SOCIETY: Backpackers

Backpackers: Pilgrims or parasties?

The Guardian

June 1999

BACKPACKING Backpackers are more interested in smoking dope, drinking and having sex than local culture, according to a new report. But who cares about the bad behaviour, writes SALIL TRIPATHI, at least they learn to love the country
I knew a Japanese banker when I lived in Singapore. He was unlike most Japanese businessmen I met in my years as an economics reporter in east Asia. A meeting with him was not always over lunch at a sushi bar, and he didn't spend his evenings floating in sake, cruising karaoke lounges. His job was to raise finance for projects in emerging markets, and even in the early 1990s, when east Asian countries were building taller towers, swankier airports, bigger shopping malls, and vaster golf courses, he kept making exploratory trips to India.
This was counter-intuitive. East Asian dragon economies such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia were thundering away at supercharged growth rates, while India was languishing at a respectable but, in comparison, far from impressive 4-5% growth rate. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated a year before, Narasimha Rao's economic reforms were still new, nobody had heard of privatisation, and you still needed to fill in a dozen forms to take foreign currency out of India.
Why, then, this fascination with India, I asked him one evening. Smiling, he said: "I once spent six months there. I was a backpacker. I travelled all over the country, I learned Hindi. I love that place. I want it to do better. It is a democracy, it has a capitalist class, it has a good banking and legal system. I want to help India."
He wasn't the only one. In my eight years as a correspondent for regional magazines in east Asia I met several other businessmen, all in their 40s now, who had spent part of their youth exploring the third world. They weren't all Japanese - in fact, this banker was the exception. I met several British, Australian and Canadian former backpackers, now reincarnated as analysts, bankers, managers of non-governmental organisations and journalists, who had returned to work in their former haunts where they had been there and done that - some of it naughty, some of it illegal - but they were obviously intelligent and sensitive.
When asked about their experience, inevitably their recollection would be tinged with the best form of nostalgia. Remembering the past without the pain. Or, putting it more accurately, remembering Delhi without the dysentery.
They'd paint vivid images of hitch hiking across the Khyber Pass, seeing Konarak's sun temple at dawn and the Taj by moonlight, eating bananas and oranges (sealed fruit is better than open fruit) but shunning local water, smoking cheap bidis in Bombay, boarding a cyclo in Saigon, haggling with hawkers at Howrah Bridge and travelling way below shoestring budget. They'd talk of gaining cultural awareness and enlightenment, pointing out the yoga classes they now attend, or the soothing gamelan CDs they now listen to at night.
But surely that wasn't all they did in their backpacking youth? There was rock music, there were drugs, cheap hashish, cheaper booze and cost-free sex on those beaches too. Goa or Phuket, Bali or Koh Samui? In its report Tourism Concern suggests that it is the new backpacker who is only interested in fast food, quick sex, and cheap alcohol. But the older backpacker was exploring the world in the 1960s, not the 1860s. Teenagers then weren't that different from teenagers now. If there is resentment against them in the host countries now, there was resentment then, too. I know, I grew up in India.
One high-sounding argument against the backpackers is that they don't read the Lonely Planet guides properly and end up insulting the local culture of the country they visit. They are unwashed, they step into temples while wearing shoes, they point their shoes in the direction of the people they address, they shake hands with people of the opposite sex at their first meeting, and they race through the minefield of cultural sensitivity.
But why blame them alone? I've seen a well-funded research fellow from a good western university pouring a bottle of fizzy soda she was offered in the sand, because she had said a firm no to the offering of a free drink on a sun-baked day in the Kachchh desert. ("I had said I didn't want it, why can't he take no for an answer?" she asked me. I didn't know where to start explaining the concept of hospitality in the Indian culture).
Being a backpacker is not the problem. If the third world is turning against them, it is because they offer lower returns. The backlash against them, emerging in some countries, is driven by an economic motive. A businessman with a gold credit card is likely to spend far more over one meal at a five-star hotel than 20 backpackers in a youth hostel in a week. Crowd the ganja-smoking free-loading backpackers out of the market so they go elsewhere. Give us your dollars, your pounds, your yen, but not the teeming refuse from your shores.
So the developing countries build more expensive resorts, raise the entry prices for tourists, increase the visa fees, deny or take forever in issuing visas, so that the riff-raff will go elsewhere.
But hosting backpackers can have unintended benefits in the longer term. The backpacking experience does leave an indelible image in the mind of the young man or woman who has left behind an affluent society to discover the other world. The world he or she discovers may be unlike the idyllic image in one's mind. As the travel writer Pico Iyer put it memorably in his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu - and I paraphrase here - the west came to Asian beaches to shed its inhibitions and belongings, not seeing the east racing two steps behind, picking up the discarded trinkets.
Nostalgia is a strange balm, you remember the past, not the pain. And it can influence the grown-up, erstwhile backpacker. Not all the teenagers who went to Turkey bummed out and had a ball. Some didn't dodge fares travelling in overcrowded buses, some carried the leftovers gingerly in old newspapers, looking for a wastebasket on busy streets, rather than dumping it under the tree or on the footpath, as many locals would unhesitatingly do.
When they returned, some got their MBAs, and today could be working in the City or Wall Street, possessing a deeper understanding of emerging markets. Some go the whole hog, working for aid agencies in developing countries. Others, like some journalists I know, bring a sympathetic perspective to the events of the countries they report. Still others, like my Japanese friend, actually put their money where their hearts are.
Why would the youth of today be any different from the young of the first wave of backpackers?
-- The Guardian