It was one of those days. I had an impending deadline and words seemed to elude me. I made my way to the quirky XVA Art Hotel & Cafe in the Al Fahidi historical district—one of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods—to get some writing done. As I worked, a group of tourists entered the café for a quick look. Dubai has expats from all over the world but it’s still easy to spot those who are visiting. Most tourists don’t make it as far as Al Fahidi, giving it a pass for Dubai’s numerous big-ticket attractions. Those who do, get a peek into the traditional Emirati way of life, prevalent before the discovery of oil.
From the corner of my eye, I caught a couple posing under the gnarled ficus tree in the centre. I didn’t blame them, the café is a highly Instagrammable place. Another lady had her phone out and was recording a video or doing an Insta live.
Having made it to Al Fahidi, this group certainly ticked the box of immersing itself in a city by exploring local culture. Did this, then, make them travellers as opposed to tourists? Used interchangeably, the two words often elicit polarising opinions. I wondered if there is indeed a difference between the two or whether it’s just semantics? Alex Garland wrote in his novel, The Beach: “Tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else. They travelled.”
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a traveller is someone who is travelling and a tourist is someone who visits a place and does not live there. Over the years, as travel has grown into one of the largest revenue-generating sectors globally, there has been increasing chatter about the downsides of over-tourism, and tourists bear the brunt of much criticism. Many who identify as travellers also tend to look down on tourists. Shivya Nath, writer and founder of Climate Conscious Travel, which seeks to promote community-centric climate action in tourism, says, “I think the labels don’t matter and often create friction where there should be none.”
Ritu Sharma, deputy director and marketing head of Switzerland Tourism in India, says: “Yes, there’s definitely a difference between a traveller and a tourist. Whereas the tourist is someone who is visiting the country to see the greatest highlights, whether it’s nature, art or culture, the traveller is someone who is there to discover more about the country, its people, its culture, its food, its style of living, and thereby having a more immersive experience of the country.”
As someone who travels often, at times I identify with being a traveller, at others a tourist, and sometimes both simultaneously. While I love slow travel, I am happy to go with the flow and open to unexpected encounters. If I go to Peru, I would like to see Machu Picchu. If travel is about growing as a person and learning to be more accepting of differences of every kind, travellers too should be open to all styles of travel.
Post-covid, travel has seen a massive resurgence. According to the UN World Tourism Organization website, international arrivals drew closer to 80% of pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2023. More than 230 million tourists travelled internationally from January-March this year. Travel has a wide impact on places, people, and, as studies show, the entire planet. Whatever we choose to call ourselves, the way we travel is of far greater significance. “The more important thing is to understand that we are all on a journey, where the ultimate goal should be to make better choices on the road that positively impact people and places,” adds Nath.
As demand for immersive travel experiences grows, companies have sprung up to cater to this need. Not only do they offer something unique, they also focus on giving back to the local community.
London-based Zina Bencheikh, managing director (Europe, Middle East & Africa) of Intrepid, the world’s largest certified B Corp travel company (certifying that it meets high standards of verified performance, accountability and transparency across several factors ranging from governance to the environment), says: “Both travellers and tourists can bring value but when we are looking at visiting a destination, we should all strive to have a ‘traveller’ mindset to make sure we are having a positive impact on the people and places we visit. Doing things like staying in local accommodation and eating at local restaurants ensures tourism dollars stay in the local economy and visiting places off the tourist trail can also help mitigate over-tourism and spread the benefits of travel.”
Over 30 years, Intrepid has focused on ensuring more people across the value chain benefit from tourism. “This is a style of travel we encourage at Intrepid and design our itineraries around. Our small group size means we can support small family-run restaurants and other independent businesses or suppliers. That could range from staying on a farm with a local family in Costa Rica or having a bread-making workshop with local women in Morocco,” says Bencheikh.
Even countries like Switzerland that attract larger groups of tourists are developing experiences that allow for a deeper interaction with the country, its people and culture. “For Switzerland tourism, both travellers and tourists are important but given the immense importance of sustainable tourism, we do encourage visitors to be travellers, or, even better, sustainable travellers. Sustainable travel doesn’t necessarily mean having to go without. Sustainable travel means greater awareness and depth and more enjoyment,” says Sharma.
So, whether we travel to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves or to get away from our routine, experience the world or visit historical sites, making better choices is of paramount importance. How we choose to describe ourselves is merely a linguistic conundrum. But the impact we create is entirely in our control—and that is what needs all our attention.
Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based travel and culture writer.