If you look up the definitions of tourist and traveler in the dictionary, you’ll get very similar definitions.
/to͝orəst/ noun a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.
/ˈtrav(ə)lər/ noun a person who is traveling or who often travels.
But to me, there is a significant difference between the two words. Tourists visit new places, typically larger cities, in order to take in the most popular sights, eat at the most well-known restaurants, and return home with suitcases full of trinkets – basically unchanged. Travelers, on the other hand, seek out more authentic experiences, immerse themselves into the local culture, and return home with a wider view of the world and perhaps a better understanding of themselves.
Now, it’s not to say that being a tourist is 100% negative. It’s perfectly fine to snap a photo in front of the touristy hot spots or taste the location’s iconic food or drink. I would just encourage you to then break away from the more populated areas (keeping safety in mind, of course!) to get a true feel for the destination.
Sure, I will never forget nor regret tossing a coin into the Trevi fountain or when I tasted my first “real” Italian gelato. But I wouldn’t say I necessarily grew as a person from those experiences. I was, however, deeply moved by the friendliness and helpfulness of the Italian people when I broke free of Rome and headed out into the Tuscan countryside.
I was utterly lost while trying to find my hotel while driving a rental car through in the minuscule streets of Lucca. (Oh and did I mention that I had learned to drive stick shift just a few weeks before?) I was at my wit’s end and ready to burst into tears. I had gone round and round for what seemed like hours without being able to locate my destination.
I had pulled the car over to try to figure out what to do next when I heard a soft wrap on my window. I look up to two short Italian men peering in at me. I roll down the window and they ask if I am okay and if they can help. I told them the hotel I was trying to get to. They then stood back a bit to argue with each other about the best way to send me, and came back to the window with clear and precise directions. It turns out I was not far off target but had not realized that the alleyway I had passed several times was, in fact, the “street” my hotel was on! I thanked them profusely and breathed a sigh of relief as I navigated down the narrow street. I then treated myself with an incredible dinner and a glass of wine from a tiny establishment just around the corner from my hotel that I will not soon forget.
I not only took away the considerable kindness of the gentleman I encountered that day, and frankly of almost any other Italian I conversed with, but I also felt a huge sense of accomplishment having survived my first full day driving alone in Italy practically unscathed.
These are the type of experiences you have when you are a traveler. You try new things and explore uncharted (or in my case, not well marked) places. You interact and converse with the locals. You push yourself out of your comfort zone. Instead of just eating at the touristy restaurant, look for a cooking class to learn more about the local cuisine. Instead of going to the largest, most well-known winery in a region, head to a smaller, family run winery to taste their products. Instead of purchasing souvenirs at designated gift shops, purchase something that you will use and instantly remind you of the experience you had.
Don’t sell yourself short on your next vacation, seek out those unique experiences. I promise you won’t regret it!