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Travel: Where are all the real travellers?

Next week sees the start of the Independent Travellers' World tour. By Jeremy Atiyah
TO TRAVEL independently or to take a package? To go it alone, or to get someone else to sort things out? To make it up as you go along, or to have everything planned in advance?

It's January again: all the old holiday arguments are back - just in time for Independent Travellers' World (ITW), that annual coming-together of "real" travellers which begins its tour of Britain next week.

Everybody is supposed to know that independent travel is sexier than a package holiday: heroic individuals fighting against the hapless conformists; the real travellers against the effete tourists.

But with guidebooks now mapping the entire world, and the travel industry training its sights on the "independent" market, what future is there for seriously independent travellers, for those who, in the old days, would have set out into the world without the faintest idea of where they were going or why?

Some of us have tried to do this. I once set off on foot from my home town, Oxford, with the idea that it would nice to make my way to Hong Kong without a guidebook or a map. On the third day, somewhere near Le Havre, I gave up and caught a flight.

A big worry is that the package holiday seems to have stolen the clothes of independent travel. After all, although the term "package holiday" can still conjure up images of group brain-death, many "packages" are in fact tailor-made for individuals, who will travel as individuals.

Companies such as Trailfinders - which started out as a flight agent - can now book all internal travel, transfers and accommodation for you as well. But can travellers whose entire itinerary is mapped out in advance call themselves "independent"?

"Yes they can," a Trailfinders spokesman said. "You might call them packages, but they are packages designed by the travellers themselves. The efficiency of the tailor-made package enables people who only have two weeks holiday to travel in the same style as backpackers who have limitless time. Partly this is thanks to computers. Thirty years ago, booking a hotel in Delhi or Bangkok was costly and uncertain. Now it can be arranged in seconds."

That sounds reasonable enough, but what about the explosion of local tour operators? These days even hardened backpackers are falling prey to local tour operators, taking organised day trips with little entrepreneurs in deepest Asia of a type that would send their 1970s ancestors turning in their kaftans.

Tourism Concern, a pressure group which encourages responsible tourism, is desperately keen to promote this phenomenon. It has set up a website listing worldwide local tour operators which have no resources of their own to promote their services.

"Of course we are anxious about the impact of package tourism on the countries where it occurs, but roving backpackers can be just as bad," explains Sue Wheat of Tourism Concern. "Many local people in developing countries actually prefer package tourists who not only spend more, but can also be better controlled. Unlike backpackers, package tourists do not go poking their noses into places where they are not wanted."

Are there any "real" backpackers left? Or are they following hippies down history's plughole? In Britain at any rate, the cautious Nineties do not seem to hold much of a place for the culture of purposeless travel.

"Travelling independently still gives you that sense of achievement," argues Jennifer Cox of Lonely Planet. "I liken it to an assertiveness training course with geography. Going it alone makes you feel good about yourself."

Achievement? But haven't guide books made everything too easy for people? Don't they have the same effect as the package tourism industry, of shepherding everyone around the same sights?

"Not at all," says Jennifer Cox. "Independent travel carries on regardless of the books we publish. We give people the ability to do it themselves. With a good guide, you can travel more safely, more enjoyably and more frequently. Which is not to say that independent travel is a matter of honour. It's about enjoying yourself. All that stuff about not being a real traveller unless you do everything by yourself is rubbish. An all- inclusive holiday in an entire fortnight strikes me as quite a nice idea actually."

Setting off alone into the horizon with a packet of dry biscuits in your plastic bag may strike you as even nicer, but perhaps this is the point: that the old division between independent travellers and package tourists is old hat. See you at ITW.

ITW visits the London Arena Exhibition Centre on 30,31 January and 1 February; the Watershed Media Centre on 7,8 February; and the Mnachester G-Mex Centre on 21,22 February. Tel 0171 341 6691 or visit the website, www.itwnet.com, for more information