Many backpackers are well intentioned when setting out for beckoning distant lands that perhaps they’ve only read about in guidebooks or heard about from friends who’ve made the journey themselves. As these travelers arrive on foreign soil, they boost the local economy by staying at local hotels, guesthouses or hostels and eating at local establishments. And although this sort of emphasis on the local is a key to responsible tourism, if you multiply the individual backpacker by the thousands upon thousands that descend upon many areas, what they leave behind will eventually takes its toll.
British journalist and travel writer Martin Stevenson has considered this issue in depth and is in the process of finishing his book More Than Footprints? How Backpacking Lost Its Way, which expresses his philosophy of how backpacking culture affects the areas these independent travelers visit. For instance, Stevenson describes backpackers inner tubing down the river in Vang Vieng in Laos, drunk and half-naked in a complete party scene. Alongside the river were bars that had sprung up, many complete with ropes, ziplines and – in one case – even a water slide. Accidents – the local hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011, although the actual number may have been higher since some travelers were airlifted out of the area – eventually led the government to move in and start tearing down the bars.
Stevenson was one of the hundreds of backpackers who tubed down the lake before the government shut down the bars that drew foreigners to the area. He writes from the perspective of both the backpackers and the local community of Vang Vieng. On the one hand, there are the river-bar-hopping foreigners treating the area like spring break, Asia-style. On the other side are the establishments popping up to support the partying even though the local culture does not condone such public displays of drunkenness and scanty attire.
“The town’s entire economy – which had been single-handedly created by backpackers – ended up revolving around the party scene on the river, so when the government shut it down, the town’s economy was shut down with it,” Stevenson writes.
It’s that gentle balance between backpackers and the local community they visit – and sometimes treat as an amusement park – that More Than Footprints? tries to address with sincerity, wit and personal experiences that are sometimes light-hearted and often provide serious doses of reality.
“When I started the research I had no idea just how big an impact we backpackers have on places,” Stevenson said. “The concept of More Than Footprints? is less about telling travelers what they should leave, and more about being aware that we do leave things behind. Backpackers have traditionally believed that we travel more lightly across the places we visit, but with our ever-growing numbers, the smaller individual footprint we have has to be multiplied by the number of us carrying the same guidebook.”
Stevenson urges backpackers to ask themselves how many others have stayed in the same hostel, eaten in the same restaurant and drunk beer at the same bar before them and how many will do the same after they leave. Some travelers may smugly think that because they are going it on their own, independently, they are “better” than the tourists who swarm all-inclusive resorts. But the two types of traveler are more interconnected than either one may think.
“The backpacking ‘industry,’ especially in Australia and New Zealand, is beginning to resemble that all-inclusive model. The massive backpacker hostel chain Base is owned by the French hotel group Accor,” said Stevenson. “The CEO of Nomad World, which is one of the biggest backpacking companies in Australia, has said: ‘We make these young people believe they are intrepid adventurers blazing a virgin trail – in fact we provide everything on a plate.’”
Aside from discussing the impact that backpackers have on local economies, More Than Footprints? is also an interesting travelogue about one man’s journey through India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Stevenson details vivid accounts of his experiences, from lengthy, crowded yet surprisingly orderly train travel in India to the touristy trappings and backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road in Bangkok. His insight into the juxtaposition between indie travel and resort-driven tourism runs throughout the book.You can pay 20,000 rupees (US $390) a night to stay in the Taj Mahal Intercontinental, or 400 a night for the room next to mine at the India Guest House round the corner. The rooms at the Taj Mahal Intercontinental offer impressive views of the Gateway of India (where, in 1947, the British folded the Union flag for the last time and sailed away from their Empire), the rooms at the India Guest House don’t. I woke up early and wandered down to the sea front, alone apart from a few joggers. I sat down and watched the rising sun light up the mini-gyre of floating rubbish bumping up against the sea wall. As the heat of a new day in India started to make itself felt, I headed to the chai stall round the corner for a couple of pao vada; deep-fried, spicy potato fritters served in a bun which, at about 15 cents with a glass of chai make a very decent breakfast.
Due out in January 2014, More Than Footprints? is a travelogue with a twist that provides readers with much to think about in terms of the backpacking community.
“I’m not trying to tell people how to travel in the book. I’m just asking all those questions which the travel industry – and the guidebooks – would rather we didn’t know the answers to,” Stevenson said.