“Are you a tourist?” There is no better question to wake the wrath of travelers faster than that. We are no tourists, thank you very much! We are travelers, adventurers, wandering free spirits, exploring the sights and people the world has to offer. So much more following in the footsteps of Magarete Mead than in search of the biggest Sangria bucket on Mallorca. Whatever you do, don’t call me a tourist, because I become more local than the locals quicker than it takes you to get up the Eiffel Tower. The world is not only my oyster, but my home. Needless to say I don’t know homesickness only wanderlust and far-sickness. Or so I would like to think…

I recently did a Friends re-run marathon and watched the one episode where Monica and Chandler have to take a small-town girl from Ohio sightseeing in New York. Especially the idea of going up the Empire State Building irks Chandler, because isn’t it more like cattle being driven from one point to another? So he deems it perfectly acceptable to utter an occasional moo at others. However after the day, he returns covered in NYC memorabilia and in love with the Empire State Building to which Monica just points out how much nicer things are if you are part of the excited crowd and not the grumpy person who moos.

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Sometimes we travelers like to moo at tourists. We frown upon the best sights, the top tens, and the people who flock them. We ditch a restaurant with a beautiful view and great food for a dingy alleyway hole, because we know that the dingy alleyway holes are always more authentic, and more authentic is always better. We take the occasional Delhi belly for it gladly as long as we can say we had an authentic experience. We admired Leonardo di Caprio sense of adventure in The Beach yet snub the very same beach in reality these days, because others liked him too and wanted to follow him into an unknown paradise and boom! – a tourist attraction was born. Nothing lost or hidden anymore about Koh Phi Phi and so we have moved on to find new paradises that are still untouched.

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I too am looking for new paradises frequently and so, I prefer to think of myself as a traveler rather than a tourist. Tourist screams Reisegruppe Sauerland (for the non-Germans: this is a phrase for a particular bad kind of group tour, usually lead by an annoying person with a big umbrella so nobody gets lost), Wiener Schnitzel in Asia, and souvenir shops with snow globes of the Taj Mahal (I just made that up, I have no idea if they make snow globes of the Taj Mahal, but if they do I’d want one – in an ironic sense of course!)

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But here is a thought – is something immediately better because it is non-touristy and off the beaten path? And mind you, that phrase is quite a beat itself, is it not?! Is there not a reason why the most crowded tourist attractions are that crowded? The views from the Empire State Building are unsurpassed and I think they are worth the crowded elevator rides and insane lines. While I did think the Mona Lisa is overrated, I would have never known for sure without seeing it myself and on the other hand Michelangelo’s David literally brought me to my knees I was so in awe.

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Tourist attractions became that for a reason, just as it happened with Koh Phi Phi, as they have something attractive to offer. And whether you care to stick a label on yourself and be called a tourist or not, some may just attract you too. But of course with everything in life different people like different things. Central Park is as much a tourist attraction as Machu Picchu, the Golden Gate Bridge or Rene Redzepi’s Noma in Copenhagen. Tourist attractions come in all shapes and sizes and while not all might be for you, neither is every thrill seeking experience or off-the-beaten-track insider tip. Just as one shouldn’t follow every fashion trend, one doesn’t need to see every tourist attraction, but maybe it is time that we stop and check what we would actually like to see when going on a trip without judging before we have even gone?

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Another notion that always strikes me as a bit odd is that some seem to think that real travel needs to be challenging in order to be rewarding. My new travel heroine Lisa Lindblad says rightly that in this day and age very few travels are still truly challenging. The times of James Cook and Roald Amundsen when traveling entailed hardship, danger, and unknown shores are long gone. Very few undiscovered places remain hidden today, and I dare say that any place that offers some wifi and a chicken bus doesn’t offer the same challenges that those explorers had to face.

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So, I think we need to look at our very own definition of today’s world before we cast the first stone towards those not challenging themselves enough when it comes to travel. And let’s not forget the obvious: we all have our own definition of comfort zone, certain things that come easy to some, make others hyperventilate. If you have never left home it might be enough newness to eat some Thai food at a fancy five-star resort to get your kicks on instead of trying the dingiest street food kitchen. And even if it ain’t a challenge – who declared travel has to be? I declare that as soon as you leave home and your comfort zone just a little, positive effects of travel set in: you will see new things, experience new things, and hopefully broaden your horizon just a bit in whichever way. Who am I to judge whether that happens in a remote village of Mongolia or overlooking the skyline of Singapore, Singapore Sling in hand? Personally I like the idea of both.

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Mind you, being both seems to be an impossible feat; overhearing conversations of some travelers you can get the feeling that we are two different species entirely, tourists and travelers, with nothing in common and no lines ever being crossed. Obviously travelers are superior to the tourists in every way that matters, that’s the group you want to belong to. Tourists are not taken very seriously, they are no competitors, because how could they be deemed worthy to compete in the games of who saw the fewest people, got the most foreign disease, and got by with the smallest amount of money? These games are for real travelers only. Mind you that is a kind of snobbery I really dislike and it seems to come from one camp only. I have yet to hear a tourist complain when a traveler tells tales; they are usually happy to listen, get inspired, and ultimately decide for themselves if they are content with their all-inclusive resort or may want to venture a little further down the rabbit hole.

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I personally want it all. I want to see the sights and find a lonely beach, have my cake at table with white linen and eat it too while sitting on a plastic stool on the road side. I want to speak to people, locals and foreign, and be alone with my thoughts. I will take a hop on/hop off bus and a chicken bus, I want travel with a group and I want travel on my own however my mood strikes me. I will be fancy with my cashmere blanket on the plane and rough it up if this means I get to hang out with elephants. I declare myself a traveler and a tourist and you can judge me if you dare!

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But maybe don’t. Instead of judging each others’ decision on how we travel, isn’t it time to applaud anyone who goes out into the world in whichever way they seem fit and can afford? Isn’t it time to take a look at how we travel, to make sure it is responsible, sustainable, and respectful towards cultures, nature, and other people? Isn’t time to blur the lines and become one species again? Just a species of humans that likes to go out into the world, cautiously or bravely, in flip flops or in Prada heels, venture near and far with a fresh sea breeze in our hair to find new horizons whatever that may mean for us.

All photos by Annika & Kathi

This post was written by Annika Ziehen who was a Travelette until 2019. Originally from Germany, Annika has lived in New York and Cape Town and now travels the world full time. She considers herself a very hungry mermaid and writes about her adventures, scuba diving and food on her blog The Midnight Blue Elephant. You can also find her on Instagram here!