More than footprints How backpacking lost its way Foreword 3/3
There is a, quite bad, film out there called The Art of Travel (and it’s a shame that it chose the same title as the really very good book by Alain de Botton). The film begins with a quotation: “Do not go where the path might lead. Go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.” However much that line may resemble one of those enlightening Facebook quotes which looks like it might mean something profound but is actually just some words over a picture of a sunrise, it sums up the very reason why we need to change our approach to backpacking. Backpacking today is not about blazing trails. There are few trails left to blaze. Getting off the beaten track merely creates more track, and in ten years that track will have a Sheraton on it.
With millions of us out there, spending billions between us, and with an industry waiting for us with open arms, backpacking has developed a few issues, which is a shame because catching the Jan Shatabdi Express from Mumbai to Aurangabad in the morning is a lot more fun than catching the number 13 bus to work. The money we spend, the attitude we travel with, the things we as consumers demand, informs local people’s opinions of tourists and tourism for the next wave of travellers. If Goa has indeed been ‘ruined’ by tourism then we backpackers, I’m afraid, bear quite a lot of the responsibility. And this isn’t a very pleasant thought personally because given the amount of backpacking that I’ve done, I can count myself among the main offenders. So what’s my responsibility?
On that miserable Cambridgeshire morning, as I sat down in the same seat on the same bus opposite the same woman with her Sudoku puzzle book, the plan for my next career-ending journey was starting to form; one last gap-year to find out what impact my own travels had had over the years; following in my own footsteps to see how those destinations have changed, and what role I’d played in those changes (not least my size-12 carbon footprint). Six months firmly on the beaten track from the beaches of Goa, up through India, down through Southeast Asia and on to Oz and the US to find the answers to some of the questions the backpacking industry doesn’t seem to be asking: questions about guidebooks and ‘ghettos’, voluntourism and super-hostels; about working conditions for those who cater to backpackers’ needs (like why is there always a bottle of shampoo and a toothbrush in the restaurant toilet?). The negative impact of mass-tourism is well-documented, but what about backpacking? Do local people really benefit from thousands of us turning up and asking for a cheese and tomato jaffle?
And should we really be trying to leave nothing behind but footprints, or should we be trying to leave more of the right things? How can backpackers travel ‘sustainably’ and make a positive contribution to those places we pass through?