Why do backpackers gravitate to unstable countries?

Recently, a journalism student in the U.K. emailed me for insights on a paper she was writing about why backpackers choose to travel to politically and economically unstable countries. Do independent travelers seek these places because they think they can help, she asked, or is there some different reason?

Since I find this topic interesting, I’ll share my reply here:

There has long been a connection between independent travel and unstable countries. The main reason backpackers visit such countries is because these places are cheaper, more interesting, more adventurous, and often more culturally colorful than travel to more stable countries in the industrialized part of the world. These places allow one to travel on a budget while escaping from the trappings of modernity and meeting fascinating people (all the while avoiding the insipidity of the mainstream tourist circuit).

As for “helping an issue in the country”, I think this is more a rhetorical travel impetus than something that is practiced in any meaningful way. It is fashionable for indie travelers to declare that their trip has a philanthropic purpose (and I have no doubt as to their sincerity), but in the end it can be hard to make a significant impact on a place when you are just passing through. Even Peace Corps volunteers admit that two years in a community is barely enough to identify the problems and nuances within an area, let alone solve them. Prosaic as it might seem, sometimes the best thing you can do in a community is simply spend money in a way that supports local merchants and families, since local leaders are much better qualified than backpackers to identify and solve broader local problems. I addressed this issue to some extent in a recent Ask Rolf column in World Hum.

Also, anthropological studies have been made of tourist behavior — and these studies conclude that (like the greater society around them) backpackers’ travel motivations are tied into “status” within their own community. Whereas luxury travelers can gain status by staying at expensive resorts, status in backpacker subcommunities revolves around visiting places few others have seen, making personal contact with locals, and spending less money than other travelers.

Posted by | Comments (1)  | May 12, 2006
Category: General

One Response to “Why do backpackers gravitate to unstable countries?”

  1. elizabeth Says:

    Absolutely agree with most everything written above.

    Only one point on which I differ: often politically unstable countries are MORE expensive than places which receive many tourists.

    Cheap prices for tourists depend on many factors: key is competition at a local level, a variety of locally-produced goods, and a reasonable transport network to get items like fresh water and produce from one place to another.

    I live in Cambodia and prices here are a good deal higher than in Vietnam and Thailand. Part of it is we’ve fewer tourists, but the main reason is there’s simply very little large-scale industry here, aside from garment factories. There’s not much foreign investment as few people trust this particularly corrupt government. Most items are imported so are stuck with a hefty import tax – aside from those smuggled by kids into Poipet and by container into Koh Kong from Thailand.

    Accommodation tends to be more expensive as well.