Backpacking, an honored tradition for the young, could become a victim of the Covid pandemic

Jan 6, 2021 | 2 comments

A backpacking couple check their phone messages in Buenos Aires.

By Tamara Hardingham-Gill

Backpacking trips have been something of a rite of passage for young people for almost 70 years.

Whether you’re setting off around the world, or exploring a particular region, country, or city, taking off with a few belongings and moving from destination to destination remains a hugely attractive prospect for those searching for fun and adventure.

Sadly, the border restrictions implemented due to Covid-19 have left most backpackers unable to travel extensively, and many are itching to hit the road once again. But even when the world begins to reopen, they might struggle to find their place in it.

Although round-the-world trips vacations date back centuries, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s, when backpacking as we know it truly began. An overland route between Europe and Southeast Asia, which became known as the “hippie trail,” proved popular among young people with limited budgets who were keen to broaden their horizons. Another popular route developed in South America.

The popularity of the trail led to the publication of the first Lonely Planet guidebook, “Across Asia on the Cheap,” in 1973, written by co-founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler.

While backpacking has certainly evolved in the years since then, it tends to involve hopping from place to place, staying in hostels, picking up temporary jobs here and there and bonding with fellow travelers. “Backpacking is a timeless concept,” Kash Bhattacharya, founder of and author of “The Grand Hostels: Luxury Hostels of the World,” tells CNN. “It’s very easy and accessible. I’ve been backpacking for 20 years now and the sense of connection, humanity and curiosity never ends no matter how old I get.”

One of the many appeals to this type of travel is affordability. Backpackers can bed down in hostel-like dormitories for a fraction of the price of hotels, and the growth of low-cost carriers helped to open things up for those who had previously seen travel as out of their reach financially.

In 2019, more than 45 million backpackers explored the world.

But with airlines set to see combined losses of $157 billion in 2020 and 2021, according to the International Air Transport Association, the cheap flights that many backpackers rely on could soon become a thing of the past.

And while the roll out of Covid-19 vaccines in a number of countries, including the US and the UK, is no doubt a positive step, more and more destinations now require proof of a negative PCR test on departure or arrival.

Such requirements will likely end up being rather costly for those planning to visit multiple destinations where tests aren’t provided free of charge.

So can this form of low-cost, independent travel really survive a new age of social distancing, test and trace, potentially rising flight prices and constantly changing travel restrictions? There’s no doubt that the loss of income from backpackers has impacted the destinations these travelers frequent in large numbers.

Although backpacking is a relatively cheap way to travel independently, it brings in a huge amount of revenue to the tourism industry. According to figures from WYSE Travel Confederation, 45 million backpacking trips are taken each year, with the average amount of money spent per trip in 2017 at around $4,000.

Southeast Asia has remained one of the world’s most popular backpacking spots since the hippie trail days and Thailand is undoubtedly one of its top destinations. Over 20 million people visit its capital Bangkok each year, and the vast majority end up going to Khao San Road, one of the most famous backpacker strips.

The bustling street lined with bars, restaurants, hostels and street vendors previously had hordes of high-spirited travelers spilling out at every corner. But Khao San Road lay pretty much deserted for months when Thailand closed its borders in April.

Officials seized this opportunity to give the street a $1.54 million facelift, a move that Deputy Bangkok Governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul had been pushing for for years.

Bangkok’s Khao San Road, one of the most famous backpacker strips, is suffering due to a lack of travelers.

However, business remains relatively slow due to the lack of travelers and the fact the most hotels are still closed. According to Phattiyakul, international tourists account for at least 90% of visitors to Khao San Road.

Things have been so shaky without them, that officials decided to launch a “Go to Khao San 2435” to attract more locals to the area, a move that would have seemed unthinkable this time last year.

But does a city like Bangkok, along with similar destinations that were largely overrun with travelers before the pandemic, actually want backpackers back? After all, low budget travelers have — perhaps unfairly — become synonymous with bad behavior over the years, and the likes of Australia, another top backpacking spot, have seemingly taken steps to discourage them from visiting.

In 2017, a controversial “backpacker tax” was introduced, meaning people on working holidays could be taxed 15% — Australian workers have a tax-free threshold of A$18,200 (US $12,500). The tax was ruled illegal for citizens of eight countries which have treaties with Australia, including the UK, US, Germany and Japan, in October 2019,

“Most destinations are focusing on high-yield market segments now,” Denis Tolkach, assistant professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told CNN last year. “Backpackers are traditionally known for exploring destinations off the beaten track, purchasing local products and interacting with local residents, but in large numbers they can inflict damage to the local environment, culture and community through partying and misbehaving.”

With that in mind, could the after effects of Covid-19 see places that have become weary of budget travelers opting to keep them out for good?

Linda Martinez and Steve Brenner from the Beehive Hostel in Rome are selling bagels and pickles to keep afloat.

Stuart Nash, tourism minister for New Zealand, another hugely popular backpacking spot, indicated that this might well be the case when he suggested the country would be marketing to more “high-net-worth individuals” in the future. His words were viewed as a direct snub to backpackers, many of whom arrive on working holiday visas and take on jobs such as fruit picking and farm work.

But Jenni Powell, chair of the Backpacker Youth and Adventure Tourism Association, stresses that backpackers contribute to New Zealand in many different and positive ways, and their presence has been missed. “Pre Covid, international youth arrivals were about 25% of total visitor arrivals for New Zealand and contributed about 1.5 billion New Zealand dollars to the economy,” she tells CNN.

“So it [the lack of backpackers] is huge for us. We can’t wait for the borders to open safely again.” According to Powell, younger travelers visit more destinations around the country and stay for longer, which is good for seasonal growth. “The value that this market brings is not just economic,” she adds. “They contribute environmentally and socially and they add to us culturally.”

New Zealand has been relatively successful at containing coronavirus outbreaks, and social distancing and mask wearing has never been commonplace there, which is likely to increase its appeal with travelers. “In a world after Covid, or even with Covid, New Zealand is a really attractive travel proposition for people to actually get that sense of normality back,” says Powell.

She predicts that budget travel will be the first to recover once international travel resumes, as “millennial travelers are crisis resilient.”

Credit: CNN