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For decades, hordes of travelers have explored vast sections of the globe with a backpack in tow. Whether they were hitting up the tried and true Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia or memorably losing a journal during those travels, many people have viewed those trips as seminal moments in their lives.
But backpacker tourism faces an uncertain post-pandemic future. Several destinations, like New Zealand, that are popular with backpackers may focus more on attracting high-end visitors.
Moreover, the death of backpacker tourism has already been foreshadowed as the cheap flights many young travelers have relied on may become less frequent as airlines seek to recoup massive losses they’ve suffered.
But is such fear warranted? Maybe not. Outdoor tourism remains a popular option for travelers looking for socially distanced activities.
“I don’t think that anything will ‘kill off’ youth tourism,” said Wendy Morrill, the research and education manager at the WYSE Travel Confederation. “And I say, ‘youth tourism’ as ‘backpacker tourism’ as what I consider Australia and New Zealand’s branding/labeling of the segment of travelers who are 30 to 35 years old or younger and utilize their working holidays schemes,” she added.
Nikki Scott seconds Morrill’s opinion. “I think that backpacking will certainly change after the pandemic,” noted the creator of Southeast Asia Backpacker, an online community geared toward travelers to the region. “But backpacker tourism could be one form of tourism that bounces back quicker than others.”
How Backpacking Will Change
So if Covid-19 doesn’t kill backpacker tourism, how might it change?
Strangely enough, the pandemic might help create more backpackers. “Once travel is allowed again, people will be so desperate to travel that there will be a travel boom!” predicted Scott. “Many people have realized during this time that they can do their jobs effectively from home using only their laptops, so why not do them from the road?”
She added with “working from home” being a modern norm, more travelers will likely become backpackers and digital nomads, the latter which Morrill said “a lot of people are scrambling to understand” if that market brings any value.
But regardless of whether more backpackers become digital nomads or not, Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) should have a vested interest in ensuring the long-term viability of backpacker tourism (Tourism Research Australia classifies a backpacker as a person “who spends at least one night in either backpacker or hostel accommodation”).
For one, the youth travel market is incredibly lucrative. According to the Backpacker Youth Adventure Tourism Association, an advocacy group for the backpacking and adventure travel industry in New Zealand, the youth market (defined by Rebecca Annan, the general manager of the BYATA, as travelers between 18 and 35 years old) is worth $1.5 billion annually to the country. Meanwhile, across the Tasman Sea, the 2.4 million youth visitors to Australia in 2019 represented 45 percent of all visitor spend in the country, roughly $20 billion.
Furthermore, backpacker tourism can enhance local communities. Research has revealed that it generates less economic leakage than customary mass tourism as businesses geared toward backpackers tend to be locally owned, thus keeping the profits in the country.
“The backpacker tourism industry is definitely high net worth to New Zealand as it’s not just one dimensional,” BYATA’s Annan noted. “It affects our whole economy as a number of small-to-medium sized businesses also make their living by people traveling, purchasing and staying throughout New Zealand.”
But before blessing locations financially, backpackers will have to overcome some hurdles before hitting the road. First, getting vaccinated. “Travelers will very likely have to be vaccinated for Covid-19 before they fly and they will have to have travel insurance that covers Covid-19,” Southeast Asia Backpacker’s Scott noted. In addition, she feels that backpackers won’t be able to cross international borders as easily as they could pre-pandemic.
But globe-trotting may not be as challenging as it seems. “I think that even if flights from Europe to Southeast Asia doubled in price (which they show no sign of doing at the moment), I think that backpackers would still fly West to East regularly,” predicted Scott. “Perhaps, it would mean that backpackers are forced to plan longer trips in order to make the most of their expensive plane ticket. However, I do not think that the price will put them off traveling to Asia in the first place.”
She added that those prospective backpackers will simply stay at home a few more months and save money for their travels, which they’ll need because “travel insurance, flights, and Covid tests will make travel more expensive than it used to be. Because of this, perhaps hostels and tours will become more expensive as local tour operators and hostels will not be able to rely on the numbers like they could in the old days.”
Making Plans if Western Backpackers Don’t Return
If Western backpackers don’t visit Southeast Asia in large numbers as they did pre-pandemic, destination marketing organizations in the region need not despair as they can target Chinese and Japanese backpackers. “I think that there will be a push by governments and tourism boards to attract these types of backpackers before the return of the Western backpackers,” Scott foresees. “This will be encouraged via travel bubbles and special visa arrangements. As most of Asia seems to have much better control of the pandemic than Europe or the USA, I think we will see Asian countries teaming up to promote tourism between themselves, especially countries that have managed to get Covid cases down to practically zero.”
During the pandemic, destination marketers have been able to go back to the drawing board—New Zealand being one of them. “Recently, Tourism New Zealand redefined its focus to ensure that tourism enriches our home and people via four well-beings—nature, economy, society and culture,” said a representative of the agency.
Likewise, a similar shift will probably come to Southeast Asia. “During lockdowns across the world, many famous tourist destinations became empty and many locals saw the benefit of fewer people traipsing around local beauty spots. Many tourism departments are promoting sustainable tourism and focusing on the revival of natural wonders,” Scott said.
Such a development could kill one of the major events on backpackers’ itineraries: the Full Moon Party. “I can’t speak for the islanders of Koh Phangan,” Scott acknowledged, “But perhaps once the pandemic is over, they will be looking to replace the Full Moon Party (which has attracted thousands of possibly alcohol and drug fueled travelers to the island) with a more nourishing form of tourism that brings fewer people paying more money to stay for longer.”
Meanwhile, back in New Zealand, “our tourism stakeholders are looking at other ways to improve the general backpacker experience,” noted Annan. “From a cultural and sustainable perspective, they are looking at their product mix, providing a better and more rewarding experience.”
Part of ensuring a better experience for everyone is nipping problems in the bud. New Zealand Tourism Minister Stuart Nash raised a fuss when he announced his desire to ban the lease of vans lacking toilet facilities to international visitors, saying “If the driver or the passenger wants to go to the toilet—we all know examples of this—they pull over to the road and they shit in our waterways.”
However, Annan doesn’t seem worried about the issue. “The point we need to make here is about educating people in New Zealand who use campers, and people who visit [the country] and travel around in and hire campers. Our industry currently regulates camper vans, so we are the ones who can make the change that’s needed. The removal of campers that don’t have bathrooms isn’t going to necessarily fix the problem. Let’s educate, regulate, provide facilities, so in that way, we’re actually containing the problem.”
Reconsidering the Budget Traveler
Tourism stakeholders should also reevaluate preconceived notions of the youth travel market. “I think countries like Australia and New Zealand actually have made an effort to make the tourism industry understand what you may think of as a budget traveler—particularly in the age category of under 35—is actually not a budget traveler,” Morrill said. “These could be people who are coming for long stays and they’re spending quite a lot of money compared to people in Europe making weekend trips or a one-week stay.”
Having a decent amount of money separates today’s backpackers from those of yesteryear. “For many years now, backpackers have not been the cheapskate, traveling on a shoestring hippie stereotype of years ago,” Scott said. “Backpackers these days have money, and something that many other types of travelers don’t have: time. Unlike your average tourist, backpackers have the time to put up with a two-week quarantine in order to enter a country and stay there for three months.”
Travelers being able to spend a long time in a certain destination creates new avenues for destination marketing organizations. “New Zealand is trying to connect the international student market with the tourism industry,” Morrill said. “You have these visitors who are there for a long time to experience the destination and to learn new things. They were working on this before the pandemic.” A strategy that she said is totally different from that of places like Amsterdam, where school groups taking short trips have been considered a nuisance.
Nuisance … sometimes appropriate to describe backpackers as such. But they have been missed in many locations. Not to worry, they’ll be back.