Backpackers: the front line of tourism

A very interesting article in the Times recently on how India is rebranding as a luxury destination.

But one bit got my goat. Amitabh Kant, the “guru” responsible for the rebranding noted the following:

“All that I’m against is getting in too many backpackers,” Mr Kant said, adding that his dislike of budget tourists is nothing personal but based on financial pragmatism. “For a country with India’s overstretched infrastructure, backpackers do more damage than good to the economy. Particularly the British variety.”

Balderdash. Especially for tourist economies trying to get (back) on their feet, or trying to extend their market or push new areas of their country. Look at burgeoning tourism in eastern Europe through the 90s. Look at the Balkans over the last four years. Who were the front line after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Yugoslav troubles? Backpackers. Columbia is supposed to be one of the world’s most up-and-coming destinations. Who’s leading the charge? Backpackers. The Silk routes, Indonesia, swathes of Africa… same deal.

Ok, I agree that ethno-rahs swinging poi and getting shit-faced in Goa doesn’t really corroberate my point. But still… ignore the backpacker at your peril. When the Indian authorities decide that the stunning (but politically tumultuous) Kashmir region is ready to be pushed at tourists, it won’t be Ramada or Best Western who start the process. It will be backpackers. Consistently, they are the front line.

A few interesting follow-ups on the story: Paul Carvill on the tricky art of national rebranding, and Brave New Traveller on “A New and Improved India”

Image: garryknight on Flickr / Some right reserved

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6 responses to “Backpackers: the front line of tourism

  1. Totally agree, but maybe the problem is a lexical one. I would consider myself a backpacker, as I think (at peril because I don’t know him) would a great travel writer like William Dalrymple…Now at an even greater peril of lumping myself in with a great writer, maybe ‘travelers’ or people looking to discover while carrying a pack should be distinguished from those trying to ‘get away’ yet be somewhere comfortable?

    Maybe a new term needs to be invented?

  2. I spent 9 wonderful months backpacking through India and did, in any way possible, use its incomparably cheap guest houses and trains to my advantage. Is this the infrastructure Mr Kant refers to?

    Indian Railways turns a very healthy profit. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s one of the few nationalised rail systems to do so. Nobodies’ taxes subsidised my journeys. The guest houses I stayed in were locally owned, in towns where there was little room for other kinds of entrepreneurship. Big, luxury hotels, by contrast, are mostly run by foreign corporations. And the British variety? That’s pathetic. The worst abusers, the people who are in India because it’s cheap and it isn’t home, are Israelis and Russians. They often view the Indians in (big surprise) India, as an inconvenience. The semi-naked Brits that comments on the Time article refer to aren’t backpackers. They’re people who bought a cheap package somewhere on the high street, because it was cheaper than going to Greece.

    Tourism in Goa is just generally ugly. I remember Israelis refusing Indians access to a trance party, and Indians charging tourists ten times more for a trance party than locals.

    India, besides, is not a luxurious place. Clean up Agra, sure, but branding it as a luxury destination reminds me of the Bollywood movies in which everybody drives a BMW and lives in big modern homes: a fantasy.

    @Troy Do the former or the latter of your two types need a new name?

  3. Doesn’t really matter, I think what’s important is to distinguish between the two. It may sound terribly pedantic, but there is a difference. I’m thinking along the lines of ‘traveler’ and ‘tourist’.

  4. Great post, Benji. Also, I love the word “ethno-rahs.”

    I got stuck at a dinner party once (a parental affair) next to a blowhard who went on about how he loved Bhutan so much because, unlike Nepal, it hadn’t been “ruined by backpackers.” It was a lovely evening, obvs.

  5. cheers for the comments. I think there is a definitely distiguishable difference between “travellers” and “tourists”… but there is no hierarchy, and shouldn’t be. People that want to get away from everything and sit by a pool are perfectly entitled to do so, as are those who want to dive into the local cultures.

    But both should be appreciated for their relative worth… and “travellers” should be appreciated for paving the way for “toursits”.

  6. You’re right, definitely no hierarchy and there certainly is nothing wrong with someone wanting to sit next to a pool at the all-inclusive, the great majority of those certainly wouldn’t list themselves as backpackers.

    That said, those aren’t the ‘backpackers’ causing all the ruckus, or at least in my interpretation of it. The ‘backpackers’ causing the problems are the ones sitting on Kao San Rd moaning about the heat and that the noodles are too spicy, those shacking up in small villages in Southern Laos throwing used condoms out of windows, idiots with packs in Cuzco, Peru overstaying their welcome because cocaine is cheaper than back home and others throwing up on the seawalk in Marbella.

    I think these are the ones that are being referred to, and as to their being appreciated…well to each their own.

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