'They don't have to risk the local food, or meet locals'

On the day that Lonely Planet revealed the meagre aspirations of 21st-century backpackers, I happened to receive an e-mail from the man who started it all: Tony Wheeler.

"Albania was terrific, Afghanistan was even better - although my penultimate day there did coincide with the riots last week."

Now that's what I call a traveller. In the Seventies, Wheeler and his wife Maureen traversed Asia on the cheap by hitching, hiking and hoping for the best. Today, we have the freedom to reach the most intriguing and alien ends of the world quickly and cheaply.

This is an age when it is preposterously easy to fly to the other side of the planet, to encounter a range of different cultures and to enjoy life-changing experiences.

Yet it appears that backpackers' horizons are shrinking. Instead of wild and wonderful destinations such as Colombia, Uganda and Laos, they go for the easy option: Australia or America, the top two choices in this survey. While one hesitates to describe either country as safe - indeed, at times they appear positively unsuitable for human habitation - both are wealthy, predictable, English-speaking destinations. And like New Zealand (fifth in the survey), they provide adventure playgrounds for gap-year travellers.

South-east Asia's top location is Thailand. Bangkok is at least a little more challenging than Brisbane or Boston. Yet many backpackers in the Thai capital simply congregate in the hostels on the Khao San Road, where they plan their trips to Chiang Mai or Koh Samui. These locations, like the beaten backpacker path through India and Egypt, are on the "banana pancake" trail: they have plenty of safe, sanitised Westerner cafés where backpackers need not risk eating the local food nor meeting the inhabitants of the country through which they are trampling.

Even in Europe, backpackers are prepared to forgo intense, exotic countries such as Ukraine, Romania and Albania in favour of the mainstream destinations of Spain, Italy and Greece, where they are quite likely to bump into their parents. But not Tony Wheeler.