Summer Vacation Ideas: Try Backpacking for a Change, Leave the Tour Group Behind


Tourism is all about enjoyment, indulgence, and intrigue. It's about discovering those things we could only dream about; exotic things from the pages of National Geographic or advertisements calling us to the white sand beaches, the ancient ruins, or the solitary mountains of the world. But, for all of its glory, tourism is something that can be done in only two ways: the right way or the wrong way.

Regardless of where people travel to, they must recognize themselves as a small business. Tourism as a worldwide industry keeps many countries afloat. For example, take a look at a place like Peru. Tourism can also mix cultures and makes the world a smaller place. Politically and socially, this can be a positive thing. Tourism can help create jobs, show the heart of a country, and let people indulge and learn. 

The trouble comes when people are tourists in the wrong way.

With so many places opening their doors and expanding their tourism wings — like Vietnam, Malaysia, or India — there comes the danger of exploitation. Tourism holds the danger of being a new imperialism. Tour companies are designing trips and cruises that separate tourists from the native people and give them all the luxuries of home that are detrimental to the local population and location. The danger of these package tours or going on a cruise lies in the way they destroy the spirit of the journey. 

These package tours can also wear down a location; take a look at Phuket in Thailand. This is a pristine paradise that has simply become party central for Western people to meet other Westerners and say they went to Thailand. This is a direct result of advertisements, package tour travel agencies, and resorts. It is no longer a place you go to discover; it is just a tourist destination.

People on these trips are shown everything. There is no discovery and this destroys the reason for tourism.

Show Don’t Tell

Some argue that the age of “brought to you by Lonely Planet” travel and the abundance of online information and connection has watered down the adventure, but this is not true. Taking a trip with nothing but a Lonely Planet guide in hand is not being spoon-fed a tour. It is a starting point for ideas and independent exploration. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler maintains a soft spot in his guidebooks for what he calls the "gap year traveler." He asserts that Lonely Planet caters most to the backpackers: "They’re travel pioneers, they’re often pioneering new routes and new ways of travel and let’s face it, there’s no travel experience like the first time travel experience. I reckon gap year travelers learn more in that year than they did in their last 5 years of school."

The importance of a trip with a guidebook or some internet information alone is that it is up to the traveler to find these places. Even though they have been seen many times before by many different people, viewing these sites will have an intrinsic importance if travelers find them with nothing more than a short description in a guidebook (rather than being led there by a guided tour in which they are shown the spot and shipped onto a bus for the next destination). Being a backpacker does not have to have any sort of stigma; it is simply leaving home with nothing more than the essentials to embrace something completely different for a short period (or long period) of time. Everyone should be a backpacker at least one time in their lives.

Backpackers Verses the Package

My argument boils down to a trip with a backpack verses a package trip. To visit a country with a backpack brings simplicity to travel. A backpacker does not have all the comforts of home, they are seeing someplace new. The backpack also simplifies the mind for travel; there is nothing to worry about besides the backpack and there is no place you cannot go. It leads to a free mind and a free body; perfect ingredients for embracing and becoming familiar with a new and different culture.

Package trips line everything up for you. Things are already decided and made up. On a package trip, people are shuffled around and brought to places with other tourists speaking the same language and they never leave the cruise or the bus. Maybe you get 30 minutes to walk around a gift shop. Cruises and resorts are isolated and they offer a sliver of coastline or some local people selling trinkets. They go to find the tourist; the tourist did not find them. 

Along with this sort of travel follows the new imperialism. People are changing their way of life to make a living off tourists, tourists are not seeing people naturally living their lives. Cruises and resorts are simply not sustainable environmentally or culturally. 

For many countries, tourism can be a very positive industry. It is as much of a threat as it is an opportunity. Travelers exchange ideas, share customs, see people living their lives in a different part of the world, and realize we are all different, but not that different. This realization can only be achieved through mindful travel with a backpack and not much else. Go someplace new, read about it in a travel book, and see things as an individual not as part of package. 

Travel light and leave only footprints; as cheesy as that sounds, it’s true.