I hate the word tourist. I seriously have a near-unnatural dislike of that word and everything that it implies. When I think of tourists, I think of baseball caps, money belts, and worst of all, backpacks worn across the front. I think of crowds dressed in matching polo shirts squinting in confusion at subway maps and Americans speaking in loud, shrill voices at confused hotel employees and sale clerks. I think of people who proudly claim to have traveled to a country because they walked through the airport that one time and look, check out my passport stamp!
I hate more than just the word tourist. I tend to hate tourists themselves. Which can be problematic as I, myself, am often a tourist.
Usually I do everything I can to avoid being classified under this category. I was a student in London and needed to entertain myself , so I went to a lot of museums. When I wandered around New York, I was just filling time after my job interviews. I'm not a tourist when I go to new cities in Korea, I'm just a teacher living in Korea and trying to see more of the country. And in Cambodia, where I just returned from, I was so turned off the notion of being a tourist that I actually referred to myself once as a "traveler."
If you don't get how ridiculous this claim was, let's review the facts: I was on a group tour, I was only traveling for about 15 days, I had pre-arranged flights to and from the region, I saw many famous, important sights in very few days, I took a ton of pictures of said sights, and I bought several souvenirs - including postcards.
Nice try, Anna, but that's about as touristy as you can get without wearing a tan steel-strap-reinforced money belt around your neck.
A traveler is, in my mind, far more independent than a tourist such as me. They are not likely to join group tours, they travel at a leisurely pace, taking however much time they want wherever they go, and therefore they leave whenever they feel like it. I imagine souvenirs are bought far less than the necessities that spring up along the way. Travelers are the people who decide they would like to see Southeast Asia, get on a plane the next week, and find their way around on public buses and guesswork and charm for however many months or even years they feel like. They may have some general plans about where they go and what they do, but these plans are quite flexible. They may have a date they have to return to their home, probably to return to work, but everything before that very day is just time they have to fill however they please.
Sorry for waxing romantic there about the life of a traveler as I see it, which I'm pretty much making up as I write this (I don't think I could ever be classified as one myself) - hence the romanticism. But as soon as I told some of the other people on the tour that I'd rather consider myself a traveler than a tourist, I realized just how silly that was.
So I've finally given myself the necessary kick in the skull and accepted my identity as a tourist. What now? The fact is, "tourist" is a very general term, and refers to so many different people at so many different times that, thankfully, not all tourists need to don the steel-enforced money belt. As much as I may wish I was the wanderer/traveler type, I'm not. But I can at least be a good tourist.
I think the breakdown between good and bad tourists is simple. I think most good tourists try to support hotels, restaurants, and businesses that send money to the people who deserve/need it. This is especially a problem in countries with corrupt governments like Cambodia. Just buy any decent travel guide - they usually include recommendations of places that are locally-owned or give a portion of the profits to charity. Good tourists also learn a little of the language. Knowing "hello" "thank you" and maybe “where is such-and-such” can get you a little appreciation and respect from locals. And it REALLY helps to have a good sense of humor and a calm disposition. If you get stressed or aggravated, you'll take it out on people who are trying to help you and leave them with a bad impression of you and other tourists. Plus, it makes the whole experience of traveling a lot more fun if you're, you know, actually in a good mood.
Unfortunately, there's another dimension one can classify tourists by, and that's how annoying they are. That's where all that polo shirt/steel-reinforced money belt/squinting at a subway map stuff comes into play. Such tourists can be, and I'm sure often are, good tourists - but that doesn't make them any less screamingly obvious. I try to avoid being the annoying tourist in addition to the bad tourist. I study the map before I leave the hotel and I carry only small amounts of money in my front pocket. This is all really a matter of personal preference - I just like looking as natural and confident as possible in unfamiliar settings (although it's not as if I don't stand out here in Asia).
Anyway, the moral of the story is that I traveled to Southeast Asia wishing fervently I was a traveler but of course being a total tourist anyway. Thus, in acceptance of my tourist status, I tried to be the best and least annoying tourist I could. Pictures will be up soon.