Bon Touriste is a website devoted to inspiring beautiful travels, whether those travels are in our backyards, in our hearts, or in faraway lands. Let’s inspire each other to travel mindfully, thoughtfully, and with light feet and open hearts.
What is a bon touriste?
So, what does bon touriste actually mean? Quite simply, it is French for “good tourist,” something I always hope to embody whether I’m at home in my backyard or miles and miles away on foreign soil. And it sounded a whole lot prettier in French than in English, so I went with that.
But why tourist, and not traveler?
Well, this would take a chapter of my dissertation to explain, but simply speaking, the words tourist and traveler don’t actually differ that much in their literal definition: to move in some way. A quick history lesson: tour comes from the Old French tor or tourn, a word first identified circa 1300 that means “a turn, trick, round, circuit, circumference,” from torner, tourner “to turn,” and travel comes from the late 14th century word travailen, or, “to journey,” “to make a journey,” “to toil, labor.” The semantic development may have been via the notion of “go on a difficult journey,” but it also may reflect the difficulty of any journey in the Middle Ages.
But, because words are never without connotation, they have come to mean radically different things.
Let me explain.
In popular imagination, the words “tourist” and “traveler” are often perceived as being irreconcilable, the first often being paired with largely impersonal and commercial language used in tourism studies and advertising whereas the second often connotes the personal, picaresque style of travel writing. Taking this even further, the lines between tourist and traveler are perhaps even more delineated in popular media and travel blogging communities: the tourist, one without agency, lies on one end of the spectrum as the packaged tourist, the one who takes the tacky pictures and travels in a large group, the traveler on the other, the independent one getting “off the beaten path” and living in a constant state of nostalgia and dreams.
Consider these examples, taken from the web: In a recent Huffington Post article, “21 Signs You’re a Traveler, Not a Tourist,” the blogger lists a number of requirements that will help readers determine their allegiance to the “traveler” side of the spectrum by including such criteria as:
1. You dream about your next trip during your morning commute.
2. Solo travel is your jam.
3. You wouldn’t be caught dead doing this. Like ever. (The “this,” in this case, is a photograph of an Asian tourist posing in exactly the same fashion as the obsidian-colored statue of a woman she is standing next to).
4. Or this. (The “this,” in this instance, is a photograph of a white woman “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Piza in Italy). 5. Homesickness happens. But you don’t make it a point to head to the nearest McDonald’s/Starbucks/Pizza Hut every chance you get.
While I won’t list all 21 attributes the blogger includes (you can read the article on HuffPo if you want!), I include the first few to offer a small illustration of how the notion of a traveler is constructed in our world. This blog’s list is not unique, either—even the editable instructions site Wikihow offers a list of tips for being a traveler and not a tourist, introducing the concept by writing that “[t]he tourist is someone more concerned with making all the right moves, visiting all the popular destinations and having the photos to prove it. The traveler, on the other hand, is someone who wants to experience another culture and to avoid the popular spots as much as possible.” These constructs are not exceptions but rather very common illustrations that enlist the use of a binary to distinguish different traveling persons across a spectrum.
We are all tourists.
So, because I want to do things a little differently, because I love the histories of words and I like to run against the grain, I am reclaiming tourist. That word so often conflated with bad travel, ignorance, a passing-through, a lack of engagement with the local community, because I love where the word came from–from its roots in tornos, or circle, movement around a central point or axis. Not where it is now.
As William F. Theobold argues in Global Tourism, when the word tornos transferred to English, became tour, and added the suffixes –ism and –ist, “tour” became “tourism” and “tourist,” and came to refer to an action or a person performing an action. In this transference, the notion of a circular motion dissolved and was replaced by the idea of a tour having a distinct beginning, middle, and end. I believe that we, as 21st century privileged travelers with the utmost privilege of telling our stories and the stories of others, need to return to the idea of a circle, as it represents not a spectrum, not a line of either/or, but more as a welcoming metaphor that represents a blurring between starting points, journeys, and returns.
I like the idea of turning, or rounding, or circumscribing a place…it seems to suit me.
Do you agree?
Yours in travel,