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Backpacker tourism can be beneficial for poor countries The financial advantages of hosting backpackers often outweigh any social costs

Mark Hampton The Guardian, Friday 24 September 2010

Patrick Kingsley (Gap years: Wasted youth?, 6 September) is right to highlight some of the social problems associated with backpackers at Full Moon Parties in Thailand, Goa and elsewhere. He also describes the common self-image articulated by many backpackers that they are, somehow, not tourists themselves. His interview with Jez captures this disconnect: “Most of the people here are backpackers,” he insists. “Backpackers are infinitely different to tourists. Backpackers will accept anyone.” Despite that, others say that they “hate” conventional tourists who are “idiots”. Kingsley has zeroed in on several ironies. He interviews backpackers on Koh Phangan, an island that meets all conceivable tourist needs – western food, beer and drugs. The backpackers interviewed are preparing to get totally hammered or high, but they still talk of tourists being stupid, or not bothering to understand or relate to their host culture.

The backpackers’ hippy ancestors – on the “road to Kathmandu” in the 60s and 70s – often made similar disparaging comments about the other western tourists that they met in Indian temples or Nepali streets. What has changed are the numbers now “on the road” (or as Kingsley notes, increasingly using low-cost airlines such as Malaysia’s AirAsia). No reliable international data exists but it is likely that thousands are travelling in the developing world with routes through Asia, the “gringo trail” in Latin America, and increasingly in southern Africa.

Despite the problems of the backpackers’ negative social impacts as skewered by Kingsley – “if everything here is all so western and familiar … are they [backpackers] really experiencing Thailand?” – there are significant, positive economic impacts that he does not mention. There is a growing body of research showing that, for many low-income communities in the developing world, the economic benefits of hosting backpackers outweigh their negative (often social) impacts. This local economic development aspect is also now being recognised by some governments such as Malaysia and South Africa, which are actively encouraging backpackers and supporting locally owned businesses and “homestays”.

My own research in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia since the mid-1990s shows that as backpackers tend to consume local products (food, coffee, beer, cigarettes etc), stay in small guest houses, and use locally owned ground transport, more of their expenditure is retained in-country than in conventional mass tourism.

Economic leakages from backpacker tourism are also significantly less than for conventional (foreign-owned) tourism, since backpacker businesses are usually locally owned and profits tend to be retained within the developing country rather than flowing overseas to international hotel groups. Local people have often been very positive about how having their own backpacker business has changed their lives for the better. In Yogyakarta, Indonesia, one guest house owner I interviewed spoke with great pride of how she could now afford to send her children to school as a result of her backpacker business.

Hosting backpacker tourism is not the silver bullet for poor communities, but it can play an important part in international tourism in the global south.

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