What defines a ‘Tourist’?

As previously mentioned, I will soon be in San Francisco. The goal, at least initially, was to be a ‘tourist’. Previous visits to the city by the Bay were either business or medical related, and I never really had the chance to simply enjoy the city.

But this got me thinking – What exactly constitutes whether a person is a tourist or not? Being one who works with regulations on a regular basis, clear, unambiguous definitions help clarify roles and requirements. But as I’ve never really thought about tourists before, I can’t say I know what makes one.

Part of the issue is the negative connotation of the word. Living in Seattle, where we see our fair share of tourists, the word itself brings forth the idea that these are people who are not from here, and have no clue as to the actual reality of the our fair city. There’s Seattle from Frasier and Grey’s Anatomy, and then there’s the real actual city which bears little in resemblance to what one sees on television. Tourists believe in the former, citizens know of latter. So what defines ‘tourist’ is ignorance.

This definition is a bit unfair. People who visit our city can come armed with an entire guidebook of knowledge, either from Frommer’s or obtain from friends and relatives who either have already visited, or actually live here. A tourist may know enough about Seattle culture to avoid Starbuck’s whilst here, and instead visit one of the many independent coffee shops.

Perhaps a tourist is defined by their predilection to visit specific locales in a given area. Tourists visit Fisherman’s Wharf, something that locals tend to avoid? But again, this definition doesn’t always work. While most of us in Seattle avoid the Space Needle, Pike Place Market is just as likely to be packed with us locals as it is with out-of-towners.

Perhaps a ‘tourist’ is a traveler who wears their ethnocentrism on their sleeve, either intentionally or otherwise. The Ugly American is the poster child for this definition, although a bit unfairly applied I might add. Many traveling cultures are boorish. The British who holiday in Spain are known to leave an unfavorable impression upon the locals, and I’ve heard more than a few unpleasant things about the Italian who go to Oktoberfest in Munich. I’m of the belief that such behavior is either a Western trait, or perhaps even universal in nature. I need more data points to make an educated guess on this. The point is, collectively, we all behave like this in some manner.

My conclusion is that a tourist is a traveler who carries some aspect of the characteristics mentioned above, topped off with a frosted layer of naiveté. Traveling can and does bring with it the onset of wanderlust, which can shape and alter ones perception of any given area, so much so that it’s perceived markedly different from those who interact with that same area on a regular basis. This leads me to the conclusion that there are different degrees of ‘tourist’. Some are enthralled by Hard Rock Cafe’s, and readily buy into the image that various tourism boards are trying to create, other’s become enamored with the idea of being ‘someplace else’, and find that the charm of a location is proportional to the distance from their home, or how many times they’ve visited the site before.

I like this definition. It means that for those of us who travel for pleasure, we’re all tourists to some degree or another. There’s something comforting in that idea.