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What is a backpacker?

Backpacking travel is a form of alternative tourism. Or is it?

It is true that backpackers have been distinguished from tourists, but is there much truth in this separation? The distinction between backpackers and tourists is reaffirmed in academic circles and in popular culture; in the arts, the media and in corporations. It is upheld in discourses of travel such as in STA’s recent backpacking travel promotional campaign, Be a Traveller, Not a Tourist, and in Lonely Planet’s foreword to its S.E. Asian guidebook series (see below).

Indeed, the reason for this dichotomy lays in peoples insecurities about mass tourism travel and all that it entails. As a researcher and a tourist, or dare I say backpacker, I make every effort as I write this article not to duplicate these rigid identity labels. Instead I wish to maintain the encounter between backpacker and tourist as one in a state of flux (we are sometimes backpacker, sometimes tourist and sometimes both). In other words, acknowledging that the difference between tourists and backpackers as one which has been constructed within a specific framework for categorising ‘backpacking’ itself (tourism – bad, backpacking - good) is the first step towards its deconstruction.

Lonely Planet Foreword

At some point on the road you’ve seen them – the ugly tourists. They step on the culture like a consumed cigarette and return home convinced of their superiority. There are various shades of this syndrome ranging from clueless to callous, and the effects on the local culture are more insidious than strip mining.’ (Lonely Planet ‘Southeast Asia on a shoestring’ 2004, page 4).

I recognise that the categories ‘backpacking’ and ‘tourism’ are positions very distinct from the myriad of individual travellers. So it has to be stressed that whilst there exist categories or types of backpacking, which I will outline below, a categorical understanding of any such traveller type is a flawed pursuit to begin with.

We are, after all, extremely different people and even our personal travel practices can only be momentarily glimpsed, let alone written down.


Suffice to say I will move forward with a typology…Yawn!

Typically backpacking tourists are understood as those travellers who demonstrate a preference for budget accommodation with a flexible travel itinerary and take longer rather than shorter holidays. This interpretation has since been rejected by many tourism researchers as it too easily dismisses differences in the backpacking travel mix (what about the flash-packers? And what about those boutique budget seekers? It’s not all ‘shoestring’ anymore).

In a 2003 publication Anders Sorenson, a noted tourism academic, defined backpacking travel as self organized tourists on a prolonged multiple destination journey with a flexible itinerary, extended beyond which it is usually possible to fit into a cyclical working and holiday pattern.

I quite like this definition.


A history of backpacking travel

In the past backpacking was viewed, socially, as something quite unusual or different at least. Yet nowadays it is seen as a ‘rite of passage’ for many, mostly Western travellers. From ‘drifter’ to ‘independent mass tourist’, ‘explorer’ to ‘sanitized’ tourism alternative’ backpackers are also referred to as ‘budget travellers’ and ‘long-term travellers’. They are also popularly framed under various other labels including ‘eco-tourists’, ‘anti-tourists’, ‘non-tourists’, ‘neo-nomads’ and ‘flash-packers’.

Backpacking travel is undoubtedly mainstreaming. It has been on the path toward institutionalization for the past forty years, and it still is. As one author writes, the validity of the ‘drifter’ or ‘explorer’ past is now up for question. Indeed, various other foundational characteristics like ‘spiritual growth’ no longer hold as much punch in today’s self-oriented consumerist backpacking culture in which partying and hedonistic consumption are so visible in places such as Khao Sarn Road, Bangkok, or the beaches of Southern Thailand.

This said, backpackers can be understood through the degree of planning involved in organising their trips (more planning as opposed to their touristic counterparts), although arguably many backpackers just book a flight and get on a plane! Backpacking has been defined through money saved and spent; through the age of travellers involved – younger/mid-20’s (again contested); through consumption habits (staying in small guesthouses, eating local, utilising local services and amenities, Laundromats and internet cafes, for example), and through the information sources used (guidebooks, websites, blogs, word-of-mouth).


And so to end

Anyway, back to my opening line … ‘backpacking is a form of alternative travel’.

Well arguably it is an alternative to going on an organised packaged tour (flights, pre-booked accommodation, and some token sight-seeing), but is it an alternative to the behaviour of such tourists? Let’s say taking photos at inappropriate times or just taking inappropriate photos. Is it alternative to the demand of those mass-tourists; having fun, consuming culture, places and local ‘people’? 

You’re thinking this is all too cynical. Okay so here’s one - perhaps it really is alternative in the personal approach to travel that backpackers take and the individual decisions that backpackers or ‘free independent travellers’ have the propensity to make.

I am a strong believer that at the root of modern tourism lays a conundrum between the self and the other. One that is perhaps born out of a pretty deeply engrained psychological Western human condition – that ‘I’ am at the centre of my world. Travel is about experiencing other people and other places, but always and already about self-actualisation. We also want to travel and see difference, but when we get there we inevitably create ‘a bit of the same’ from where we left. That’s why some types of tourism are so damaging, that’s why tourism is said to refute itself.

The ‘self’ versus ‘other’ conundrum is nowhere more evident in the ruinous nature of classic mass tourism. Yet there is so much of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ invested in the whole tourism experience, that backpackers too fall prey to this: ‘Where can ‘I’ go? What can ‘I’ do? How long can ‘I’ go there for? How much do ‘I’ have to pay? And, what can ‘I’ get out of it?

That’s not to say that backpackers cannot and do not escape this tourism trap. Indeed many do: some backpackers chose not to go, chose not to spend, and chose not to indulge in a particular tourism activity or attraction (let’s say watching the Bears dance in Ayuttaya). And maybe that’s where the ‘alternative’ in backpacking comes in, in being a ‘free-independent traveller’, in the alternative decision-making framework – backpackers are less subject to the restrictions that other ‘mainstream’ tourists knowingly or unknowingly experience.

Again I am left with the unit of the individual.

Solving tourism's central conundrum is a monumental task and requires concerted efforts of ALL stakeholders (including ALL types of tourists, agencies, governments and local residents). Many backpackers are responsible and balance extremely well their personal aim to broaden their horizons and yet attempt to learn socio-cultural, economic, ecological and political sensitivity in their travelling lives. I argue that such travel should be considered as responsible tourism when emphasis is in the attempt and not necessarily in the final achievement. Responsible backpacking tourism encourages backpackers to minimise any negative impacts on the host community. In this sense it works towards a sustainable solution to the age-old tourism conundrum, in which the ‘self’ battles with the other’, but it cannot do so alone.

So there you go – backpackers ‘the irresponsible hedonistic full-mooner’ in Haad Rin Beach, Ko Phagnan or ‘the responsible ethically informed volun-tourist’ in the community owned and operated Tea Plantation in Isaan?

All our choices are our own after all. Well…sort of!


The End

By Neil Walsh