Deathknell for the backpacker?

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May 27th 2013
Published: May 27th 2013
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This missive was largely inspired by a posting to by “HisDudeness” regarding the conversations backpackers typically strike-up with each other. I was going to talk generalizations and stereotypes that pertain to those who consider themselves one of this strange breed (myself included), but eighteen months into my current travels in southern Asia I am struck by how much the average backpacker is morphing into a whole new species: the “flashpacker” and their instantly recognizable variant the “trolleypacker”. Indeed the title “backpacker” seems to be increasingly used with derision.

I am a backpacker. I am not a person who simply dons a backpack when they head off for a couple of weeks’ vacation; I am a traveller, a somewhat smug individual who cannot help but feel just a little superior to the mere holidaymaker with their rigid time-frames and limited options. I have the freedom to go anywhere on a whim, the world is my oyster and a small chip sits on my shoulder. In all of this I am increasingly far from alone.

Years ago I would have been in my early to mid-twenties, now I could be almost any age. Backpacking was for pre-university or pre-conformity (a real job and a real life). Before I would have to make every penny/cent count in an effort to extend my window and this frugality was a badge of honour. I would endure and delight in my hardiness: cold showers (or mandis – bucket and scoop); squat toilets; Spartan rooms with sheet-less and pillow-less beds, obviously without a shower or toilet attached, but typically with additional residents - the only welcome ones being geckos. Journeys involved being crammed into, hanging out of, or perched on top of chicken buses; if you were lucky it was a hard seat on a train and then you’d have to share it anyway. Roadside food was the only affordable option - if it had been recently fried it was safe; the possibility of a scrambled egg, smoothie or pancake was a sure sign that you had entered gringo/farang central. Water purification tablets were an essential when off the-beaten-track.

Today few destinations require toilet hygiene without accompanying paper, although you may still be asked to dispose of it in a bin (interestingly, in parts of Sumatra used toilet paper is recycled: compacted and used as fuel). The once essential sanitation cocoon of a sleeping bag is largely a thing of the past. A room without complimentary TV is sometimes impossible to come by and there may even be towels and toiletries provided. There are booking agencies for every form of transport. In many countries there are tourist sleeper buses with beds. Bottled water and its problem detritus is everywhere, although many countries are beginning to adopt re-filling stations.

Communication with the outside world was once erratic and slow. A phone call home (invariably reverse charges) indicated a dire emergency (usually a request for additional funds) and necessitated finding a telephone exchange. You would anticipate arriving in a designated city with a post-restante service like a child does Christmas and later, whilst replying to your mail, you would sit pondering the right choice of words for each post card sentence and apply them in microscopic script. Today’s flashpackers have phones with global access or acquire a local SIM card as a priority on arrival. Internet cafes are ubiquitous and wifi hotspots can be found in the most remote locations (bizarrely IT-savvy India lags behind poverty-stricken Laos, Cambodia and Nepal in this respect).

So, these days you can pretty much leave your sleeping bag at home, forget the sarong (lightest towel substitute and still far better than today’s modern micro efforts – these dry too slowly and soon smell damp), rely on gratis toiletries, not have to de-tube all those rolls of Andrex, save on leg work (book your train and guesthouse on-line, as well as sitting comfortably on a western-style throne) and be assured of a good night’s sleep on overnight journeys. Now there are ATMs everywhere negating the need to while away a few pleasant hours in an Indian bank in awe of their impressive stacks of paperwork and admiring the Sikh security’s blunderbuss. Battle-of-wits black market money transactions are all but obsolete.

Consequently, unless you’re traveling across much of sub-Saharan Africa (historically off the backpackers’ trail due to the lack of infrastructure and consequent elevated costs) then it’s just all so easy these days, or is it? Backpacks are no lighter with the jettisoned essentials now replaced with a myriad of wires, cables and electronics. Timing and logistics are ever more complex with visa durations being slashed and their inflated size munching their way through your passport, plus the rules are forever changing regarding multi- and double-entry visas (thank heavens India has recently dropped its constraining re-entry policy). In a drive to save money U.K. citizens may now only obtain a new passport at a single Asian destination – Hong Kong – and even then it must be partially processed back in Britain. Flights may be cheaper and more abundant than they once were, but who wants to fly everywhere and how responsible is this anyway? Meanwhile, once cheap ferries and trains – social, meet-the-locals, transportation - are continuously cut. The local ferries linking various villages across lake Erhai Hu near Dali in China have been axed. And why have they been chopped? To force the visiting moneyed Chinese to pay for tourist boat tours: neither the locals nor backpackers patronize these market villages as much as they once did, to the villagers’ cost. The Penang to Belawan ferry: superseded by cut-price Air Asia flights…

To my mind nationality demographics of those backpacking haven’t changed that much, although they are largely influenced by continent. The world may have sprinted forwards but it is still the same privileged (and inclined) nationals that you find on the road. In terms of population sizes the Irish, Kiwis, Dutch and Israelis are over represented, although the Brits are still the most numerous. I see the Australians, French (heavily weighted towards their ex-colonies such as Laos), Germans and Scandinavians as parity whilst North Americans and the remaining Europeans are comparatively thin on the ground. The Japanese (and increasingly the Russians) get everywhere, but are on ridiculously tight schedules. The Chinese, South Americans, Indians and ASEANs are all traveling within their own spheres, distance limited for now by funds; whilst, typically, Americans seem largely focused on their own 50 (admittedly varied, beautiful and expansive) States. Stereotypically, the Americans who are backpacking tend to be from the coasts or more remote States such as Alaska; the Brits are most likely to be the obnoxious drunkards (some new competition here from the Russians); the Israelis are young, travel in packs and do little without the accompaniment of a spliff; whilst the Australians are less bigoted/chauvinistic than their stay-at-home brethren; oh, and the French are more polite and deign to submit to the English language. Meanwhile the Spanish youth is increasingly seeing travel as a valid escape from its economic gloom. Of course generalizations are just that: the only camera-less person I’ve ever seen on the road was Japanese whilst I met a vehemently anti-smoking French man and a short Dutch guy just the other day.

So, although it is broadening, it is still essentially the same nationalities globe-trotting. The sex ratios, whether they are solo travelers, pairs, or groups, seems to have changed minimally in the last 25 years and is not far off 50:50. That said there are definitely far more romantically-linked couples braving the 24-hour exposure than ever before.

However, without a doubt, the biggest revolution is in the elevated age of the backpacker (and I, of course, add to this statistic). People’s mentalities have certainly changed and consequently there are early retirees spending their children's inheritances, people traveling between contracts or just dissatisfied and unwilling to comply with traditional values of responsibilities, pensions and saving for the future; there again, many individuals from wealthy countries have opted out of parenting and are less tied to the treadmill. On top of this your average privileged youngster is now more likely to be pushed into doing something of value – volunteering to a worthy cause – during a gap-year rather than just experiencing horizon-broadening travel (at least independent travel enforces decision making and self-reliance). Regardless, there are definitely less very young on the road and far, far more crusties. And what is the primary effect of this shift in age demographics? Exponential backpacker inflation: maturity = money = profligacy = death of budget options. I am reminded of the plight of Britain’s native red squirrel that is increasingly out-competed by the interloping grey onslaught.

Astoundingly, many of the youngsters who are out there seem to have little interest in thrift: they book accommodation on-line (no room for negotiating a price there: guesthouse prices are doubling in Indonesia every two years), are willing to pay way more for food and drink if the establishment’s ambiance is just that little better (and serving something western or, more to the point, it happens to be listed in Lonely Planet), whilst actually organising a train or bus at the station themselves seems never to have occurred to them (reasoning that a $3 commission to the guest house is neither here nor there). Indeed why take a crowded public bus when a tourist charter is only $10 more (even though this may be five times the public option)? And walking to your destination… Let’s face-it, a suitcase on wheels suddenly loses its practicality when confronted with a mile hike up a boulder-strewn mud road. All this lethargy and lack of effort… How long before we see a generation of obese flashpackers?

It has always been expensive, often prohibitively so, to travel in very poor developing countries as there just isn’t the infrastructure, whilst the wealth present in certain developed cities make them equally difficult to experience on a budget. Not so many years ago the latter list wasn’t so long: think London, Tokyo, Paris, Rome, Scandinavia… But now the increasing age/wealth/indolence of today’s flashpackers is slowly strangling our options further with the “elite” cities being joined by backpacker mainstays such as Rio, Singapore, Sydney, even Bangkok, the list goes on and on. Here the new breed of travelers are demanding higher standards and are content to pay for them, sounding the deathknell for the cheap and cheerful. Compounding this are new “discoveries” such as Koh Phayam in Thailand (not to be confused with the well-established party island of Koh Phangan) where grassroots developments charge upmarket prices because the clientele isn’t merely backpacker and they can. Meanwhile “fringe” destinations like the Indian Andaman Islands are increasingly focusing on the wealthy diving and deep-sea-fishing tourists who, by their hobbies definitions, can afford grander lodgings: few accommodation options on Havelock Island are accessible now to the backpacker.

Really, old school backpacking is still no bloody holiday. And try telling that to people on your return.

The old adage of personal safety being reliant on avoiding ostentatious displays of wealth is incredibly blurred these days: my compact Nikon camera is very much a poor man’s tool alongside the massed ranks of digital SLRs that everyone else is carrying. And then you have iPhones… How do people finance running these whilst halfway around the world? But there again, the locals throughout Asia look at me as though I’m mad if it ever comes to their attention that I don’t have a cell phone. Yes I am, admittedly, for the first time, traveling with a notepad. In my defense I have old parents and need to stay in touch . No one is going to write to me on paper anymore and indeed do post-restantes even still exist? I detest internet cafés (read insular dengue hang-outs) and hell, the bloody thing pays for itself in six months of internet café avoidance; indeed, doggerel such as this can be knocked-out when a quiet moment avails itself (Ali is currently laid up with a stomach bug) without having to actively seek out a lonely computer terminal.

The much derided (no one more so than me) backpackers’ bible – the Lonely Planet travel guides – still remains unchallenged (as much as a real alternative is sorely needed) but is progressively selling-out to cover the whole (wealthier) market. Even its “… on a shoestring” offerings list more mid-range than budget accommodation options these days. Yes, we all admire those guidebook-less souls feeling it out for themselves on the ground, but even the notoriously inaccurate LP maps do at least (mostly) provide a reasonable estimation of bus/train station to town spatial relationships and offer the potential for walking rather than the knee-jerk reflex of catching a rickshaw or taxi.

The primary accelerant fueling the backpacker’s demise is cut-price airlines (yes, of course, I also use them when I have to fly): responsible for making the world too accessible to profligate tourists; although mobile phone and computer booking has emboldened the previously more timid would-be adventurer. In technology’s defense there are now blogs. Before you would arrive home and people felt the need to at least ask you what you’d been up to for the last year or so. You would start to wax lyrical and their eyes would rapidly glaze over, either that or, horror-of-horrors, you would suddenly find yourself leafing through their holiday snaps. Today you can post a blog, people can choose whether to read it or not and then on your return the whole matter need never be mentioned save for a quick “I enjoyed your blogs” – just don’t be foolish enough to ask them which ones!

As a caveat I'd like to emphasise that in no way do I resent the development of countries or the advancement of their peoples: things do change and prices inevitably rise; we are marching towards one homogeneous world, this is unavoidable and (though sad on many cultural levels) essentially desirable. I am simply bemoaning the change in attitude and approach of many so-called backpackers who seem to have largely forsaken the basic for comfort and ease. To my mind the "flashpacker" is, by definition, more isolated from the countries and peoples they are supposedly 'here' to interact with (and learn from) and consequently they gain less from their (more limited) exposure.

Then there are the environmental impact issues of “flashpacker” needs: air-con, hot water, excessive water usage and its associated power requirements (what happened to hand washing in a bucket?), the increased petrol consumption of private over public transport, etc…

Whilst I am certainly no economist I do believe that limited funds enforce their more equal distribution: you don’t eat your meals in an over-priced, western-geared restaurant that is owned by an already (comparatively) wealthy local or, increasingly, a western ex-pat; you eat in, invariably cheaper, places serving traditional, locally produced food that is owned by working class people struggling to make a decent living. Similarly you source the local shops/stalls/markets for the best deals on clothes, toiletries, fags, booze, snacks, whatever and spread your money around (whilst encouraging healthy competition). Others may argue: let the locals shop locally and the rich westerners support employment-generating businesses. But what do you end up with? Mega resorts and supermarkets: the big eventually swallowing the small… Again, someone else retorts: that’s progress… Regardless, world economics isn’t the point. My bug-bare is the squeeze the frivolous use of wealth exerts and how this is choking options for the less wealthy: not only the western backpacker but those millions of new lower-middle classes from developing countries who would also love to visit other realms.

Amusingly, the last vestiges of the hardcore are either of a certain age (late thirties plus: the repeat performers for whom exotic travel has always equated to a certain rewarding hardship) or the very young from less recognized backpacker origins (here I’m reminded of Peruvian, Czech and Indian travelers encountered in recent months) who simply don’t have the funds to blindly follow listed prices and take short-cuts.

I fear that whole continents will, in the not too distant future, simply be beyond the means of the lowly backpacker. Without doubt their hey-day has been and gone – hell, I missed the zenith myself - but for how much longer will their kind persist?

OK, tirade over. I’d better see if Ali is up for the 15 hour (local) bus journey to Dharamsala tomorrow. The sharp among you will have noted her condition. And yes, it was brought about from eating at a cheap local establishment (the local food here in touristic Rishikesh is among India’s worst). Maybe she can face eating a pizza at Lonely Planet’s ‘top-pick’? I jest.

Additional photos below
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27th May 2013

Oh yes, the trolleypacker. There was one point we were waiting for a ferry and we looked around and commented that it's the new face of backpacking - we put a picture on one of our blogs of use surrounded by wheelie bags! Great blog, it describes perfectly the changes in demographics and attitudes of backpacking. We have also commented in blogs about people making the effort to experience a new culture/country and then looking like they are forced to be there or constantly complain about how things aren't like home. Maybe these are part of the 'tick-list' travellers who feel it's something they should do versus what they want to do. Oh and Poste Restante still exists, we have used it a few times over the last couple of years!
27th May 2013

Interesting blog
Ok Im a flashpacker. As proud of that as you are of your backpacking. I really commend you on the refusal to use technology - I had wifi and my ipad in Sumatra! You raise some good questions...where is travel going?
27th May 2013

Thought provoking
Interesting blog. It got me thinking about how I travel. I want an inexpensive room with a door I can lock and an ensuite toilet and shower. That may not be "authentic," but I'm 60, and I don't want to have to stumble down the hall in the middle of the night to pee. However, I eat at hawker centers in SE Asia, or little restaurants full of local people. Great food, low prices, and never mentioned in guide books. I carry my own luggage, use public transport, and drink the local beer. For me travel is about absorbing a place. Sometimes that means sitting in a corner cafe and people watching or talking to the vendor in the market. That is one of the advantages to traveling alone - I can take the time to talk to someone. And since I'm by myself, I'm not scary. But the reality is that my skin and ethnicity sets me apart in certain parts of the world, and yours does, too. I remember walking into a local market in Sanur and hearing the market ladies whisper "Nonya," (foreign lady) as soon as they saw me. No matter how simply you travel, you are a visitor. So, I always learn a little of the local language wherever I go, I leave the guide books at home, and my baggage is minimal - no cell phone (hate those things!) but a netbook and a map. I think that puts me in the category of traveler rather than tourist, and allows me to continue to have adventures.
27th May 2013

Profoundly insightful commentary...
Although I fit into the category of the time constrained flashpacker now, I do share your nostalgia for this passing breed of authentic backpackers.
27th May 2013

True, true
Great blog post - as a mid-40's backpacker that's hit the road various times over the past 20 years, I think your observations are right on the money. The backpacking environment has really changed profoundly due to technology. It's certainly more convenient, but definitely more disconnected, both from other travelers and the host country and people. That said, I think it's fair to say that everyone has different preferences - and they should feel free to experience travel in whatever manner they choose - whether w/o guidebooks and sleeping on the beach, or with all the latest gadgets and 5-stay hotels. Costs will go up, esp. in the 'discovered' places, but that's always been the case - it's good incentive to push the more adventurous out onto destinations unknown rather than following the typical banana pancake route. I do strongly agree that we need a replacement for the current round of guidebooks - every one of them has gone more upmarket than what I think most 'backpackers' are looking for - and online tools can only do so much when you find yourself dumped out onto unfamiliar remote lands.
28th May 2013
25 years of service and counting

I used to own the Karrimor backpack on the left (back when Karrimor made quality products). I bought it secondhand in Parghanj, Delhi, more than a decade ago. The guys in the shop were actually copying the design with cheaper materials, and I said I'd like to buy the used original. Served me well for many years, and likely the owners before and after. Left it on the subway (it was empty) in 2008. If the changing travel scene ever drives you away, I'll take that backpack off your hands...
28th May 2013

Fear not!
I suspect and very much believe the 'authentic' or if you will the 'frugal' backpacker still has a future and shall continue to be even in years to come. Perhaps it will become a niche, but it will remain. Higher prices just forces us to be more 'creative' when finding our accommodation and bad guidebooks can nowadays be tossed aside in favour of finding once own information on the internet (including city maps, though of course for the smaller villages this might not be the case and there are still plenty of countries which a service like Google maps doesn't cover) via travel forums, blogs, wiki's and more. And lets not forget the information provided by fellow travellers, possibly the most useful of all. You could say the 'flashpackers' are forcing the old-school backpackers to return to the essence and find their own way around, just like in the past, and it pushes us to look for new and 'undiscovered' spots of which there are still plenty and always will be plenty. The good thing about all these new and affluent travellers is that they tend not to go off-the-beaten track, as they want their creature comforts which cannot be guaranteed beyond the well known tourist spots. Uncertainty keeps the hordes on the same route and in place, thus ensuring there is plenty of room for others who are on a tighter budget if they move beyond those roads.
28th May 2013

Your having a right old rant my man
Hi guys, I feel you are having a reflective period at the moment. Hope your still enjoying your travels and hope to see you when your back in UK. Take care Ex
31st May 2013

great blog
well put together thoughts on the changes that happen in the travel world...sadly, we observed similar decline in the 'authentic' backpacker community but hey, people miss on so much when they take the easy options:-) wish we could have traveled years ago as sometimes we felt we came too late... B&T
31st May 2013

Great blog guys. Just today I was just chatting about the lack of budget backpackers, although in a much less eloquent way. Why do travellers take rickshaws and miss out on the satisfaction of navigating through a town you've just arrived in?! I met very few people in India who would walk for 30 minutes to save 100 rupees on a rickshaw. Enjoy the rest of your travels, I'll be enjoying a few beers tonight :-)
1st June 2013

A great piece of writing.
Loved your description of the evolution of the backpacker, flashpacker and the trolleypacker. Each person has to do it their own way. We embrace technology and travel with computer, kindle and cameras. There is an attitude that if you aren't a backpacker you aren't an authentic traveler. We don't support that notion. We feel all travelers should be applauded for getting off the couch and leaving the comfort of their home to explore in a way that makes them happy and comfortable-- whether they are sleeping on the floor, cot or in a bit nicer accommodation.
2nd July 2013

Karl Marx!!
Great blog!Never read a blog before apart from your last couple in Laos/nepal!Does that mean I'm an old git like you!Excellent read and i would love to debate the inequalities of the world with you and Ali after a few beers.Big Clifty and Oggs/simon already call me a hypocritcal socialist!Which i suppose i am! Thought provoking expecially regarding local beliefs/homogenisation of the world and discrepancies between the "haves" and "have nots"/poverty. keep enjoying your travels.we are all well.Love to Ali dave
8th January 2014

Wow, what a blog! I don't usually read blogs I just scan but this one I read cover to cover. I stumbled across it whilst looking for some information on Nagaland and the other NE States. I agree with much of what you say, I can't claim to be a hardcore backbacker although I have had my fair share of challenges. And this is my point, I think that travel, well long term at least, should involve a degree of uncertainty and discomfort (he says, writing from an Wifi enabled restaurant waiting for his Pizza Napoli in Varkala). It is the uncertainty and the discomfort that you look back on in years to come with pride. My god sometimes you hate both at times but it is part of the experience. I also agree about Czechs and Romanians. They do still have some of that spirit. Anyway, thanks for this, and the info on Nagaland, and I notice the Andaman Islands, which I am also planning on going on this trip. Cheerio John

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