- Travel is almost always a social activity, whether we like or not.
- Tourists and travelers are rather different from each other.
- We often give travel advice because it helps us, as well as to help others.
There are invariably other people around when we travel, including family, friends, bystanders, and the residents of the places we visit. Decisions we make about where, when, and how to travel are typically made with others in mind, even if we are not deliberately travelling with them. Have you ever selected a destination precisely to avoid (or seek) the crowd?
Travel, in other words, is social in nature.
Even at the planning stage, decisions about where to go and with whom are seldom solely about our individual choice. Social psychologists stress that our intentions are compromised by other people. We are easily swayed by prevailing routines and social norms.
Imagine you are trying to decide whether to visit Ibiza, Alaska, or Chihuahua. Your plans will probably be affected by social mediators, such as the potential for social encounters (Who else will be there?), our perceived social group identity (Will I fit in with the kinds of people who will be there?), or an urge to conform or be different (Are other people going or will I be the only one?). Where and how we travel depends on how much we identify with or feel comfortable in certain social situations. A perceived lack of social competence in a social situation (cruise, hen party, pilgrimage, chess convention), may interfere with our plans. A decision, for example, about whether to go to a jazz festival or a silent retreat may well be affected by feelings of belongingness to a group. This said, the good news is that such group allegiances are far from fixed. For example, after your third world cruise, you might start to feel you belong a little more.
What is the difference between a traveller and a tourist?
Many of us people-watch at train stations and airports, leading us to categorise our fellow passengers. We may ask ourselves, which of these people are travellers and which are tourists? It is often said that tourist is a label we reserve for others, and traveller is what we like to call ourselves. In his novel about clashing cultures of North America and North Africa, The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles distinguished tourists, who enjoy visiting diverse locations for short periods, from travellers, who like to roam and are as comfortable in long-term transit as they are at home. Tourists often do their travelling under the protection of travel companies who do most of the organising and booking for them. Meanwhile, travellers roam relatively unprotected and are likely to have direct contact with culturally diverse people as they wander away from the beaten track.
A continuum of traveller types, from explorers to conservatives
Do you interact with host communities (a.k.a. "locals") when you travel, or would you rather keep your distance? A continuum has been proposed, to distinguish between so-called dependents, conservatives, explorers, and belonging-seekers, based on how much we like to interact with local communities whilst on our travels.
- Dependents typically travel in established groups (friends, relatives, parties) as part of a package tour, on short-term visits, and generally avoid extended or informal interactions with hosts.
- Conservatives have more host contact, though mainly to gain information or guidance. Communications with hosts typically involve speaking with local tourist representatives, hotel staff, tour guides, or taxi drivers.
- Explorers are more open to social contact with hosts and are eager to find out about them through casual conversation, often in the local language. Explorers determinedly stray into non-tourist sites and seek out locations that are off the tourist trail.
- Belonging-seekers, the most intrepid of all, self-identify as travellers, not tourists. They engage with locals, sharing experiences, participating in quotidian life. If invited, they visit hosts’ homes, share authentic cultural experiences, and report positive attitudes to a place and its residents. They often seek employment and learn the language.
This continuum is handy and informative, and can also be fluid. A visitor may begin as a conservative, yet the passage of time and cultivation of interest may see them flourish into belonging-seekers.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg once said that nothing influences travellers more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. These trusted friends typically belong to online influencer communities. We don’t generally know them personally. Online word of mouth has overtaken old-school alternatives (asking neighbours and friends) as the go-to source for travel guidance. Over three-quarters of travellers consult online customer reviews when booking hotels. User-generated reviews are the dominant travel marketing promotional tool.
Why do some of us feel the need to offer travel tips to strangers? One motivation may be a resulting glowing feeling of belongingness to an imagined community of travellers. Writing travel advice can make us helpful or accepted by travel peers we will never encounter. Sharing travel tips can also be motivated by altruism (a social urge to be helpful) or by a desire for increased self-esteem.
Other rewards for online trip advising include enjoyment, a desire to exert power over large companies, and, of course, letting off steam or wanting to become an influencer. Trip advisors can be labelled as altruists (predisposed to help), careerists (keen to become influencers), hipsters (seeking connectedness), boomerangs (comment and like seekers), and connectors (keen to share).
Yet not all travellers write reviews. A large, silent majority of lurkers read reviews but don’t post, perhaps over concerns of security. Whatever the reason, it is worth remembering when planning your next adventure that most online trip advice is produced by a vocal minority.
We usually travel together, whether we like it or not.
Social psychology helps us understand various aspects of travel behaviour, such as purchasing patterns, travel typologies and trip advising. Above all, this branch of psychology reminds us that every phase of the travel adventure, from planning through experiencing and reviewing, takes place amongst bystanders, advisers, followers, and companions, all of whom combine to ensure that solitary travel is virtually impossible.
Bowles, P. (1949) The Sheltering Sky, London: Penguin
Fan (2017) Tourist Typology in Social Contact: An Addition to Existing Theories. Tourism Management 60:357-36
Ma, W. W. K., & Chan, A. (2014). Knowledge sharing and social media: Altruism, perceived online attachment motivation, and perceived online relationship commitment. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 51–58.
Munar, A. M., & Jacobsen, J. K. S. (2014). Motivations for sharing tourism experiences through social media. Tourism Management, 43, 46–54
Stevenson, A. (2023), The Psychology of Travel London: Routledge
Yoon, Y., Kim, A. Kim, J., Choi, J. (2019) The effects of eWOM characteristics on consumer ratings: evidence from TripAdvisor.com, International Journal of Advertising, 38:5, 684-703,
Yoo, K. H., & Gretzel, U. (2008). What motivates consumers to write online travel reviews? Information Technology & Tourism, 10(4), 283–295.