Via Blogbharti, I landed up at As I see it, where Ms. N has an interesting post on travel snobbery. While her point is on travellers looking down on non-travellers, it set me thinking about the distinction between travellers and tourists which seems to have become very popular stuff these days.

The fundamental premise seems to be that travellers experience the culture and places they travel to, while tourists just tick off a number of places on their list, usually very popular ones. The traveller then feels highly superior to the tourist, superior for his immersion in a culture, his off-beat destinations and his therefore superior experiences. The tourist is some sort of dumb person who talks too loudly and mainly gawks at Big ben or the Taj mahal before returning home.

Now, I am not going to argue this from the perspective that one should not be judgemental. Hell, how many times are you really non-judgemental about others’ choices? And I am not even sure that every choice is sacrosanct and not to be examined, just because its personal.

Rather, my take on this is, that to be a traveller, in the sense of what many “travellers” truly consider to be one, takes time, and by association money. Before people jump up and say that many travellers do extremely budget travel, money does not just mean comfortable budget on-road. It also means a fairly tolerable or comfortable situation, or security net. Think young Western (white usually) traveller hitting the road with a minimum of money and therefore roughing it out at budget destinations, eating at the cheapest places, travelling second class only etc. This person is still affluent by comparison to many third world country citizens. For one, thing, he/she has the luxury of taking time off a job ! This could be because, on return, even if a job is not available, there is still an unemployment benefit available, which, even if tiny, will atleast pay for some things. In most developing economies, such safety nets are unavailable.

Then, a Western culture is largely based on being responsible for and making the most of one’s one life. Children’s education/marriage etc are important but not something to be saved up for. In India, would middle class or even fairly well-to-do people consider long travel something justifiable in the face of such responsibilities? Definitely, the way we look at travel will depend on these cultural factors, and not just whether we are dolts looking to cross stuff off a list handed down by a guidebook. Sometimes, the most popular places may just be the cheapest ones to get to. Not everyone knows how to get to those off-beat destinations, not everyone can afford to, or feels confident enough travelling on their own.

Again, travelling cheap seems to have become some sort of an ideal in itself, with message boards often echoing with discussions of who travels cheapest. Its not uncommon to hear Westerners saying for e.g., that you haven’t “really” travelled India if you haven’t done second class. But this is such reverse snobbery. The only ones who can glorify cheap like this are those who’ve never had to do it compulsorily. All through my childhood, we travelled second class. Yes, it was fun looking out of the windows, it was fun meeting other kids, it was fun feeling the wind in our faces. But – it was no fun when mean looking people occupied your seats, it was no fun using unbelievably smelly toilets. Certainly not when we didn’t have a sanitised Western country to get back to. So I have no hassle in saying that as far as possible, I try to travel AC today, when I can afford it. Whats with this business of the “real” thing being poor and as far from your culture as possible ? Thats called exotic I think, not real. But these are the people who smugly pat themselves for being travellers, not tourists.

I wholly agree that as much as possible, it is worthwhile trying to understand other places and cultures while travelling. But, I may have little time to do that, on my 10 day holiday, which is all I can afford. I don’t think that should tag me as a dumb tourist, or have anyone tell me that I shouldn’t be travelling. While part of the fun is in meeting new people and learning, sometimes travel is also just a means of relaxation. We each try to experience the world in our own ways, and so long as we try to be respectful of other people while we’re travelling, I think we’re doing good enough. Beyond that, this whole traveller versus tourist thing is such a Western mindset that comes from a background of affluence. So can we realise that travel is not some sort of contest as to who travels cheapest/farthest/most out-of-the-way and stop this snobbery please…