What is a tourist? Tourist definition

Sep 29, 2020 | Learn about tourism, Tourism management

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(Last updated on: 07/10/2020)

What is a tourist? How you define the term tourist? Is there a widely accepted tourist definition?

When we are and are not tourists is not always clear. Am I a tourist when I travel one hour on the train to London for the afternoon? Am I a tourist when I stay with my Grandma in Scotland for a week? The problem is, that there is no clear answer to these questions.

In this article I will attempt to answer the question ‘what is a tourist’ by providing you with some definitions of the term tourism, alongside some thought-provoking connotations.

what is a tourist. Tourist definition.

What is tourism?

If we want to understand what a tourist is, first we need to fully comprehend the concept of tourism.

As I explain in my article discussing the definitions of tourism, tourism is a term that has no universally accepted definition. Tourism is the generic term used to cover both demand and supply that has been adopted in a variety of forms and used throughout the world. 

Tourism essentially refers to the activities undertaken by visitors, also known as the visitor economy. The tourism industry encompasses all activity that takes place within the visitor economy. 

This includes activities that are directly related to the tourist, such as staying in a hotel, ordering a meal or visiting a tourist attraction. It also includes indirect activities, such as the transport company which delivers the food to the restaurant in which the tourist eats or the laundry company that has a contract with the hotel for cleaning bed sheets. 

It is largely due to the indirect contributions to tourism, that defining and measuring the tourism industry is so difficult!

Tourism comes in many different shapes and sizes and there are many different types of tourism. There is mass tourism, niche tourism and special interest tourism. There is domestic tourism and international tourism. There is inbound tourism and outbound tourism.

What is a tourist?

A tourist is a product of tourism. Tourists are the people who take part in tourist activities. Tourists are important stakeholders of tourism.

There are many factors that the average person associates with a tourist. I have listed a few of these below:

  • lying on a beach
  • drinking cocktails/beer/alcohol
  • visiting major tourist attractions
  • staying in a hotel
  • visiting a place with a different climate
  • packing a suitcase
  • flying on an aeroplane
  • getting a suntan

The United Nations prescribes that tourists need to stay away from their home environment for more than one night but less than one year in order to qualify as a tourist. This is the criteria that is often used and cited within the academic literature. But in reality, this is not a universal criterion at all.

In fact, it is actually somewhat problematic that there is no universal criteria for what constitutes a tourist. Lets look at an example. In 2020 tourism was all but decimated around the world due to the COVID pandemic. During the height of the pandemic in Europe and much of the rest of the world, China began to make claims that their domestic tourism industry was once again booming.

OK great. But the important question here is- what is a tourist? How did/do China, and other countries around the world, measure tourist numbers?

Is the person who lives in Shanghai a tourist when they go to The Bund for the afternoon? Are they a tourist when they take a day trip to Hangzhou? Are they a tourist when they go to stay with their aunty in Sanya?

This is not by any means a Chinese issue. This is a global issue. How can we compare tourism numbers between two or more countries unless we have hard and fast rules about what is or isn’t a tourist? It makes no sense to me at all…

The issue is that there is no clear rule about who is a tourist and who is not a tourist. Yes, there are academic debates discussing tourist typologies (e.g. Leiper, Cohen, Urry, Uriely, Wickens), but these don’t answer the basic underlying question of who is a tourist.

Whilst he also doesn’t provide any definitive answers to this problem, McCabe’s paper offers a critical review of what is a tourist, underpinned by sociological debates and concepts. I want to keep it simple in this article, but if you want to take a more in-depth look, I recommend his paper. You can read the paper here.

Am I a tourist or a traveller?

In recent years there seems to be an absurd trend that has grown, where tourists have developed a bad reputation. Tourists are portrayed as second-class citizens. Tourists are lazy. Tourists are dumb.

And this isn’t limited to the general public, it exists within the academic community too. In the tourism literature, tourists are represented in an overwhelmingly negative light, and often in critical or sociological studies in deference to more ‘superior’ forms of travel- such as backpacking.

Marty from Down the Rabbit Hole explains this perfectly- I definitely share her passion for this absurd debate!

The tourist is bad and the traveller is good- that’s what you will read if you Google the question ‘am I a traveller or a tourist’.

Most claims to differentiate between the two state that travellers are good- kinder to the environment, think more, travel slowly (i.e. backpackers), engage in cultural tourism. Whereas tourists are associated negative connotations, such as enclave tourism, economic leakage in tourism, lazing around on the beach, being drunk, taking too many photographs.

In reality, this is all a load of absolute rubbish. Are these ‘travellers’ staying away from home for a period of time? Yes. Are they visiting areas for leisure or business? Yes. Are they visiting tourist attractions? Yes.

So the reality is that these self-acclaimed ‘travellers’ are in reality- tourists.

Seriously, what a load of rubbish! This is ALL tourism!!

What I suggest has happened here is that people have attempted to differentiate between different types of tourists, by coining the terms ‘traveller and tourist’. But little do they know- the work has already been done, several times….

Within the academic community there have been many differentiations made between types of tourists. From Plog’s allocentric and psychocentric tourist typology to Cohen’s mass tourists, explorers and drifters, alongside many other studies examining tourist behaviours and motivations, clear differentiations between types of tourists have been made.

However, these typologies are not mainstream knowledge and outside of academia, most people will never have heard of this research. As such, the tourists themselves have taken it upon themselves to develop their own basic typology. The problem, however, is that they haven’t got it quite right- because in reality both classifications are indeed tourists.

what is a tourist. Tourist definition.

In response to the evident desire to differentiate between tourist types, I would like to propose that we re-name these classifications. Instead of the term traveller, we could use explorer and instead of the term tourist, we use holidaymaker. This way, we can acknowledge that both types of people are tourists, but they are not tourists in the same way.

Tourist definition

It is evident that the definition of a tourist is unclear. This makes comparability and accurate measurement of the scale of the tourism industry difficult. Whilst there is an urgent call for a universal definition to be developed and utilised, I doubt this will happen any time soon, at least not on a global scale.

Until there is a universally accepted definition of a tourist, I will propose my own tourist definition as follows:

‘A tourist is a person who travels away from where they live to partake in leisure or business [tourism] activities for a specified period of time. Types of tourists vary and tourists can sit anywhere along the spectrum between allocentric explorers and mass organised holidaymakers.’

what is a tourist. Tourist definition.

What is a tourist? To conclude

We are all tourists at some time or another. Whether we take a trip to the seaside in our own country or whether we travel to the other side of the world to be volunteer tourists, there are many different types of tourism and many different types of tourists.

Do you have anything to add on the tourist definition debate? Please leave your remarks below!



  1. The ultimate travel and tourism reading list for students, entrepreneurs and travel enthusiasts - Tourism Teacher - […] I fundamentally disagree with the title (if you are travelling for leisure then you ARE a tourist, no matter…

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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