Backpackers and holiday-makers still row over who has the moral high ground. This smugness has got to stop
Sunday 04 July 1999
Well all right, most of this negative PR is the backpackers' own fault for being so self-righteous in relation to everyone else. If they didn't keep telling package holiday-makers how bourgeois and unimaginative they were with their travels, package holiday-makers might stop telling them how unhygienic and hypocritical they were with theirs. As it is we've got a war on our hands.
Backpackers may be derided for spouting empty-headed trumpery on the subject of eastern "spirituality", but one thing they know for sure is that sleeping in cockroach-infested dormitories in the back streets of Bombay confers a moral advantage that (say) sleeping in hibiscus-petal- scattered suites at Le Touessrok in Mauritius does not.
The main thrust of their backpackery self-righteousness remains intact: that slumming it with skinny rickshaw drivers and toothless food vendors puts you more in touch with the "reality" of places than finding orchids on your pillow and being waited on hand and foot by virginal Asian youths. This is one piece of doctrine that generations of backpackers - from Californian college kids to hard-core German drop-outs - have subscribed to.
Are they right? Well yes, sometimes. Staying in the Hilton and watching CNN all day certainly precludes a traveller from learning very much about, say, the stresses of daily life in Hong Kong. Batting off mosquitoes in a cold sweat and listening to rats scuttle over the ceilings of the Chungking Mansions down Nathan road, on the other hand, may teach you something about the experience of illegal immigrant traders.
But does smoking dope and picking lice out of your hair in a shack on a beach in Ko Phangan provide any insight into the lifestyle of the average hard-working Thai? I doubt it. Rushing round the city in a tour bus with a crowd of fellow tourists on a package holiday, in fact, strikes me as providing a more plausible insight into the local behaviour.
In short, this is a silly dispute. The most important fact about all tourists - smelly backpackers and fragrant millionaires alike - is that they are blessed by possession of foreign passports and, in the case of countries such as India or Thailand or Indonesia, this is the fundamental inequality of experience that divides the visitors from the majority of the locals.
So let's stop getting at backpackers. All travellers are in the same boat. They are trying to have a good time in difficult circumstances and should not be blamed for that. Few of them have yet been to Le Touessrok and when they go, believe me, they too will start to see moral advantage in finding orchids on their pillows.
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