Tourist vs. Traveler

It can be hard to not feel offended when someone refers to me as a tourist.

I generally correct them, kindly and politely, and tell them that I’m not a tourist – I’m a traveler. In my mind, the difference between the two is astronomical.

A tourist is a person who has a checklist – sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal. A tourist will often dish out large amounts of money for a short stay in a far-away place. They have a set itinerary of places they want to go, and things they want to do. Their schedules are more-or-less set in stone, and generally involve seeing the things that a place is famous for.

A traveler is much different. A traveler is not after the quick, stereotypical experience of a place. Travelers often travel without much money, finding ways to experience far-away places without exhausting their life savings (okay, maybe that’s being a little dramatic. Just a little.) A traveler may have places they want to go and things they want to do, but their schedules are most definitely not set in stone. And a traveler knows that the things a place is famous for very often don’t truly represent that area – there is so much more beneath the surface.

Take my recent trip to the Netherlands, for example. I am half Dutch, and after meeting a Dutch man during my travels along the Northern California coast, I was completely enthralled with the idea of visiting this country. I’d grown up hearing so many references to Dutch language and culture in my family, and I knew pretty quickly after getting to know a native Dutch person that I wanted to visit the Netherlands. And I most definitely did not want a tourist experience. I wanted to get to know the Netherlands the way native, local Dutch people knew it.

I hoarded my pennies until I could afford a cheap flight, and food. I figured I didn’t need much more than that. Then I quit my part-time job, packed up my suitcase and camera gear, and left the States. I was planning on staying in the Netherlands as long as I could.

I couchsurfed the entire time I was there. My first host, a born-and-raised Dutch woman, was kind enough to not put me out on the streets after my time with her was up. My body reacted very poorly to the time change, and I became so sick that finding my next host was delayed. (I love you, Nico. Thanks for being a fantastic person!)

Then I stayed with another Dutch woman. And another. Then a Dutch guy. I acted as a house/rat/plant-sitter while Nico was on vacation. I stayed with a French woman living in Amsterdam. I stayed almost a week with the wonderful man I fell for a month into my trip. (He’s probably reading this. Hey there, cutie.  Thanks again!) During my last week, I house-sat for the French woman.

Although it was nice to not have to spend a single cent on lodging, there was something much more significant about it for me.

I made connections.

I experienced the country through the eyes of the locals.

I left my plans open. I didn’t ask my hosts to hold my hand around the big, scary foreign city like many people will do. Rather, I took their suggestions on places to go and things to do, then let my experiences evolve as they would. I spent a lot of time exploring on my own.

There are many things that tourists in the Netherlands want to see or do as part of the “Dutch Experience.” Just to name a few:

The Red Light District
Coffee shops, AKA legal marijuana (fun fact, it’s not actually legal – it’s just not criminalized)
Taking a photo with the iAmsterdam sign
Taking a boat tour of the canals

The list goes on, of course, but these are some of the main tourist attractions. And you know what’s funny?

In my 3 months in the Netherlands, I didn’t go on a single boat ride.
I didn’t even see the iAmsterdam sign.
Most of the coffee shops I went to were actual coffee shops that didn’t sell marijuana. I only went to ones with cannabis when I needed it to help deal with my chronic pain and nausea.
I walked through the red light district and saw the prostitutes just once. It was surreal, but most definitely a “touristy” area.

Most Dutch people don’t own a boat.
Most Dutch people view the iAmsterdam sign simply as a place packed with tourists.
Most Dutch people only mention the Red Light district because they’d gone there to go to a shop or a bar. Many tourists don’t realize that the Red Light District is much more than just prostitutes and sex shops.

The Dutch also don’t seem to be a huge fan of tourists. Although tourism can be economically beneficial, it comes at a high price. One of the biggest problems is that the cost of housing in and around Amsterdam is being driven up to rates that are simply unaffordable for a good percentage of the locals!

Rooms and houses are more and more frequently being rented out to tourists, meaning the native Dutch people have to pay ridiculously high prices, or be on a waiting list for years, or simply move elsewhere. My first host in Amsterdam had to wait seven years to get her house there. Can you imagine that? Seven years to be able to buy a house in your own city!

Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t say these things in an attempt to insult or belittle people who do their traveling as tourists. And not everybody falls onto one side of the scale or another. Many people travel for short periods, but stay with locals. Many people travel for long periods, but stay in hotels. You get my drift; there is a variety in the types of tourists and travelers all across the world.

So, if you fall onto the more “tourist” side, please don’t take offence at the things I’ve said here. I say these things because I want to encourage you to broaden your horizons and to go outside your comfort zone.

Couchsurf!

Ditch the checklist.

Get to know the locals, and ask them for recommendations.

Leave your plans open to change!

Don’t be the kind of tourist that the locals frown at. Be the traveler that they are excited to educate!

After all, isn’t that the goal of traveling? We travel to educate ourselves on the places and cultures away from home.

Be a traveler, not a tourist.

I promise that your experiences will be a thousand times richer for it.

Here’s a funny little side note about Dutch people, mainly those in Amsterdam.

Most of them speak fluent English. And by “fluent,” I mean that there were even times when I learned new English words from a Dutch person.

And if a Dutch person recognizes that you are a tourist, not Dutch, they will automatically start speaking to you in English.

But it was a very rare thing for a Dutch person to approach me and assume I was a tourist. There were even times when they would say, “Oh, English? I’m sorry, I thought you were Dutch.”

As a traveler, I was flattered. I took that as one of the highest possible forms of praise.

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