Backpacking is a trend that has become increasingly popular among younger generations. The Boston Consulting Group reports that millennials express more interest in traveling than older generations by 23%, and The United World Tourism Organization estimates that 20% of all tourists abroad are indeed younger people.
There has also been a shift in the type of travel a millennial seeks versus their elder counterparts: a move away from week-long luxury trips at picturesque destinations, towards long-term budget trips in lesser-known towns instead.
So it would seem that people are more invested in seeing the world, and in seeing the non-touristy parts of it to boot. Isn’t this a good thing? Doesn’t this lead to more informed, worldly citizens?
Perhaps in some ways it does. The problem arises when these world-travelers, fortunate enough to see new countries in the first place, start getting the money to travel by begging for it from locals.
The begpacking phenomenon
The word begpacking arose from combining beg (to plead or solicit) with backpacking (to travel with all of your belongings in a backpack). It refers to a new wave of backpackers – usually young, usually white – who stand curbside with a poster imploring passerby to “hug me, this is for free, but you can support my trip with some donation” or “travel around the world without money please support my trip.”
According to The Diplomat, begpacking is something that has already been happening in Southeast Asia for many years. Only recently has it begun to gain attention on social media, likely because as the number of backpackers increases, so does the number of begpackers. And given Southeast Asia’s popularity as a backpacking destination, it’s a trend that is seen most in this area.
The reason this practice is condemned by many outraged viewers is that these travelers usually come from countries that are wealthier and more privileged than the countries they travel to. Just the fact that they can travel indicates their level of privilege. Then they proceed to ask for money from communities that simply don’t have a lot of it, just because they want to travel more.
It’s not hard to see why onlookers are frustrated.
Could that money be used to better feed the family that generously donated it? Probably. Could it have gone to the local homeless population? It could have. But instead, it’s given to people who are incredibly lucky to even be in that country, and used to help them continue exercising a privilege the very people donating the money don’t possess themselves.
Busking: an alternative?
A similar but less-hated way that backpackers try to make money is through busking. This word refers to soliciting money in exchange for something, like live music or handmade trinkets. It can be synonymous with street performing, but can also apply to people that set up a blanket and offer their paintings for sale.
Some will group this activity with begpacking, like blogger Majda Saidi, while others view it as acceptable given that the individual has to “work” to earn the money they make as a result. There is even a site called The Broke Backpacker that describes busking as “an absolutely kicka** thing to do while traveling” and a site promoting busking as “sustainable travel.”
For those who oppose, however, the underlying problem is the same: foreigners who believe it’s okay to enter a country without enough funds to support themselves, and then get that money from the people living there.
Either way, countries are cracking down
Whether it’s busking or begpacking, authorities are fed-up with the practice. The Guardian reports that Hong Kong has created new rules against busking, and that Thailand is asking visitors to prove they have enough funds for their travels before entering the country. It is, after all, generally illegal to work or make money with a tourist visa anyway.
Some begpackers have even been arrested, as this couple was for swinging their baby around as entertainment for money. Sure, it’s cute when parents toss their baby in the air a couple of times to make their kid giggle, but using it as a nightly performance for money? Seems questionable.
As tensions rise between “broke backpackers” and outraged locals, backpackers are pushed to reflect on their lifestyle both legally and morally. Is traveling the world as eye-opening as it is toted to be when travelers seem blind to their exploitation of privilege? Is traveling frugally really something to be admired when it’s done at the locals’ expense?
As our world becomes increasingly globalized day by day, and the urge rises among young white people to discover new places, it seems these questions are things we will have to contend with. Of course, there is no denying the incredible experiences one can have when visiting unknown lands, but how one goes about visiting does matter, and should be carefully considered before booking a plane flight.
So if you find yourself itching to sell all of your belongings and fly to Singapore, make sure that you at least have enough money to get back home again. And if you don’t want to come back home, maybe you should look into alternative means of travel that will not require getting funds from working citizens.
It may take a little more effort and planning, but it’s a small price to pay to show respect to the country you are visiting.