Backpackers are predominantly known as budget travelers. They want to spend the least and get the most. They will stretch the dollar to the max and squeeze every cent just to get an extra drink or a super discount. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! After all, money is hard earned and bargains are great. However, backpackers have increased over the years with the rise of budget airlines such as Jetstar, Air Asia and Cebu Pacific. This means that more backpackers are hitting the road annually and the impact on the destinations are both good and bad. Obscure destinations are getting free publicity via travel blogs and shared photos, money is spent and job opportunities are created. However on the flipside, tough issues such as over development, siphoning of money out of the local economy and the erosion of cultures are becoming an apparent problem.
Martin Stevenson is the founder of “More Than Footprints”, a website written by backpackers, for backpackers. It hopes to debunk the glossy travel writing that sounds more like advertorials and to provide a platform for travelers to find real information and discuss real issues while on the move. Martin was and still is a backpacker – a nature of travel that he enjoys. He spent three years in Southeast Asia researching and writing ‘More than footprints? – How backpacking lost its way’, a fantastic read uncovering lessons learnt while he was on foot in Asia.
In this short interview, Martin shared with me some insights into the world of backpackers and the impact they leave on destinations they have trodden on. It left a huge reminder that all of us, independent travelers can do something – somewhere, somehow when we go on our next holiday.
Ardent Traveler (AT): What inspired you to write “More Than Footprints”?
Martin: When we think about un-sustainable tourism, we usually think about ‘mass’ tourism; big resorts and hotels on beaches. But over 20 years of backpacking, as I returned to places, I started to look at the development that was happening in ‘backpacker’ centres – places where mass tourists generally never set foot – and I started to wonder if backpacking might have a few problems of its own. I started to write about it and the articles and blogs became the book.
AT: What was the most surprising thing you learned over the course of writing & putting together this book?
Martin: How much backpacking has changed. It’s not just the places that have changed; it’s the backpackers themselves. Twenty years ago you could pretty much guarantee that a backpacker would be young, taking time out from uni, and from nothern Europe or Australasia. Today they cover every age group, background and nationality. The couple flicking through their Lonely Planet are as likely to be in the fifties as in their twenties. With this change in the demographic, the way in which we need to promote sustainable, responsible tourism has also changed.
AT: Is there a reason why you chose to focus on backpackers instead of tour groups or luxury travelers and the types of damage backpackers are doing when they travel?
Martin: Lots is published about ‘mass’ tourism and its environmental, economic, political and social impact on destinations, but as I started to research backpacking, and tried to find some literature about it, I found there was very little being written. A handful of academics cover the subject, but most NGOs and sustainable travel websites focus on the package and all-inclusive industries. The work they do is important of course, but with backpacking’s ever growing numbers, we need an outlet for them to be discussing the issues too.
One of the most striking things about the research was that whenever I discussed the issues with backpackers, they recognised every issue I mentioned, but I was the first person who had ever talked about it with them.
AT: When backpackers say they are contributing back to the community by volunteering, do you think they actually leave a positive impact or it is more of a “feel good” gesture?
Martin: The voluntourism sector is a very worrying area. If a volunteer feels good about what they’ve done, that’s not necessarily a negative side-effect – if the project was beneficial for the people they were working with. The problem really lies with the organisations that these volunteers are paying to join. A volunteer with no experience cannot be expected to know a great deal about development practices, so they have to place their trust in the organisations and projects they join. There is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘help’, but there are some highly unethical projects and organisations out there who are happy to exploit this desire – usually at the expense of those communities they are supposed to ‘help’. Of course, there are also excellent organisations who genuinely benefit local communities. The problem is that most volunteers don’t have access to the information they need so that they can’t ask the right questions.
AT: There are huge numbers of backpackers exploring South East Asia annually because it is relatively cheap and your dollar goes a long way more. What does this mean to the destination and its people in the long run?
Martin: The popular image of a backpacker is a student who is watching every penny, and this is true, but there are hundreds of thousands of backpackers out there and together they spend a vast amount of money.
Over half a million backpackers will visit Australia this year, and they will spend over $3 billion between them. The question of whether this money benefits local people is perhaps the most important one facing backpackers at the moment.
Traditionally, backpackers have stayed in locally-owned hostels, eaten in locally-owned restaurants, and their money has tended to stay in local pockets, but as the wider tourism industry has noticed how much money backpackers are spending, they have started to move into the ‘independent’ travel sector. X Base, a chain of backpacker hostels in Australia and New Zealand, is owned by the same company that owns the Sofitel, Ibis and Mercure hotel brands. So in order for backpackers to be of economic benefit to Southeast Asia, they have to ensure that the money they spend is staying in the local economy, and not being syphoned off to a foreign bank account.
AT: What choices do you see that travelers can make to positively impact destinations they travel to?
Martin: It really all comes down to how we see ourselves when we’re travelling. If we think of ourselves as Marco Polo, we are going to have a hugely negative impact on the places we visit. But if we stop thinking of ourselves as adventurers (let’s be honest, what have we discovered lately?), and start to acknowledge that we are part of a new form of ‘mass’ tourism – mass backpacking – then we can start to look at our ‘combined’ impact. It’s a less romantic view of travel than we might like, but if we place ourselves at the front of a very long queue of people who are all doing the same thing (because we are all going to the same places, and using the same guide book to get there), then we can start to see our purchases and activities in term of multiplying them by the number of other people who are just like us and doing exactly the same things.
If I pick the smallest amount of coral out of the seabed as a souvenir, I can imagine that there are a lot of other people just like me doing the same thing, which means the end of the coral. A beneficial flip-side of that coin is that if we can travel responsibly, then we can have an equally positive impact.
AT: What are you doing as an ‘enlightened’ traveler to help make tourism more sustainable?
Martin: Ha! Makes it sound like I wrote the book sitting under a Banyan tree! Now that the book is out it’s a question of getting the information out too. Most of the readers I’ve spoken too were shocked by what I’d found out. The book was very well received when it went on sale but I realised that far more people would have access to the information if they didn’t have to pay for it, so the decision was made to give it away for free through a new website. We launched the site this week, and anyone who posts an article on the site gets the book. The writing isn’t just about sustainable travel – though there is a section dedicated to it – we also have guides, travelogues, and section for travel fiction (only the location has to be real!). So I’m looking forward to seeing the debate grow, and the information backpackers need coming out of our writers’ articles.
AT: In this day and age, travel blogs and social media have somewhat taken over traditional travel guidebooks. What role do you see bloggers playing in helping to create better destinations?
Martin: If there’s one thing backpackers do more than any other type of tourist, it is look to their fellow travellers for information. The discussions that backpackers have in bars on Changkat, on boats out to Full Moon Parties, and while taking photos of the sunrise at Angkor Wat, are the perfect medium to disseminate this information. A major problem though is that there is a new generation of backpackers every year who have never been to the Perhentians before and so assume that’s what it has always looked like. They don’t go back year after year and so don’t see the impact they are having, so they assume they aren’t having an impact. Because backpackers do over half their research online, blogs have a key role in making them aware that backpackers impact those places we visit just as much as mass tourists. Some backpackers do go back of course, and it always amazes me when I hear some guy on a beach somewhere say: “It was much better when I was here ten years ago, less developed.” Well, where does he think that development has come from? It was the money he spent ten years ago that paid for it!