Thought bubbles: travel today and the rise of the experience chasing backpacker

My boyfriend and I have been on the road for awhile now and seen our fair share of countries in the process, and it seems that everywhere we go – from Bali to Nicaragua – we keep noticing a certain type of traveler. While my parents’ generation had the all-inclusive package vacationers, it seems the travel tides of today have washed up a lot of people in search of “authentic experiences.” Droves of travelers hyper-focused on visiting all of the temples, going to all of the most remote waterfalls, seeing all of the sights, while maintaining the most local, “non-touristy” experience as possible (and yet not seeming to actually interact with too many locals at all – more on that later). Many only staying for one or two nights in a place before racing on to the next destination. I may sound jaded, but when you keep noticing the same patterns everywhere you go, the more interesting it becomes, and the more it causes you to wonder.

Ask someone if they tried the Thai place in San Juan Del Sur, in response you get; “No, I didn’t eat Thai food in Nicaragua. I ate local fish.” When did simply traveling for enjoyment and to see something new become a competition for who can have the most “authentic” travel experience? How do you define “authentic” anyway?

“You went there, but you didn’t climb the volcano?”

“Oh, you can really skip that city, there’s nothing there.” or “Don’t even bother going there, it’s so touristy now.”

These sorts of interactions become commonplace very quickly when you’re on the road. The best example was when we were in Bali. Everywhere we went people kept telling us we needed to go somewhere else to experience the “real” Bali. We would travel to the next destination, and we’d hear it again; “Oh, this place was good 10 years ago, but now you need to go to ___.” While I believe most of these people are well-meaning and simply sharing what they believe to be true and helpful, it all starts to sound cliche and a tad overblown, especially when it comes with an air of egotism attached.

And the more we travel in countries that are backpacker hotspots for their cheap(er) prices and promises of sun and “raw” nature, the more often we notice a rift between locals and travelers. While travelers to European cities usually focus on soaking up the culture, meeting locals in bars and exploring all of the neighborhoods of a city, in the Americas and Asia (I can’t speak to Africa as I haven’t been there yet), the focus tends to be less on getting to know the places and the people and more on finding “untouched” villages or remote adventures with the scent of the exotic. And the cities you visit reflect this preference. Places usually empty out during the day while travelers are out on excursions and fill up at night as the same travelers walk around shirtless and shoeless or only wearing skimpy bikini tops with elephant pants. Meanwhile, the locals, who are usually only the workers, are fully covered up and lounging in the restaurants or shops waiting for customers to return. Worlds don’t meet more than to order a beer or to arrange a shuttle to the beach. Probably as a result of this, the locals end up viewing tourists as silly gringos, bulesgaijin, good for big money and not much else. If you don’t want to pay the inflated price for the local food, they don’t care, they know the next traveler won’t mind. And of course, they cater to these new crowds too, building the places that the modern backpacker has come to expect: coffee shops with free wifi, expensive yoga studios, healthy food places that advertise “local and artisanally” made products. In the end, cities start to feel more like playgrounds for backpackers rather than places where people, live, eat and worship.

It’s a sad truth we see again and again, but it’s easy to see why it happens. With traveler after traveler coming through a town only to ignore the local customs and to solely interact with fellow backpackers, you can see why we all look ridiculous in their eyes, and as locals come to view travelers as foolish money pots, you can see why travelers tend to stay more to themselves.

Of course, this is a generalization. Not every backpacker is this type and not every local views travelers as jokes or targets for big money, but generalizations are a way to get at a larger trend. To investigate the patterns you see, the ones driven by privilege and class, the ones that may nag at you and compel you to write a blog post such as this.

“Experience” is the basic term in the rhetoric of modernity (MacCannell 1976: 68) ~ from here.

The rise of the experience seeking backpacker_travelers today_seeking the authentic experience in travel_2

I’m not saying I’m immune to all this either or any better for that matter. I know I’m easily judge-able as well. I’ve been known to seek out the “hidden” spots, I love third wave coffee shops and yoga, and sometimes find myself disappointed when a place is overrun by tourists, but noticing this allows me to call myself on my own bullshit more, to realize when I’m falling into the trap of always chasing that elusive windmill of the more “real” place or the more “true” experience. To recognize that seeking out local food is wonderful, but sometimes if you feel like a pizza, then you feel like a pizza.

And it’s also not to say that all this is bad either. Wanting to experience nature that’s not available in your own country makes sense, desiring adventure is understandable. I think most of us seek that on some level. At the end of the day, we all travel for our own reasons and are on our own path, but questioning this mode of travel that seems to reign today compels me to dig deeper into why exactly it is I’m traveling in the first place, and, in the process, find my own appreciation of what it is all for, and how I can do it more respectfully.

~

Tell me: have you noticed this trend too? What do you make of it all? I’d love to hear your opinions on this one!

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