JAKARTA – Hanging out in cheap hotels and spending their limited funds at the lower end of society where it was needed the most, backpackers played a pioneering role in the growth of Southeast Asia’s until recently money-spinning tourism industry.
They were disheveled, they smoked marijuana and, to officialdom at least, they were not the ideal well-heeled foreign tourist who flew in on business class, stayed in five-star hotels and spent freely on package tours, precious stones and over-priced souvenirs.
At one point in the distant past this writer was one of those backpackers, so it was with a certain sense of nostalgic indignation that I felt compelled to query Indonesian Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan when he suggested recently that the resort island of Bali could do without the breed.
Immigration officials were quoted as saying that when Bali finally reopens to international travelers they would be screening out those of “low quality.” As Panjaitan put it: “We will filter arriving tourists. We don’t want backpackers coming to a clean Bali. We want quality visitors.”
He and other officials have since done a gentle row-back, but as head of the team charged with the emergency response to the latest Covid-19 outbreak, Panjaitan had the impression it was mainly loose-living backpackers who ignored health protocols.
“We just don’t want them to come for a while,” he told Asia Times, frustrated that some parts of Bali were still at level three on a Covid-19 outbreak scale despite the tourist island enjoying one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. “They’re not disciplined and they don’t wear masks.”
In fact, blaming the problem solely on backpackers is doing them an injustice. From casual observation, the lack of discipline extends to many of the 109,000 foreigners living through the pandemic in surroundings that many would regard as idyllic.
As it was, Panjaitan’s spokesman hurried to explain there had been a misunderstanding about the minister’s off-the-cuff remark. “What was meant,” he said, “were visitors who disobey regulations or protocols on health, law and immigration.”
Scores of tourists have already been deported for this reason, including a disproportionate number of seemingly well-off Russians who, according to local officials, are proving to be more troublesome than the usually troublesome Australians.
Leaping to the defense of the humble traveler, an editorial in the Bali Discovery newsletter pointed to extensive World Trade Organization (WTO) research showing the global youth tourist market is now worth an estimated US$400 billion a year.
Before the pandemic turned everything upside down, it was the fastest-growing travel segment, representing 23% of the one billion international holiday trips taken annually around the world.
“Because of the youth market’s affinity for the internet and social network marketing, they provide an incomparable and valuable instantaneous boom to any destination they visit,” Bali Discovery noted. In an earlier day, it was all word of mouth.
In Indonesia, the editorial said, budget travelers will lead the way in helping the government attain its tourism goals, especially in the so-called “10 new Balis” – a reference to the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island chain which includes Lombok, Flores and Timor.
Bali became what it is today thanks to an early influx of seat-of-the-pants Australian surfers and its position on the overland trail for Europe-bound backpackers traveling from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to East Timor and then onwards across the archipelago to Jakarta.
Thailand’s first beach resort of Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok, grew up around rabble-rousing American servicemen on rest and recreation from Vietnam. But other destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand all began life as backpacker havens.
Budget travelers today are not nearly as impoverished as in the 1970s when most of those on the road were simply footloose hitch-hikers, enjoying being the first post-World War II generation to have the opportunity to get out and about.
Living in stifling 30-degree heat with 30 other itinerant travelers in a dormitory on the top of a zero-star Bangkok hotel, replete with truckle beds, communal showers and missing fans and mosquito nets, didn’t seem all that bad. It was, after all, only a buck a day.
Financed to some degree by family money, many of today’s young backpackers are students on their gap year – the period between high school graduation and university enrollment when they supposedly try to discover themselves.
Others are millennials, often with well-paying jobs, looking for something different on their travels and often well off the beaten track. Even some of Indonesia’s own backpackers – and there are many of them – can be found in this category.
Indeed, the World Youth Student and Education Confederation finds the average member of the youth market spends US$1,000 a week, stays at their chosen destination for extended periods and spends 60% of their budget in the local community.
For now, the road is a lonely place. Overseas visitors to Indonesia, confined to carefully screened businessmen and digital nomads, must submit proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test result, take a test on arrival and spend eight days in quarantine in a designated hotel no real backpacker can afford.
But with a substantial drop in Covid cases over the past few weeks, a reproductive rate below 1 and more than 90% of Balinese having received their first Covid-19 vaccination shot, the government has said the island may re-open to foreign tourists as early as next month.
It can’t come soon enough, but it will take some yet before Australia – still the main source of Bali’s tourist trade – opens up sufficiently to allow its citizens including backpackers freedom of travel to countries where the coronavirus remains a threat.