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Tuesday, June 29, 1999 Published at 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK


Backpacking without trashing the earth

Bali water: The island is just one spot attracting travellers

Packing your backpack and heading off to a little-known part of the world to "find yourself" is not, it seems, the fantasy many people imagine.

In fact instead of finding yourself, it seems you are more likely instead to find other people just like yourself. And if a new critique of the lifestyle is to be believed, it's not a pretty sight.

[ image: Backpacking:
Backpacking:"institutionalised tourism"
The dream is a familiar one. Turning your back on Western consumerism and capitalism; heading east, becoming at one with the earth.

It's an image enhanced by the big screen - Kate Winslet's Hideous Kinky set in Morocco, and the forthcoming film of Alex Garland's novel The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Think again

But the reality is different, it seems. Backpackers don't want to commune with the "real people" on their travels - instead they want to hang out with other backpackers, getting stoned, eating pizza and drinking milkshake.

The BBC's Rachel Ellison: "For many, going abroad is a home from home experience"
Researcher Heba Aziz, writing in Tourism Concern's In Focus magazine, said backpacking had become just another form of "institutionalised tourism".

"And these are the same people that turn up their noses at 'uncool' package tour locations like Spain," she writes.

[ image:  ]
She points the finger at tourist books like Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, and says that although a common image of backpackers is that they shun encounters with other tourists, they in fact "live in a bubble with shared values and behavioural patterns".

Roland Martins: "Goa needs backpacker code - but who will write it?"
Goa-resident Roland Martins campaigns for tourists to take more care when they visit the city. He told BBC News Online that although backpackers' money went into the community more than that from "luxury" tourists, they also had a part to play in increasing levels of crime, drugs and litter. He has called for a code of conduct to minimise their impact.

Grateful for comforts

New Zealander Jenny Bridgen, 27, is one of the thousands to have backpacked in Thailand this year. Although the comforts of tourism are not quite what backpackers are after, they were nevertheless very welcome.

"I'd just assumed before I went that it would be a deserted paradise, or a paradise at least. But when I got there, I was actually quite grateful for all the tourist infrastructure there was," she said.

Backpackers have a defender in Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet series, who has been dubbed "the patron saint of backpackers".

[ image: Phi Phi island, scene of Alex Garland's novel The Beach]
Phi Phi island, scene of Alex Garland's novel The Beach
"You can always make a case for backpacking. It brings money closer to ground level, unlike tourism through international tour operators where the money often goes back to the sending country," he says.

While admitting that a lot of backpackers are "sheep", he says some are more perceptive - even using Lonely Planet books to identify places they don't want to stay in.

What's a traveller to do?

It's a difficult question, but what can a truly concerned traveller do to avoid trashing his or her destination.

Sarah Long, of Lonely Planet, says people should do their homework before they set off. "Go as informed about the country and culture as possible. Buy a guide book, read Websites, talk to other travellers who have been there, read the online local newspaper of the place you are going," she said.

"Doing your homework before you go is one of the undoubted ways of helping to make a more positive impact on the environment you're travelling to."

[ image: DiCaprio to star in film]
DiCaprio to star in film
And when you are there, have your wits about you - be careful not to drop litter, for instance. Goa, for instance, is unable to deal with thousands of discarded water bottles from ravers - so they should use glass bottles instead, she said. Plough money into the local economy by supporting locally-owned businesses, and talk to the local people.

Tony Wheeler says that while backpacking is the forerunner to mass tourism, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's like saying that electricity is the forerunner of TV. Travellers say that these places were nice when they were primitive, but not many local people would agree - they want progress. We should be cautious about imposing our Western perspective on how places should be developed," he says.

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