Of Backpackers and Tourists

Tourists statuesAll along the backpacker trail, you hear it. The talk. The chatter. The snarls. The attitude.

That’s right. I’m talking about how backpackers feel about tourists. Backpackers view tourists as non-travelers – those who go for the pictures and the hotel, but never the place. Backpackers, on the other hand, consider themselves true travelers – they go for the cultural experience, to meet the locals, and to immerse themselves in faraway lands. Or, at least, that’s what they think.

In the traveler lexicon, a backpacker is usually a young traveler on a long trip who sleeps in hostels, cooks his/her own meals, lives cheap, is on a budget, and parties hard. They take local transport and hang out with the locals. A tourist, on the other hand, is anyone who goes somewhere, follows the Lonely Planet trail, stays in nice hotels, eats at nice restaurants (that don’t really serve authentic local food), take tourist buses, buy silly gifts, and generally stick out like a sore thumb.

I always found this distinction a bit ironic since so many backpackers, while talking down about “tourists,” carry their Lonely Planet, visit the same cities and stay at the same hostels, and stick to the same path that was laid out before them 30 years ago by the hippies. While I consider myself part of the backpacker set (though more of a nomad), I don’t subscribe to this line of thought. When I hear this argument, I shake my head and find joy in pointing out the hypocrisy to some naive fellow traveler.

But let’s be clear. “Tourists” do stick out like sore thumbs. They couldn’t hide if they tried. Many make no attempt to learn cultural norms, blend in, or respect the local way of life. These are the tourists that people speak about. And I can’t stand them either – those tourists who come to a place, make no effort to interact with the locals, and stay in the resort their whole vacation. What’s the point of coming to a new country if you’re never really going to see it?

To me, that is not travel. That’s flying to a resort. But, at least they made the effort. Baby steps, right?

Tourists taking photosHowever, I think we all have our tourist moments. We all stick out sometimes. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. We all get an A for effort. What is ironic is that, instead of trying to promote better travel – travel that gets people of all travel styles to interact with the locals – backpackers claim superiority because they do it cheaper and for a longer amount of time. They get off the beaten path, they say, and live like the locals do.

Except they don’t.

Experiencing a new culture means staying there long enough to get into the flow of life. Most backpackers don’t do that. They simply go to the newest party location and call it off-the-beaten-path until someone (else) with a Lonely Planet arrives. They eat at street stalls and claim they are just like the locals, yet they never learn the language and only eat food that looks safe. I often get asked where to go to see the “real” Thailand, and I always say that there is no such thing – every part is equally real. “Well, we want to live like a local,” they respond. “Get an apartment and get a job” is my response.

I like to call this “The Beach Syndrome.” This idea that traveling cheap is better and more authentic (because the locals are glad you are saving your money and not giving it to them), and that there is some place off the beaten path that is the true, authentic part of a country. Backpackers think just like the characters in the book The Beach did – that there is some travel ideal out there. This authentic, mysterious place that supposedly exists where everything is real and you’re the only stranger there and everyone is friendly and you melt right into local life. What a place that would be! Too bad it doesn’t exist. It’s a myth. It’s “The Beach Syndrome.”

I’m not a fan of package tour tourists, but that doesn’t mean I’m better than them. No travel is really better than any other travel. What matters is that we move past the backpacker/tourist debate and realize that the important part is that we travel. We not only go for pleasure and pictures, but to also learn about another culture and break out of our comfort zones – even if just a bit. Isn’t that the point of why we go anyway?

A rose by any other name is still a rose. And, no matter what we call ourselves, we are really all just tourists.

  1. Why does it matter to backpackers what package tourists do? It’s so easy to judge others harshly. It’s accepting them when we don’t agree with them that’s hard.

  2. Totally agree. People travel for different reasons and in different ways, it doesn’t make one reason or way less valid than the other.

    At the end of the day, you get out of it as much as you put in, it’s as simple as that. :)


  3. Taylor Davidson

    Matt: spot on: there’s a belief among the backpacking set that if you’re not “backpacking”, you’re not a “real traveler”.

    I’ve felt the same way at times, but I realize now how wrong I was.

    When I travel I’m willing to admit that I don’t know everything about an area, I admit my ignorance and ask people about their culture and history, and I spend time talking to people, to merchants, to restaurant owners, to interesting people in restaurants and bars. Is that “authentic”? Am I a tourist or a traveler? I don’t know.

    But it’s what I enjoy doing.

    And it’s what I do no matter where I am, home or abroad.

    But I still try not to stick out :)

  4. Great article, Matt! I like that you’ve brought this topic up in your writing. It’s nice to see an opinion (in which I agree with) that isn’t just one-sided and argumentative.

    There has been very few days when I have not come across someone ranting online or in person how much better they are at traveling just because they know how to save some money by staying at cheap hostels and living a “backpacker” sort of life, or because they make an extreme amount of income and wouldn’t dare fly coach or stay in anything less than a 5-star $500 a night or more suite.

    I think any way that someone wants to travel is great. The fact that they’re making an effort at all to get out of their everyday work-drone life is a step-up in my book.

    Everyone who travels has their own reason and goals. There’s really no wrong way to do it, as long as they’re happy with what they’re doing and aren’t causing a bother to anyone else.


  5. Cuckoo

    I was thinking to write on this. Can so much relate to it and agree with Taylor.

    Within India I am learning so many new things about which I was not aware of.

    Thanks for writing this piece.

  6. A safe article, Matt. This topic seems to be circulating a lot this year (Flashpacker vs Backpacker vs Tourist), and I don’t really see why? Who actually cares what box people fit in? I don’t. If anyone thinks they’re better than me then I think they’re an idiot whether they’re a two-bit backpacker or a two-week tourist.

    I haven’t come across any of this in depth opinion in the real world, only in the online communities – are we sure this actually exists or is it merely our own version of ‘The Beach Syndrome’? That people are whispering in the shadows about the latest wave of tourists to conquer the long held backpacker haunts. Has anyone actually had a meaningful conversation about this while on the road? I haven’t, and I can’t imagine why I ever would.

    Though I will say, you covered it well, and in a non-biased manner.

  7. I know for one thing I do not like a suitcase anymore, however small, and do not like package tours either. Prior to and during travels to a new place, I try and get to learn a little bit about the basic geography of the place and its neighboring areas and a bit of local language or dialect even if it is a few words, taste the local cuisine, mingle with locals and attempt to learn their culture, and delve deeper into areas that interest me. I guess that makes me a backpacking traveller who is also a tourist.

    You’ve hit the nail on its head when you say what is important is that we move past the backpacker/tourist debate and realize “that what is important is that we travel.” Absolutely right. Great post.

  8. There are always two levels of infrastructure – one made for the tourist and the other for locals. To me, experiencing local culture would imply making an attempt to get away from the superficial stuff, package tours and planned itineraries. Learning a local language yields miraculous results – as I experienced in Russia recently. People invited me to their homes to stay and offered vodka like I have never had before. Now Lonely planet or party hostels won’t give you everything and its a bit annoying to hear someone say ‘is that place good? but its not in the book!’

    I am sure when I am rich and old, I’d like to stay in a resort with sauna and TV and watch local artists dance the hotel lobby on friday evening. That’s fine, by then I’ll have my share of rough travel.

    Very nicely written!

  9. a favourite topic of mine..I have had tourists coming to me and askingf me if I can get a TV in the room where they are going to stay..what do i say ? and where do I fit ? I like to think i am a backpacker, but I am still evolving and I am definitely not a tourist..very well written post Matt and I have written one myself a while ago, though not so lucid ..Incidentally I am going for a holiday this week with a bunch of friends who are tourists to the core and I am regretting that I am going :(

  10. Travelers, especially backpackers, speak about themselves as though they are anthropologists doing ethnographies – which they aren’t. Just noticing cultural differences doesn’t cut it. They are just a different kind of tourist –

    but that said, either way *what you experience on a trip is up to the traveler*. Culture is all around us, even our own.

  11. NomadicMatt

    It is great to see such long and thoughtful comments. I am glad you all enjoyed this post. I would like to simply say that it is more than mere discussion on the travel boards. I see this attitude all the time on the road, especially in Asia. Everyone out to find their own beach- their own paradise and looking down on others who enjoy the popular destinations. True, I dislike “touristy” places but that’s cause I hate crowds and waiting. However, you’ll still find me on the beaches of Haat Rin or in Amsterdam, just when there is less people. Things are popular for a reason.

    and as many of your pointed out, its about learning the culture not where you stay. I do make it a point though to try to sleep local so my money doesn’t get sent back to big international corporations but a larger share remains in the local economy.

  12. What about the people who are just looking for some relaxation at a nice resort on the beach? Are they wrong for wanting a no fuss no muss experience that isn’t necessarily cultural but is an escape from their life back home?

  13. I used to be called pretentious by the “backpackers” for pointing out, whenever this debate would come up, the only difference between them and a tourist was the 300$ backpack.

    If you ever see me with a Lonely Planet, please kill me. Seriously.

  14. All travel is good as far as I’m concerned whether it’s the Contiki crew, the 5 star divas or the beach bum backpackers. Nobody should be judging the other but a lot of people look down their noses and judge unfortunately

  15. I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed into either category. I agree the only way to really get to know somewhere is to live there.
    Perhaps the second best is to have family and good friends who live overseas and stay and travel with them. And of course return the favor…

  16. Debo Hobo

    I am a traveler…no offense taken:)

    I flew all the way to Jamaica one time and spent the majority of my time on resort property. We came off for church and then dinner one night. But the whole safety factor remained.

  17. hey…i think people evolve and they change their minds and they develop their own travel styles. back in the 90’s, i considered myself a “backpacker” (only because i did not have money and i wanted to travel / see the world / meet lovely strangers and immerse myself in their country / staying for extended periods of time).

    then i joined the rat race and toiled in the dungeons! yeah, i have a 9-5 job, and yeah, i still don’t have the guts to leave on a time-unlimited round-the-world trip, but once or twice a year, i get to learn about a country and culture & plan my visit to their land. and sometimes, i like staying in nice places with the comforts of my home or better. and i like taking photos. i guess this makes me a tourist…

    but haven’t we all learned yet from our travels past and present…that we are all just people reaching out to other people, taking steps to learn their culture, being tolerant of our differences, supporting economies, and consequently writing or reading about our experiences on blogs??

    by the way matt, love your blog. will bookmark you.

  18. Kai L

    I understand that we are essentially all tourists, but a distinction still remains between the various ways people choose to travel. There are also pros and cons to any style of travel.

    A backpacker would typically have a smaller impact on any locale (a good thing in my view) versus the development required to facilitate a more mainstream style of travel. One could argue that the development required to facilitate a more mainstream tourist structure has economic imperative. Many countries around the world depend heavily on tourism (jobs, money etc.). So, there are some positives to both kinds of traveler.

    Well, maybe we should look at the negatives as well. Obviously, a traveler trying to “make it” on a small budget isn’t helping a local economy much. One could say the poor are left poor. Looking at the tourist that enjoys convenience, they bring money and support an economy much more likely to thrive and grow. They want to enjoy various amenities. Is there a drawback to a tourist economy? In a word, yes. I don’t think I should have to deal too much with the negative impacts that tourism brings, but if one has questions please ask. Tourism leaves a locale (or country for that matter) changed in a big way. Not all of these changes are good nor are all the consequences intended, but we still must deal with the ramifications.

    So, sure there are ways that people choose to travel, but what is important is what I see as a significant difference in the way people do this. The “backpacker” is less invasive and more open to letting the cultural experience change them. The traveler that seeks a tourist infrastructure is looking to enjoy many of the things they already do at home (cultural elements, standard of living, people they will meet, etc.). Also, the “tourist” which seeks to travel and rely on a developed tourism economy are voluntarily or involuntarily taking part in an invasive practice.

    Now, some of you may see this piece as one sided and I do have a bias. I am personally in favor of less invasive travel practices. I think it’s fair to say all of us are travelers, but there are distinctions between the tourist and the backpacker.

    • Naomi

      @ Kai L – backpackers may not need as much infrastructure as tourists – but what about the social effects of their rampant drug and alcohol use and easy sex? In so many places the local guys think all western women are easy, and its not just from western media – its from the behaviour of travellers.
      Imagine you are dirt poor, and every day you see filthy rich foreigners drinking and taking drugs? How tempting would it be to start selling to them – risking addiction, social censure and imprisonment?
      Don’t get me wrong, there is ugliness and beauty from both ends of the spectrum, and I’ve certainly been guilty of this kind of behaviour.
      But as someone who lives in a backpacker haven (St Kilda Australia), I see people who’s sole aim is to get smashed and score and who show zero respect for the people that live there.

  19. NomadicMatt

    @Tanya: No not really. But you ever notice they use it as some form of accessory- like buying a time. It doesn’t really become a vacation from their life to relax it just becomes a thing they did.

    @wendy: I agree- why pigeon hole? I think quickroute makes a good point that all travel is good

    However, I do agree with @Kai that less invasive travel is good. I havent been on a contiki tour but I do say I’m not a big fan of the those big style tours b/c they heard you around like cattle and in that rapid fire travel, you don’t really get to see the place you are going for more than a mere photo.

    That being said- at least its a start. A friend of mine went on contiki and after loving it and being pushed by me, she moved to paris for a bit. Now she never wants to leave France. Baby steps.

  20. I think this was such a well thought out and very fair post. I think that both sides of any argument that vear a little too extreme have the potential to become elitist.

    I agree that travel is travel. When I lived in Ireland I was immersed in the culture of Cork like I never could have imagined. At that time, I had that opportunity because I lived there. But now, I have a full time job here in the States that I actually like and do not want to leave, but given those restrictions, I do not forgo traveling all together. I have become a “tourist” (minus the $300 backpack, and I also have a thing against resorts) and though at times I wish I could stay in a place longer, I can’t. But at least I am getting out there.

    Love the new look of your site, by the way.

  21. Great discussion,

    Matt. When I saw the tattooed and dreadlocked masses on Khao San Road, wearing Thai clothes, etc., I thought many had gone too far in their attempt at culture immersion. They looked ridiculous. Maybe it’s like children’s dress-up time, but for adults. “Look at me, I’m so Thai…”

    I see people that have lived in China for several years and know nothing about the culture, living in their compounds, with theater groups, western food and satellite dishes. It makes me think how much backpackers actually learn about a country in between the local beers with other backpackers?

    I travel how I like. I could care less what box someone wants to put me it. Much like the rest of my life, my attitude is, “F#ck em if they can’t take a joke.”

  22. ashmantoronto

    “A rose by any other name is still a rose and no matter what we call ourselves- we are really all just tourists.”

    It’s true, I’ve always wondered why other travellers judge other travellers…so what if I’m carrying a map of New York? I AM a tourist, we all are tourists. I don’t like it either when other travellers brag about their ‘off beaten path’…that’s cool and all, but that doesn’t mean I should avoid the places where every other tourists should be. If I’m in London, you bet I’m gonna go see Big Ben, If I’m in NYC of course I’m going to go see the Statue of Liberty, if I was in SF why would I pass the opportunity to see the Golden Gate Bridge? Weren’t those what we came for in the first place?

    I’m not afraid to whip out a map whenever I travel, or check out the souvenir shop, it gives me a better direction on what to expect – and the ones unexpected is not written anywhere, but you don’t go looking for it, it’ll just find you – and I think a lot of travellers miss out on that one.

  23. I like the best of both worlds – to save money, taste the food, speak the language with local people, and, take tons of pictures! because someday I’m going to come home, and they’ll trigger all kinds of memories.
    The best trips are when you can visit people that live there and get a glimpse into their lives.
    And sometimes, backpackers ARE the other culture that I got to visit.

  24. I think 95% of tourists/travelers like to have a safety net… whether it’s staying in their resort or staying somewhere where there are heaps of other travelers.

    I guess this is why fewer than 5% of all tourists to Thailand venture out to the rural North East….

  25. Interesting article. The simple truth is that backpackers are tourists, although we like to think of ourselves as a special breed of enlightened traveler. Even the most well intentioned “nomad” or backpacker who strives to get a taste of the local culture isn’t going to have the same experience as a local. It’s easy to criticize package tourists (and I’ve done it before), but we have to ask ourselves: are we somehow contributing more to the countries we visit than other types of tourists? I’m not so sure. As a backpacker and RTW vet I think it’s time we stop criticizing other travelers and focus on our own journeys (and impact).

  26. I never understood why the so-called ‘travelers’ have to compare themselves all the time to ‘tourists’
    Why can’t we just travel for the sake of TRAVEL. People shouldn’t even care about how others travel, what’s the point?!
    My sister would NEVER do the hostel or traveling solo thing, and on the other hand I’m done with the packaged resort stuff – but I never compare my way of travel to hers. At the end of the day, what’s important for me are our stories. A good travel is the one filled with great stories. If someone comes back from a vacation and all they can talk about was the beach and how they partied so hard they got drunk on many occasions…THAT to me, is bad travel. It’s like comparing the Machu Picchu trail – there are 2 ways of getting there: by hiking for days or by train; some travelers think that THE BEST experience is by hiking – but dude, even the Peruvians don’t hike to Machu Picchu, they take the train! So whoever said the REAl experience is by hiking is obviously wrong.

    • NomadicMatt

      I agree. it’s a stupid argument. Many travelers always make this judgment. It’s common “talk” among the backpacking trail.

  27. I am proud to be a tourist! I’ve always got my phrase book out, trying to decode the language, maps spread out trying to get a picture of the city. And I wouldn’t knock all the “touristy” sites, either – there’s a reason people love them!
    When we were living in China, though, I would sometimes try to draw a distinction between tourists or students and me as a working resident. I also was proud of being a math teacher, and not an English teacher. I’m not sure why I was so stuck up about that, but I really didn’t want to be mistaken for a student!

  28. Lisa Abroad

    Well said Matt! I have many a “backpacker” in my circle of friends and acquaintances. And ohhh the ego. One reason I’ve made the transition from hostels to hotels over the last year or so is simply to get away from this crowd. The more time I spend with backpackers on my travels, the more competitive the conversations start to sound… like we’re competing to be the most ‘cultured’ or something. I’ve done the hostels/guesthouses, hotels, 5-star resorts, home stay, etc. I enjoyed every experience and came home with a good story or two. For me, that’s all that matters.

  29. Abs

    Hi Matt,

    This is a great website and an interesting post / comments here.

    From a tourist (who always leaves the hotel / resort to explore and learn) I can honestly say I love to travel abroad and on my travels I have met couples and families who flew hours to only sit by the pool and stay in the hotel the whole time. I have also met backpackers who spent 2 days where I was staying and explore less than we did in that timescale, then leave saying ‘we have done (insert) location’.

    But talking of living like locals reminds me of a conversation I had with a guesthouse owner in Corfu. He wanted to know why my husband and I liked walking to explore the local area, we said we enjoyed walking. His comment was ‘You must be mad, now we (locals) have cars we drive, before cars we had donkeys, we don’t walk!’ I think everyone has a different perspective and unless you have walked, ridden or driven in his shoes it is hard to always appreciate it.

    Thanks :)

  30. Joe

    Hi Matt,

    Interesting article, off on my travels in a month’s time and really hope people are just people, and there isn’t something we need to do in order to fit in with the crowd.

    My simple view of the world is me and the missus will carry backpacks, ergo we are backpackers, but I doubt we would act any differently if we brought a suitcase!

    Without putting down roots somewhere then we are all tourists, whether we choose to head back to a nice hotel with a pool afterwards or some shared dorm-room is largely irrelevant.

    I would wager that the locals generally welcome those who take the tour buses, buy the trinkets, and eat in the restaurants. This supports the local economy and frankly in most of SE Asia this is the right thing to do. My girlfriend is from the


    • Joe

      (sorry hit post by accident!)

      …My girlfriend grew up in rural Thailand, we have been back a few times to visit her family and really these communities don’t have a great deal. On the subject of authenticity for me that is likely to be the most authentic experience, visiting the family of my girlfriend in an area foreigners rarely visit. What makes it authentic? Well, we have 3 years of ‘roots’ to that area.

      If we just rocked up there then it wouldn’t be the same.

  31. I honestly prefer wheeled bags over large backpacks. Do have a medium size daypack backpack with me, but I have almost totally given up on large backpacks, unless I go to rural areas or hiking destinations.
    Still, I am a traveler, not a tourist!

  32. Backpackers stick out just as much as tourists! You can spot them a mile away. I spent months in colombia and I’ve seen backpackers everywhere but the restaurants where the locals eat. Guess where I seen all the backpackers in Cusco? Plaza de armas of course, the tourist epicenter. What about Lima? Parque Kennedy in the middle of miraflores. Guess where I didnt see backpackers in Cusco or Lima? At that run down hole in the wall restaurant thats in that beaten up neighborhood thats always packed with peruvian’s around lunch time that changes the menu everyday where for about 2 dollars you can get filled on peruvian platos de la casa como seco, tallerines, chupe, caldo de gallina, etc.

    In the past 8 months i’ve seen much of South America and never stayed in a hostel. AirBnb all the way. I’ve traveled by bus some, and its fun, but mostly by plane. I stay for months until I hate the city. I’m definitely not a backpacker or a nomad in the typical sense, far from. However, Im willing to bet I know more about latin american culture than most of the backpackers who have come through. You dont have to be 20 something and travel like a callejero to get to know a culture. As a matter of fact if you take the “backpacker” approach then you may end up missing a lot.

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