“Life is a tour; we are all tourists.”
Dr. P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar

Travelers Versus Tourists: An Introduction  

Over the past twenty years, I have viewed hundreds of blogs, websites, and other online resources. One of the most common themes in these online commentaries is pitting travelers versus tourists. Yet, these definitions do not matter much. What truly makes someone a real Fifty Plus Nomad is a determination to know a place well regardless of whether you are a tourist or a traveler.  

What is the Difference Between Travelers Versus Tourists?  

While both travelers and tourists travel somewhere for pleasure, many online communities pit the two groups against each other, like in the following excerpt from differencebetween.net:  

¨tourists are shallow people who care more about boasting that they were in a place than experiencing it. At the same time, travelers blaze new trails and share a much deeper connection with a site by going to the same attractions that the tourists go to, but more deeply. ¨  

The City Sidewalks blogs provide excellent examples of the type of materials that pit travelers versus tourists. Here is their definition of the difference between a tourist and a traveler.  

From City Sidewalks  

  • A tourist sticks out, a traveler blends in.  
  • A tourist eats comfort food; a traveler tries out the local cuisines.  
  • A tourist only sightsees, a traveler converses with locals.  
  • Tourists dress for comfort, travelers dress for style and comfort.  
  • Tourists stick to their native tongue; travelers try to learn the local language.  
  • Tourists buy the first (overpriced) souvenirs they find; travelers stick it out for the deals.  
  • Tourists rely on maps; travelers trust their instincts.  

The Reality Behind the Travelers Versus Tourists Debate  

The argument that travelers are excellent and tourists are bad is arrogant and wrong-headed. I agree with the words of differencebetween.net:  

¨Tourism has gained a bit of a bad reputation. Some tourists will go to places and become a nuisance. Other people will act like the stereotype of tourists. However, most tourists do not – it is just far more ordinary to hear about the horror stories than about the millions of respectful tourists. Still, some do not want to be associated with the word ‘tourist’ even if they are doing the same things a tourist does. The people who created this definition are all self-described travelers. ¨  

There is a built-in, unfair assumption that independent travel is superior to going as a group, and this is not my experience. Besides, most people I have met with this view usually have many misconceptions about group travel.  

The Secret to Getting the Most Out of Your Long-Term Travel Experiences  

All these travelers versus tourists discussions miss the two most crucial factors necessary to learn about a given place or the world: time and perspective. Thankfully, Long Term Travelers have the time to get the most out of the travel.  

Fortunately, it is also not hard for Long Term Travelers to get the proper perspective. All one needs to do is view your experience as a long-term quest to unveil the layers of understanding about the politics, economics, history, values, religion, customs, and food of the places you visit.  

How to Reveal these Layers of Understanding  

Long Term Travelers can uncover these layers by frequently moving from place to place and comparing and contrasting life in various parts of the world. (Semester at Sea provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this). You can also unravel these layers by staying in one place and getting to know it in depth or spending extended periods living in several different countries.  

If you do it, take time to get the most out of the long-term travel lifestyle. If you are going to be in a place for enough time, learn the language. If it is challenging to learn the language, learn about locals’ lives in English whenever possible.  

I have discovered that there is no right way to get to know a place. Instead, consider partaking in a combination of experiences to get your arms around a place. (Generally, I need to spend two to three months in the area to do all these activities):

  • Group Tours provide a basic knowledge of a place’s history, culture, politics, and economics. 
  • Independent travel gives you the time to explore your interests and discover daily life in a new place without pressure to accommodate other people’s interests. 
  • Volunteer and learning vacations allow you to get to know and befriend locals and understand what their lives feel,  

Each type of experience helps peel different layers necessary to understand and appreciate life in other parts of the world. If you visit a place for two weeks, you will not get to know a place that well regardless of how you travel there. The way you travel will teach you different things about a place, but ultimately you will only have a superficial view of the place.  

A Personal Note  

I have discovered that the more I know, the less I know about a place. When I get to see a place, I inevitably find out other things I would like to know. I do not think I will completely understand anything about any place, which is the fun part of being a Fifty Plus Nomad.  

Whenever someone asks me, “Do you have anything left to see?” I always responded that I could continue to travel happily for the rest of my life. There is still a lot left to discover.  

¨Doing¨ a Country  

I always cringe (interiorly) when someone says they have “done” a country. I do not think anyone can “do” a country (including locals). I do not believe I’ve “done” Mexico or Italy even though I have:  

  • Spent a long time in Italy (six months) and Mexico (four and a half years).  
  • Become conversational in Italian and Spanish.  
  • Visited most of the Italian and Mexican provinces.  
  • Lived with fifteen Italian and Mexican families.  
  • Read close to two hundred books about Italy and Mexico.  

You Never Really Get Enough Knowledge to Know a Place Well  

I feel like through these experiences, I have amassed enough knowledge to draft a book or teach a class about visiting, traveling, and living in Italy and Mexico. But I know that even after I have finished these books and courses, I will never stop learning about a place because:  

  • Some students and readers will have suggestions and ideas to teach me about Italy and Mexico.  
  • There is so much left to learn, see, and experience.  
  • I will change some of my impressions of both countries over time.  
  • Italy and Mexico themselves are constantly changing.  

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Paul Heller has been a lifelong avid traveler and language learner and teacher, Even as a child, he told Santa Claus that he wanted to visit all the children worldwide. At seven years old, Paul wanted to retire to Mexico. At eight, he memorized the name, capital, location, and some facts about every country worldwide. At twelve, he found a book "Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" and started developing his own itinerary for a future round-the-world trip. He remained obsessed with travel; after getting a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California and working as an administrator, He spent his vacations going to different countries around the globe studying language, touring, and volunteering. In 1994, he quit his job and lived in Russia as a volunteer English instructor. He discovered that he loved teaching languages. In 2004, he decided to make a living out of his travels and founded a community of people who love to travel just like him. He developed 5 three-hour classes about living and traveling long-term worldwide which he taught in over 50 adult education programs throughout the US. After his parents passed, he realized his dream of traveling around the world; cruising and touring some of the most remote places like the North Atlantic, Patagonia, and Oceania; and learning new languages (he knows Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian). Paul encourages everyone to learn foreign languages. He knows that it can be frustrating and slow but that anyone can learn a language if they put in the work and, most importantly, learning a language is well worth the time and effort because it opens up a whole new set of people, ideas, and cultures. He is currently spending the next chapter of his life in Mérida, México. He is excited about using this blog and his classes and workshops to inspire and equip fellow Fifty Plus Nomads with the language, cultural, and psychological skills necessary to be successful and happy long-term travelers and expats over 50.

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