Many things have changed in the world since the first independent travellers ventured off into unknown a few decades ago…
When hippies were discovering the Asia, Africa, South America or even Eastern Europe, travel was harder and they were immersed in the foreign culture. They may have a small budget, but the means of international transport were no cheap thing, so they had to do it unconventionally. The communication with home and Western world was harder, local language was easier to pick up when there was no Google translate to aid their hand gestures. Most of all, almost all of the roads were less-travelled or off-the-path.
This is no longer true in majority of places around the globe, and thus backpackers evolved.
What it meant to be a backpacker
Backpackers were a different breed than what they are now. The experience was more focused on local people and learning their customs, cultures and languages. Since there were nearly no western restaurants abroad, backpackers had to eat what they’re offered. Even information on how to get from one place to another had to come from a local or fellow backpacker who has already done something similar, but it was much harder to find the latter. Lonely planet books became popular not so long ago, so preparation for such a journey took more than $20 in a book store.
People who had passion for discovery, mostly carrying huge backpacks, were proud to be independent travellers on low budget. They came up with a name backpacking and felt an instant liking for people who did what they did. It meant something to be a backpacker, so much so it became mainstream now. And all of it was true as recently as 10-15 years ago.
What backpackers do now
Technological advancements made it easy to share information, cheap international flights made it easy to travel far, and mass media including internet made it easy to share information. Foreign independent long-term travel became cheaper, faster, safer and much more common. It’s even much easier to develop online source of income to support travels.
So what backpackers tend to do now (not all, of course)? Party, and party they do. Seems like the easier access to backpacking and the fact that it became mainstream did the term no good deed. Instead of immersion in a foreign culture, young people just before going to university, or just after graduating, go on long vacation to party just like at home. The difference is that they call them selves backpackers, but instead of learning the new culture, they abuse the lesser regulation to do things they wouldn’t do at their home countries.
For example, once a peaceful island of Koh Phangan in Thailand is now a backpacking destination where thousands of young people go to drink beyond any limit. The societies of such destinations change dramatically from hospitable and welcoming to greedy and loathing Western culture. No wonder, anyone who visited Vang Vieng in Laos can see it on peoples’ faces. Money is not what these local people were brought up to value the most, but since that’s the only good thing that is left for them after the visitors leave – they’ve learned to use it.
Backpackers now are mostly people who travel to foreign countries to party and meet other backpackers. It’s only a wild break from their family and time to do things they’d be scared or ashamed to do back home. Of course I’m not saying that a traveller cannot drink, but if majority of the journey is spent drunk, it’s as good as staying at home.
What are the alternatives
Well, for one people who do this should revise what they call themselves – “drinkpacker” should work. Then again, there are already other names in use, such as “flashpacker” or “poshpacker”. I personally call myself tramp. This is a word that rarely anyone would like to be called in their city, but for me it means much more than a homeless. In the context of a traveller, it’s someone temporarily homeless so that they can have more freedom. It’s inspired by Into the Wild where the main character called himself Alexander SuperTramp.