¨Life is a tour, we are all tourists”
Dr. P.S. Jagadeesh Kumar
Over the past twenty years, I have viewed hundreds of books, blogs, websites, and other resources. One of the most common themes in these materials is an insistence that one should always try to be a traveler rather a tourist. Yet, these definitions don’t matter much. What’s important is getting to know a place well.
What is the Difference Between a Traveler Versus a Tourist?
While both travelers and tourists travel somewhere for pleasure, many travel resources divide the two groups as follows (from differencebetween.net):
¨tourists are shallow people who care more about boasting that they were in a place than actually experiencing it, while travelers are people who blaze new trails and experience a much deeper connection with a site by going to the exact same attractions that the tourists go to, but more deeply.¨
The City Sidewalks blogs provide excellent examples of the type of materials that argue against being a tourist. 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 make an attempt to learn the local language,
- Tourists buy the first (overpriced) souvenirs they find; travelers stick it out for the deals, and
- Tourists rely on maps; travelers trust their instincts.
Is it Really Better to Be a Tourist Versus a Traveler?
I think the argument that travelers are the only right visitors 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, the majority of tourists do not – it is just far more common to hear about the horror stories than about the people who don’t do anything worth complaining about. Still, because of those people, some don’t want to be associated with the word ‘tourist’ even if they are doing the exact same things a tourist does. This is because the people who created this definition are all self-described travelers.¨
I also think there is a built-in, unfair assumption that somehow traveling independently is superior to going as a group. This is not my experience. Besides, most people I’ve met with this view usually have a lot of misconceptions about group travel.
The Secret to Getting the Most Out of Your Fifty-Plus Nomad Experiences
All these discussions on travelers versus tourists miss the two most crucial factors that are necessary to learn about a given place or the world: time and perspective. Thankfully, Fifty-Plus Nomads have the time to get the most out of the travel
Fortunately, it is also not hard for Fifty-Plus Nomads to get the right 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 the Layers of Understanding
Revealing these layers can be done by moving from place to place frequently and comparing and contrasting life in different parts of the world. (Semester at Sea provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this). It can also be done by staying in one place and getting to know all its layers or spending extended periods living in several different countries.
Any way you do it, take time to get the most out of the Fifty Plus Nomads lifestyle. If you are going to be in a place for enough time, learn the language. If it is too difficult to learn the language, talk to locals, and find out about their lives as much as possible.
I have discovered that there is no one right way to get to know a place. Instead, I need to partake in a combination of tours, traveling independently, and participating in a learning or volunteer vacation to get my arms around a place. (Generally, I need to spend two to three months in the area to do all three of these activities). Each type of experience helps peel different layers necessary to understand and appreciate life in other parts of the world.
Learning and Volunteer Vacations
Learning and volunteer vacations have taught me not just language but a lot of other things as well. The teachers are well-informed people who are eager to help students learn about their homeland. Thanks to these teachers, I have uncovered information about the history, economics, politics, music, literature, and art that would be hard to find elsewhere.
In addition, I feel privileged to be included in the lives of the programs’ host families. Many of these families have become friends who have given me an invaluable appreciation for what it feels like to live in their hometowns.
Tours and Other Traditional Group Travel Experiences
A well-designed tour, for me, is like taking a college-level course about your destination. I have been over fifty group travel experiences (cruises, tours, volunteer, and learning vacations) and enjoyed and learned a lot from each one. An excellent tour guide offers a chance to see many parts of a country quickly while learning heaps about the place’s history, culture, and society.
Taking a variety of tours in different countries has given me an informal but highly valuable course on cross-cultural similarities and differences and helped me develop a broader and better-informed worldview. (This is particularly true when I have traveled through a company with a strong educational focus like Overseas Adventure Tours, Road Scholar, or Intrepid Travel).
Cruises are a great way to see a region that is difficult and expensive to visit otherwise, such as the North Atlantic and Patagonia. (Try to use a cruise line like Holland America which has an educational focus whenever possible). Also, I have found that most of my fellow tour participants and cruisers are usually intellectually curious, flexible, and fascinating people who add a lot to the experience.
Traveling independently gives me the time to explore my interests and discover daily life in a new place. I feel blessed to have the time to follow my interests without pressure to accommodate the interests of other people. Some of the happiest days of my life have been spent exploring one museum or historic sight in depth.
Also, I get a sense of what daily life is like just by trying to do simple tasks like taking public transport, buying food in the market, etc.
That said, I do not think that if you are going to visit a place for two weeks, you discover more traveling alone than taking a tour. You learn different things, most of which either way will result in a somewhat 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 know a place, I inevitably find out other things I would like to know. I don’t think I will ever completely know everything about any place. That is the fun part of being a Fifty Plus Nomad.
Whenever someone asks me something like ¨Do you have anything left to see?¨, I always respond that I could continue to travel happily for the rest of my life. There is still a lot left to discover.
¨Doing¨ a Country
That’s why I always cringe (interiorly) when someone says they have ¨done¨ a country. I don’t think anyone can ¨do¨ a country (including locals). I don’t believe I’ve ¨done¨ Mexico or Italy even though I have:
- Spent a long time in both Italy (six months) and Mexico (three 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, and
- 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 write a book or to teach a class about visiting and 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 impression of both countries over time; and
- Italy and Mexico themselves are constantly changing.