!).

6)      Marvel – always best to set aside time to just marvel. You don’t have to miss the slow sunset over Hudson, just because you have to be at Times Square to see the night-lights. In my experience, the refreshing moments that serve the purpose of the vacation come from what you see when you happen to see it, rather than plan to.

7)      Wear flat shoes and bring a camera: these are two things I share with the tourist-y clan. Always bring a camera; even if it’s a small walk, it can be memorable. And wear flats; I have been doing this even as NYC women tower over me in their mind blowing heels (I’ve come to believe, their legs must have a nutrition inlet of their own)

8)   Laugh: if you are a traveler, you will get lost. Also since you haven’t taken the trouble to research the place, you will make a lot of other cultural or social boo-boos. But that’s the fun of it, so laugh

On why travel is picking up as distinct from tourism. I think travel in general relates back to the human need to move. Historically, our predecessors first traveled out of necessity, then for religion, migration, emigration, commerce, enlightenment and finally for pleasure. But pleasure as a reason for the need to move has been around for too long to accept it for what it is, so we spend some time intellectualizing it.

We have heard the word rejuvenate so often that it has lost its impact. But it is something to ponder. Traveling is the only time we sit still for a bit. In real life, we are always on the go. The “go” often makes us do things uncharacteristic of us; at work, we may become competitive even if we are not, in personal life there may be other pressures we may have to succumb to.


Central Park Zoo, 2010

Travel, from time to time, gives us the space and time to just be, in a manner that tourism doesn’t. Joseph Campbell very succinctly said that a sacred place is an absolute necessity for everyone today. “You must have a room, or hour, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”


I think Travel-ism has picked up because it allows us to find that sacred place, where instead of getting out of the hustle bustle of real life and getting into the hustle bustle of being a tourist, it allows people to be still for sometime and come back really refreshed and ready to bustle again. So I guess, a little bit of a wandering once in a while is good. I’m reminded of the old adage, not all those who wander are lost.


A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Lao Tzu

Visit Top Quotes, This and That for my other favorite quotes on travel. Do add in your own too!


7 thoughts on “Travel-ism or Tourism?

  1. I agree there is a subtle difference between the two.
    Tourism is a multi-million dollar industry while travel is one man’s journey. In the fast faced world of frozen meals and online dating, tourism is the commercial equivalent to travelling .
    I think everyone, in a utopian sort of a world would love to be a traveler- seeking and absorbing the sounds, smells, tastes, a new place has to offer, but not many of us have the luxury/time/money/energy/drive to be a traveler, so we settle with the low fat version of it.

    On a lighter note a tourist is a traveler annoying/annoyed by the locals!! Travelers blend in, while tourists are loud & obnoxious!!

  2. Hehe, Low-fat, good perspective. That’s true though,iIn fact, once i finished writing this I thought about it and realized I should have covered the problem of time. I guess there are many people I know who would like to be travelers but just can’t find the time. But I’m also talking about the innate tourists, such as my sister! Even if she had the time she would be a tourist all the way, and that’s something you can’t change about her. And even if I don’t have time, like just a few days, I’d still be more of a traveller. You can see she and I can never travel together!

  3. well written DK…light, true, food for thought. I find i’m a tourvaller – i claim copyright to that – i will travel and simultaneously make sure i catch as many touristy spots as i can – after all, there’s a reason why they’re popular!

    There’s a site called couchsurfing,org. Go visit – and if the inclination so hits you, join up.

  4. I think you need to balance both because the touristy stuff is very much a part of the culture of the place as well.. You’d never go to Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower or Cairo and not see the pyramids… Eiffel Tower may not count because it was built as part of an exhibition but the pyramids are just as integral to Egypt as the markets or whatever else you would want to see there. You better go see the Statue of Liberty soon… cos it’s closing down for renovations soon 🙂

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