Posted: 03/08/2010 | March 8th, 2010
For the last three months, I’ve been traveling around Australasia, visiting New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia (for the second time). I’ve noticed something interesting – a lot of the travelers I see are young (18-24) gap year kids, and most never consider leaving “the beaten track.” It’s only the older travelers that seem to even want to venture somewhere different.
Don’t get me wrong – I am happy to see people traveling. Whether by tour, cruise, car, or foot, taking the first proverbial step is a feat in itself. The very fact that someone made the effort is amazing. Not enough people do it.
However, it’s dismaying to see so many young travelers sticking to the same places. Popular places are popular for a reason, and there is nothing wrong with going to them. I go to them too. But when you have nothing but time, you don’t really have an excuse to skip the lesser known destinations.
The majority of gap year travelers always seem to want to stay in the big, popular places. They never even try to see or experience something different. Even when I prod them and try to convince them to step off the tourist trail, they seem uninterested. They just want to follow everyone else because “that’s where everyone else is.”
Take Western Australia, for example. Not a lot of backpackers travel there. Almost all the travelers I speak to say they don’t have enough time to fit it in, even if they are spending months in Australia. Many just have no real answer as to why they aren’t going.
Yet Western Australia is one of the most beautiful parts of the whole country. Even Aussies will tell you that if you want to see the “real” Australia, head west. It’s a lot less developed than the east and incredibly beautiful. However, most travelers I speak to never even consider it. They just stick to the highly touristy and overrated Sydney-to-Cairns route.
I see this pattern a lot in other places, too. In New Zealand, travelers follow the backpacker buses and hardly ever head out of the major tourist centers. In Fiji, they just go to the Yasawa Islands. In Laos, travelers go tubing, get drunk in Vang Vieng, and then declare that they have seen Laos.
There have always been travelers who just stick to the beaten path. Some people just don’t want to make the effort to find something new – they just want to go meet other travelers, have a good time, and get drunk. But if you only came away to get drunk in another country, what’s the point of going away? Stay and get drunk cheaper.
And, based on the conversations I’ve had with people in tourism, this trend in travel seems to be growing.
Backpacking seems to have become an “industry” in this part of the world. Everything seems to be geared toward doing everything for the traveler. There are special backpacker buses. Hostels will pick you up from anywhere. There are special activities, special dinners, and tours. Hostels even have their own bars to keep you in one place. Overall, it seems to always be about taking the work out of long-term travel and making it more like a long holiday. It’s cheap pre-packaged tourism.
Backpacking has always been about being independent. I love how you have to figure it all out for yourself. You find your way and, in the process, you find out about yourself. You need to figure out trains, languages, and moving from point A to B. There’s a journey involved.
In Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, everything is done for you. I feel like it’s becoming more like a guided tour that has you staying in hostels instead of hotels. It’s all easy. You just need to show up, and your hand is held for you.
But travel is more than just going somewhere. In my world, travel is about going to destinations to experience new things, people, and places. It’s about gaining insights into new cultures, trying local food, and, yes, getting drunk at the local waterhole while locals teach you slang and curse words in their native language.
Travel isn’t simply about getting on the Greyhound, being dropped off at a hostel, and then getting shuffled onto a backpacker tour and then a backpacker bar. It’s not about always staying on the beaten path. It’s not always about having your hand held. But the more I see these young travelers simply accepting this type of travel, the more I get discouraged. Is this really what traveling is about?
Then again, maybe I am an old fuddy duddy lamenting about an idea about travel that only existed in my head.
Editor’s Note: My goal here was not to disparage people who travel a certain way. As I say here, all travelers are equal. It doesn’t matter how you travel. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t wish people saw something different or lament the fact that backpacking has become more of an industry than an adventure in solo travel. Everyone has their own opinions. Just remember that popular destinations are great, but they aren’t the only things that exist. Most people on an extended trip have the time to see a mix of places.
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