On being a traveller versus a tourist: Intrinsic motives rather than ends distinguish one from the other

The ubiquity of ever-expanding tourism has robbed much of the world of such joys, driving the traveller ever further from the marauding selfie hordes, but there is still the occasional moment of felicity in a moment of discovery in some distant land

Samrat August 23, 2020 15:22:01 IST
On being a traveller versus a tourist: Intrinsic motives rather than ends distinguish one from the other

It’s already more than eight months into the year, and the COVID-19 crisis in India is still far from over. It doesn’t appear likely at the moment that things will go back to normal, at least for travel, before the end of the year. This is going to be a year of travelling to the grocery store and the pharmacy, and the office for those whose days of working from home are over. Travel for holidays to beautiful beaches and cool hills is a dream in the sweaty heat of all our big cities.

There are at least as many kinds of travellers as there are destinations. I have had the pleasure of knowing two very different kinds well.

There is an old friend of mine who can talk endlessly about all the cities on earth, especially when it comes to food. He is genuine foodie; he can tell you about the best sushi in Tokyo and the best curry in London. He has written a burger trail of the best burger joints in New York, which was published in a travel magazine…a remarkable feat, because my dear friend K doesn’t have a passport, and has never had one. K is a great traveller in the imagination. From the vividness of his descriptions it is impossible to tell that he has not been to the places he talks about. He probably knows more about those places than most people who live there. His love of places, which he will perhaps never visit because of some complication about his seemingly irremediable lack of a passport, is genuine.

My friend Sarnath is the opposite of K in this matter. I am not sure how many passports he has run through. Talk to him about any city and he will immediately start telling you about where to go, before proceeding to hand-draw a map with instructions of lefts and rights that you must take to bring you to the coolest dive in town…and town could be Berlin, where he now lives, or London, Paris, Rio, Trieste, Kolkata. He used to be something of a flaneur, wandering around places, and in his itinerant existence he has been, so it seems, everywhere. Once when I was planning a visit to the French Reunion Islands near Mauritius, he had said something typical like “oh wonderful place, I know a very sweet girl there”.

The thing about K and Sarnath is that they are both travellers. They are not tourists. The quality that distinguishes a traveller from a tourist, to my mind, is intrinsic motives rather than ends. A tourist may go to a place to click selfies for Instagram and Facebook – but that’s not what travel is for. Whether one travels in the imagination, or by the considerably more expensive method of buying a flight ticket in a world where flights go places, the difference between the traveller and the tourist is in the motive for travelling. This generally, though not always, expresses itself in how people travel. The tourist travels to check places off a list. He or she is more interested in having been to the places everyone else has been. Comfort is of the utmost importance to the tourist. Therefore, the focus of the tourist in planning a journey is on things like hotel service and what alcohol the airline serves.

Lacking genuine curiosity about the place they are visiting, or its inhabitants, culture and cuisine, the tourist, who often finds security in numbers, is most likely to settle for the familiar. The food will have to be the same cuisine as back home. The locals will be expected to be deferential to the visitors, also like back home. The visitors will behave as they do back home. They may try to maximise their money’s worth by taking the hotel towels and hair dryers on their way out, probably also like back home. The only way in which the place the tourist visits is expected to be different from back home is in scenery. The purpose of the visit is to provide a good backdrop for photos that the tourist can boast about to friends and extended family.

The traveller, in contrast, is a person whose purpose for going anyplace, physically or mentally, is driven by genuine curiosity about that place, its people, its food, its culture and its nature. The reason K is a traveller, and the tourist with many visits to foreign lands is not, is because K travels in spirit while the tourist’s journey is merely bodily.

The traveller does not travel to be with the same people, eating the same food, and doing much the same things as back home. He or she is in it for the experience of getting to know a new place. Serendipity and discovery, despite their pitfalls, are part of the pleasure. Maybe one day you just go off somewhere and end up, well, climbing a small mountain because you run into some trekkers and they ask you to walk along…or running away from a local funeral, because you crashed it thinking it was a party…it’s all part of the journey.

The ubiquity of ever-expanding tourism has robbed much of the world of such joys, driving the traveller ever further from the marauding selfie hordes, but there is still the occasional moment of felicity in a moment of discovery in some distant land. It is not always comfortable, and it is sometimes quite risky, but it comes closest to the original purpose of travel for most people in most places. That was the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage of any faith, even 200 years ago, was a journey of immense hardship and adventure. It was a journey to find god by discovering the self – a journey from the known into the unknown. Jetting it in style, staying in a luxury hotel, and having a conducted tour of a religious hotspot to a set itinerary is tourism, not travel. It is also not pilgrimage.

The soul of the pilgrimage is in the journey. The traveller is a pilgrim of the open road.

The writer is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

— Featured photo by ben ullman from FreeImages

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