All 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?
However, 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.