More than footprints How backpacking lost its way Foreword 2/3
No one really knows how many backpackers are out there at any given time. When we fill out our arrivals cards most destinations lump us in with other tourists. Australia is one of the few countries that give us our own box to tick because, as the Australian Tourism Commission says, we ‘stay longer, travel further and spend more than other travellers’ - including business travellers and those popping over from Surrey to visit their expat kids for Christmas. Their latest figures suggest that each year over half a million tourist visas are issued to backpackers heading for Oz, and while we may still think of ourselves as ‘budget’ travellers, between us we pour well over US$3 billion into the Aussie economy annually. You can’t blame the locals for wanting to cash in. If someone came to my country with $3 billion burning a hole in their pocket, I’d build a bar on the beach too. If Goa has changed, or is more developed, or is actually ‘rubbish’ now, we can't just blame the package tourists. Someone started the process, and that someone was us – backpackers.
Reading through online backpacker forums it’s clear that (at a personal level at least) independent travellers leave home with the intention of getting closer to local people, and learning more about the local culture, than someone heading off for two weeks in the sun. And compared with an all-inclusive package resort where visitors rarely leave the hotel and contribute little to the country they’re visiting, backpacking would appear to be a comparatively benign form of tourism. But the backpacker circuit has grown way beyond its hippy origins. Fifty years after a few happy stoners went in search of enlightenment, cheap drugs and someone with a compatible star sign, backpacking has exploded. From India’s beaches to Southeast Asia’s backpacker ‘ghettos’; from Australia’s super-hostels to New Zealand’s bungy sites; ‘independent’, ‘budget’, ‘gap-year’, ‘whatever-you-want-to-call-it’ travel is more popular than ever before.
As backpacking has grown it has started to suffer from something of an identity crisis. A package holiday in southern Spain is defined by what you pay for – the flight, your hotel, and transfer to it from the airport. An advert for two weeks ‘Cruising Burma’s Irrawaddy River with stops at Inle Lake and the temples of Pagan’ is pretty self-explanatory. If you spend a week or two in the Swiss Alps, drinking gluwein, eating fondue and sliding down mountains you can come home and say “I went skiing”. But ‘I spent last year backpacking’ is a little short on specifics. Twenty years ago it would mean you were between 18 and 25 years old, probably at or near university, and from a relatively well-off background. But today the owner of a Lonely Planet guidebook could be a 40-something away from a job in the capital markets, a 50-something couple spending their children’s inheritance, or someone in their 60’s doing the trip they didn’t have the chance to take when they were younger.
Most backpackers still see themselves as separate from the tourism industry, looking down on tourists and calling themselves ‘travellers’, but we’ve spent so long waxing lyrical about Thailand that now everyone wants to visit – they just want a martini and an infinity pool when they get there. The island of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand was the world’s most diverse coconut farm when the first overland travellers arrived in the 1970s, now Chaweng Beach has boutique hotels, an international airport and the most expensive gin and tonics this side of Raffles Hotel. This might not be our cup of tea (or within our budget), but the more we’ve tried to distance ourselves from the package tourists - heading a few kilometres up or down the coast to find somewhere less 'developed' - the more we’ve dragged them along in our wake. Tourism companies keep a very close eye on us because, far from being separate from the mass tourism industry, we’ve become pioneers for it.
Backpacking has also become an industry in its own right. We always used to stay in locally-owned hostels, eat in locally-owned restaurants and our money tended to stay in local pockets, but as this new industry has grown up around us, backpacking has started to resemble package tourism in everything but name. The CEO of Nomads World, one of the larger Aussie companies which sell beds, bus journeys and activities to backpackers in vast numbers from Perth to Bangkok to Fiji is quoted as saying: “We make these young people believe they are intrepid adventurers blazing a virgin trail – in fact we provide everything on a plate”. Can we really still call backpacking ‘independent’ travel? Is there really any difference between the rapidly expanding chains of super-hostels with their bars, pools, free airport transfer and travel agents, and the all-inclusive resorts we’ve always avoided?
When I was a kid, bearded botanist David Bellamy stuck his head out of a TV jungle one day and said ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’, and for years this has been the corner-stone of (that vaguest of terms) ‘responsible’ tourism. But is it really possible? The moment we leave home we’re going to have an economic, social, cultural and environmental relationship with the people and the places we come across. Can considerations of the impact of our journeys really be limited to the flowers we pick or the litter we drop? One person may well be able to tip-toe through an Indian village leaving behind nothing but good intentions and a few poorly pronounced Namastes, but what about a hundred of us, or a thousand?
Guidebook definitions of ‘responsible’ travel tend to focus on switching off the ceiling fan when we go out and being careful of how we dispose of all those plastic water bottles, and while they do contain excellent advice on how to limit the impact of trekking or diving they rarely, if ever, talk about the numbers in which we’re now travelling. After all, they have a vested interest in encouraging more people onto the backpacker trail – and selling them a guidebook.