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Traveler or Tourist?

I am addicted to seeing the world.

My French grandmother would frequently tell stories as we ate dinner together, speaking of her childhood, the war, and getting acclimated to American living. Her food made the stories come to life, and her passion painted pictures so real, I felt they were my own. Through her stories, I became an explorer. To this day, there is no place I wouldn’t want to experience at least once, and many that I would love to see again and again. Despite my numerous travels, I learn immense amounts about myself during each new adventure, and this summer’s stay in Baja California, Mexico was a clear example of this.

I am enrolled in Project Dragonfly‘s Global Field Program, which brought me to Baja for a ten day course on what it means to be a global citizen…. or at least, that is my translation of what occurred. Students enrolled in the program travel to a series of field sites to study Inquiry-based learning, community-engagement, and practice real conservation science. I thoroughly enjoyed the landscape, the people, and the learning in Baja, but this trip was challenging in an entirely surprising way for me.

"Life begins at the end of your Comfort Zone" -Neale Donald Walsh

“Life begins at the end of your Comfort Zone” -Neale Donald Walsh

Adults have to break from their everyday mold in order to learn; their patterns have been honed over time, and often require conscious effort to veer away from. My own patterns of independent travel were thrown out the window in exchange for constant cohabitation with a group of strangers, no running water or flushing toilets, nor predictable source of coffee. All of these things would have been par for the course in my younger days, but as a new mother that was missing my son, the lack of internet or phone connectivity was a much deeper loss.

The long and winding road

A few hours into a bumpy dirt-road drive to the desert, our motley group of strangers was challenged to define the difference between a traveler and a tourist. The common gut-reaction was that tourists are fat and inconsiderate, there to pillage and plunder cultural assets. Travelers are the more ethical group, sometimes connoting a slightly smelly but well-intentioned individual, looking to “live life to the fullest”.


I hesitated to accept this definition. I have visited many places where tourism was a simultaneous blessing and curse, bringing new money while destroying old resources. Locals I spoke to claimed that they could only afford to live comfortably because of the recent influx of tourists, and the motivation of the people visiting often did not matter to those residents receiving them. Even our extremely hospitable host family calls their crazy student visitors “tourists”. The intention of a guest can be one thing when their actual impact is clearly another- this is where definitions become tricky.


Often, tourists don’t know they are being “tourists”, or how to not become that stereotype. One particularly resonant example of this from our Baja trip is as follows; the morning before we departed from Vermillion Sea Station to return to San Diego, we were lucky enough to swim with a small group of whale sharks. This had truly been a life-long dream of mine, and I was so excited to jump into the water that I lost all sense of self. As I swam next to one of the huge individuals feeding by our boat, so in awe of this immense creature and so appreciative for this time together, I saw another woman swim up alongside MY whale shark and grab on to its pectoral fin for a ride. I nearly choked, as this was cardinal rule #1 – do not touch! Even more confusing- the woman looked exactly like my instructor from behind, wearing the same color bathing suit with the same color hair. She had been extremely vocal about this rule on land- what had changed?


I thought that surely I was mistaken and she knew something that I didn’t. In this scenario, I felt trapped by my inferior position of power and lack of confidence in the situation to speak up for what I thought of as truth. Maybe her truth was more true than mine, and therefore I backed off.  It turned out that the woman was a European tourist, and definitely not doing the right thing (in our book, anyway). Why? Maybe she really didn’t know any better. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she wanted to feel a real connection to this amazing animal, and completely lost her sense of self too. Was I the jerk in this situation for not speaking up? Maybe, but considering all the conflicting ideas that were floating in my head, I can’t even begin to guess what the other woman was thinking.


Our class reconvened on a nearby island, sitting in a circle half-in-half-out of the water along the shore. Those that had seen the woman riding the whale shark had responded in different ways- varying from complacency, shock, nerves, confusion, anger. While I usually consider myself a traveler, I truly felt like a tourist in that moment, like I couldn’t take ownership over the situation and my role within.


I don’t think that tourists are bad people, they are just entry level travelers. Many of these people are at the beginning stages of their global understanding, focused more of their immediate personal needs than the grander impact of their actions. With a little exercise of those inexperienced muscles and a willing guide to train them, I believe that everyone can become a “traveler”.


{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Jamie October 11, 2015, 9:11 am

    I really like your take on this. Most likely your explanation that she didn’t really know better is correct. Or maybe she kind of knew better, but didn’t know enough to realize it was actually a big deal (I don’t know either, but I’m just taking your word for it).
    I find these kinds of “what does this word mean” discussions a little difficult. Because, to me, it’s not like we are actually seeking to define the word tourist as accurately as possible. it’s more like we are trying to articulate a concept that we each have in our minds. At any rate, I think you’re right that the tourist/traveler distinction is more of a continuum. Sure, you can embrace the concept of being a tourist and just be stuck there your whole life, but in most cases that’s better than being neither. So, you see the Louvre, the Tower of London, the Great Wall of China, etc. but you miss out on a closer connection with the locals and with the real story behind the place. But maybe it’s better to have part of the story than none at all. Like you say (or imply) there is a natural pull from being a tourist to becoming a traveler. I’m sure I started off as a tourist, and maybe still am one. Who knows. But the more of the world we see, the harder it is to ignore that there are other points of view out there besides our own.
    My favorite eye opening memory is the day that I realized that (we) Americans are loud. I moved to the UK with my British husband and we were in the Grosvenor Hotel in Chester drinking tea with his family, and I suddenly realized that I was talking like twice as loud as the rest of them. They were all speaking just at a level loud enough for everyone at our table to hear each other. Hmm. Maybe there’s not much difference between holding onto whale shark’s fin and shouting across the table at someone so that the whole restaurant can hear your discussion. 🙂

    • Allison October 11, 2015, 9:54 pm

      Totally agree with you- “better to have part of the story than none at all”. It’s kind of a Karl Pilkington philosophy- even though he is consistently resistant to the process of travel, the benefits tend to seep in when he’s not paying attention. Before you know it, you’ve grown!
      PS just looked up how to spell his name correctly and discovered that “The Moaning of Life” season 2 premieres in 2 days….. so thanks for that! I’m guessing that if you have a British husband, you know what I’m talking about!

  • kat October 17, 2015, 3:33 pm

    Thanks for publishing your thoughts on our experience of “riding” the whale shark. It was very brave of you to admit your vulnerable feelings about right vs. wrong in very public places with all the different cultural gaps that exist today. As we later learned, not only did the tourist “know better” and spoke English, but she had been told not to touch several times and persisted. Why are some people so inconsiderate? Having been on the tail end of this giant but gentle beast a few times, I was hesitant to get too close, knowing that powerful caudal fin could knock me out, if the whale felt threatened. Was it weird of me to wonder what the whale was “thinking?” I was hoping it thought we were just playful sea lions! 🙂

    • Allison October 17, 2015, 6:49 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Kat-
      Not weird at all to wonder. Whatever they thought of us, I am thankful that they let us share their space for a while….. despite the others. I think we were too boring to be sea lions!

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