Posted: 11/16/2008 | November 16th, 2008
Updated: 12/22/2021 | December 22nd, 2021
All along the backpacker trail, you hear it. The talk. The chatter. The snarls. The attitude. The condescension.
I’m talking about how backpackers feel about “tourists.”
Backpackers view tourists as non-travelers. Tourists are people who just visit a place for pictures, hotels, and cheesy restaurants. They stick to the beaten path, take big bus tours, and never bother to interact with the locals.
Backpackers, on the other hand, consider themselves as real travelers – they go places for cultural experiences, to meet the locals, and to immerse themselves in faraway lands. They are out there to learn about the world and discover unknown secrets and connections.
Or, at least, that’s what they think they are doing.
However, while some travelers do that, a backpacker is usually a young traveler on a long trip who sleeps in hostels, cooks his/her own meals, lives cheap, and parties hard. Sure, they take local transport but they often just hang out with other travelers.
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 by the backpackers who came before.
While I consider myself part of the backpacker crowd (though more of a nomad), I don’t subscribe to the line of thought that backpackers are better than tourists. When I hear this argument, I shake my head and find joy in pointing out the hypocrisy of 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’s not traveling. (Though, I do appreciate that they at least made the effort to leave their country. Baby steps, right?)
But how is that different than a backpacker who just parties in Amsterdam and visits the Van Gogh museum? How is that different than someone who goes to Thailand parties at the Full Moon Party and never explores somewhere “off the beaten path”? Or spends a month in a country and never learns the language? That’s not being a traveler. That’s not making an effort to learn about the people or place.
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.
If you want to really get to know a place, stay there for longer than a few days.
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 someplace 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 huge fan of package tours (though I still do go on tours) but that doesn’t mean I’m better than the people that go on them. No type of 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.
And it’s time we stop acting like we’re not and pretending one type of traveler is better than another. It’s a stupid distinction. Let’s all get over ourselves.
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