Scene in Bali

Are Backpackers Destroying the World?

I was sitting in a hotel room on Bangkok’s Khao San Road four years ago, on a high from my trip to nearby Angkor Wat, when I received a message from my friend Gina, who’d been keeping up with my journey from back in Austin.

“I think you would get along well with my friend Dane,” she said, explaining that he, like I, had abandoned America for Asia in his pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Her message also included a link – to Dane’s travel blog. “He unleashed his inner writer/photog along the way,” she continued, “like you’re trying to do. I thought reading what he has to say might inspire you.”

[Angkor Wat] was once nothing short of a lost world archaeological site. Last time, I would go an hour without seeing people at a temple site littered with fallen stones and crawling tree branches. This time, there were thousands of octogenarians strolling on wooden walkways and asking why ruins in the Cambodian jungle weren’t Segway accessible.

-Dane Philipps

I was a very new, unjaded traveler at the time, so Dane’s words inspired little more than an eyeroll from me – as if he alone were entitled to stroll amid the “fallen stones” and “crawling branches” of a “lost archaeological site”! I experienced the exact same eyeroll while reading a recent CNN article.

Formatted as an interview with “anthropologist” Pegi Vail, the article is little more than a promotional junket for her new documentary, Gringo Trails, whose thesis is essentially that middle-class travelers are destroying the planet.

The only problem? Vail herself is a middle-class traveler.

CNN: What’s your own backpacking background?
PV: I’ve traveled in more than 75 countries, but not always as a backpacker. I’m a travel addict.

I mean, here’s the thing. I see where both Philipps and Vail are coming from. As a student of creative nonfiction in college, I cut my teeth on A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid’s seething rant on how American and European tourism to her native Antigua (and, by way of association, the rest of the developed world) was essentially a continuation of colonial imperialism. I felt what she was saying; I agreed with it cerebrally and viscerally, to the point that I would still cite it as the main reason for how little I want to visit the Caribbean.

On account of my own experiences alone, it would be ignorant and irresponsible for me to refute the assertion that tourism’s affect on the world, particularly the developing world, has been anything but positive. But on the other hand, I can’t accept the elitist snobbery Dane Philipps, Pegi Vail and countless other “responsible” travelers are spewing, imploring the rest of the humanity to stop farting as they binge on beans, brussels sprouts and broccoli.

To be sure, my own writing on this topic has not only implicated others (see: my takedown of Bali), but has extensively discussed my own contributions to the cruel Earth- and culture-destroying cycle of tourism.

For example, when I took a day trip to South Africa’s Khayelitsha Township, an all-black slum on the periphery of Cape Town where squalor is the status quo, I questioned whether I was a shittier person for having visited than I would’ve been if I’d skipped it. How could I really claim to empathize with Mzu and all the beautiful people he introduced me to if I was sleeping on a feather pillow hours later?

Ultimately, in this and other similar instances of moral reckoning, I concluded that my impact had been a net positive one, if only because I was able to use this blog to draw attention to the realities people in the places I visit face. My impact could probably be even more positive, if I focused less on my own hedonistic experiences and more on these realities, but at the end of the day, I’m not littering on beaches, disrespecting local customs or building forest fires, so I’ll keep on doing what the fuck I want, Ms. Vail.

Indeed, the question we all need to be asking ourselves is not the one mentioned in the title of the CNN article – “is tourism destroying the world?” – but a much simpler, more personal one.

Am I destroying the world?

About The Author

is the author of 1088 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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leighshulman January 6, 2014 at 8:42 am

You’re not destroying the world, Robert. At least not any more than the rest of us.

I have little patience for the sort of travel elitism you describe, when people travel and act like they’re the first to ever set foot on a piece of land. It doesn’t really matter if you were first. I agree with you. It matters much more that travelers be respectful of local people, land and customs.

I faced this kind of travel snobbery last year when Lila and volunteered at a monkey sanctuary in Bolivia. Most of the other volunteers were livid that I would dare to bring a child with me, even though I had the full permission and support of the sanctuary owners. Lila and I, btw, were among only a handful of volunteers who spoke Spanish and spent time getting to know the Bolivians who lived and worked there.

What this elitism also fails to take into account is the complexity of how tourism effects the local culture. While, yes, increased tourism may put additional strain on the local infrastructure, it also brings employment and increased economic development.

I saw that when I lived in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Cruise ships are too large to dock in the waters around the islands and pollute the waters. The cruise visitors also employ every man who owns a boat and every restaurant fills. When a strong storm destroyed the area about 5 years ago, the tourists stopped, and people — all but those with money — were worried how they would feed their families

Far better for a traveler to visit, support local customs, people and businesses than to stay for just long enough to make some kind of moral judgement in writing.

/steps off soapbox now

Robert Schrader January 6, 2014 at 9:10 am

No, I love your soapbox spile Leigh, and I wish more people who as articulate as you are held your point of view.

I also appreciate your anecdote about volunteering in Bolivia, particularly when it comes to speaking Spanish. I know it’s really difficult to learn languages while traveling, but the idea of going to Latin America, i.e. the most linguistically homogenous place outside of the U.S., and not speaking a word of Spanish is just mind-boggling to me.

Clint Johnston January 6, 2014 at 11:00 am

Great post, Robert. I just read that CNN article as well and had similar thoughts. Keep doing things your way because you’re doing it right!

leighshulman January 6, 2014 at 11:48 am

Yep. I completely understand that languages can be a sticking point for some but at least try. The great thing about Spanish in particular is Spanish speakers tend to be really patient and complimentary no matter how crappy your communication.

And when you make a mistake, they’re happy to either overlook it or go along with the joke. (Like when I went into a bakery and ordered a half dozen testicles. The woman just looked at me and without skipping a beat asked “Regular or whole wheat.” I didn’t even realize my mistake until a month or so later.)

This American Girl January 6, 2014 at 7:55 pm

Thanks for posing this question Robert. I struggle with this sometimes, and was verbally attacked recently by a reader who basically said that by discovering remote places and writing about them I was the embodiment of everything that is wrong in the world. Talking to locals and conscientious expats in the places I’ve traveled I realize more and more that tourism also brings benefits to communities. The question isn’t whether we as travelers are ruining the world and should just leave it alone, but rather how we as travelers, like all humans, can BETTER the places where we go. How we can impact places positively. And as travel writers, just as you said, how we can encourage other humans and other travelers to do the same.

Robert Schrader January 7, 2014 at 5:46 am

Someone verbally attacked you?! I hate that, but then again, it happens more often than it should in our line of work.

Raphael Alexander Zoren January 7, 2014 at 7:14 pm

Irresponsible travel is destroying the world, not backpacking. I was in Easter Island a few months ago and realized that it is us middle-class backpackers the ones improving the local economy of this fragile island by staying in guest houses and eating local food while the upper class is the one damaging it by staying in high-end hotels (with their own private restaurant, of course!) co-owned by mainland Chileans (and foreigners) who end up with most of the profits.

As long as you don’t actually destroy the world (such as the case of the Finnish tourist who damaged the ear of one of the Moais and was only released after paying $17,000), everything’s perfect 🙂

Robert Schrader January 8, 2014 at 6:30 am

Good perspective, Raphael! I generally hate to do any “us vs. them” analysis, but when you look at it, “rich” travelers cause way more harm than ordinary backpackers.

travellingforfun January 10, 2014 at 8:59 am

Good discussion. As you say if you travel responsibly then that cant be a bad thing. There are abuses but there is also jobs involved and it is up to the local government to make sure the historic structures are adequately protected.

Robert Schrader January 10, 2014 at 10:10 am

Thanks for providing your perspective, Ross! I agree 100%!

bomobob January 10, 2014 at 3:28 pm

I couldn’t agree more. Not only is it snobbery and elitism, but I’ve always seen it as a form of chauvinism as well.

“Bali used to be so simple before all the tourists and internet cafes came”.

So many things wrong with a phrase like that! It was better when the people led poor, simple lives, and didn’t have access to telecommunications. How quaint. Because they don’t aspire to the same desire as you to raise their standard of living? And of course when you were there years ago, you weren’t a tourist, right? And the western kids that walk around India in rags and bare feet, trying to “go native”? What an insult to the local population.

The snobbery comes from all quarters, and it rarely makes sense. Budget travellers sit around watching western videos, drinking Bud, and claim that they’re seeing the “real” (insert exotic country here), all the while poo-pooing the air-con package tourists who are probably in their hotel lobby right now taking in a traditional dance performance. So who’s seeing the “real” country?
And the middle class tourists refer to the backpackers as dirty stinkin’ hippies (which is an insult to the real hippie movement of the 60s). And the backpackers claim they’re travellers and not tourists, as if there’s really a distinction. If you’re visiting a country other than your own, you’re a tourist. Get over it.

thanks for letting me borrow the box

Robert Schrader January 10, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for your perspective!

leighshulman January 10, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Hey Bomobob,

You make a good point. I often hear people describe local cultures as “simple,” kind of a nod to the old concept of the “ignoble savage.” As if Bali or any other number of places wouldn’t have had technology had the backpackers and other travelers not demanded it.

I live in NW Argentina where things tend to be more quiet, less technology, much more laid back. This is part of what we like about it here. Someone asked me if I felt bad that I was bringing people and focus to the area by writing about it.

It would have happened with or without us.

Now, there are more people. It’s impossible to find parking. You almost never see horse drawn carts in the center of town anymore. Not to mention how prices have soared. At the same time, vegetarians can now find something to eat. Internet works. The local art scene has grown and thrived incredibly.

No matter what there is give and take, and if humans are involved, it’s going to be complicated.

Green Global Travel January 10, 2014 at 4:53 pm

The way I see it, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. It’s as simple as that.

Robert Schrader January 10, 2014 at 5:02 pm

And the way I see it, we don’t live in a paradigmatic world. It’s not democrat vs. republican; or religions vs. atheism; and it’s certainly not “good” travelers vs. “bad” travelers. Using this vs. that is the lowest possible common denominator, psychologically speaking, and it does nothing but perpetuate conflicts, rather than solving them.

Shara January 10, 2014 at 5:33 pm

I just have to laugh at your last line. My “brand name” is SKJ Traveler, but I’ve gotten so annoyed at the word “traveler” being high-jacked by people with that traveler-vs-tourist attitude that I’m tempted to change it to SKJ Tourist … I feel like my name now implies an unintended snobbery!

TravelnLass January 10, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Hmmm… you’re of course entitled to your opinion on the matter, Robert. But I dare say, that opinion might be a bit more credible if… you didn’t have that (seriously disconcerting) image of you cozying up to a drugged tiger here in Chiang Mai. “Travel Like Me” indeed. Can you spell i-r-o-n-y?

Robert Schrader January 11, 2014 at 5:14 am

Hi TravelInLass, your understanding of the meaning of “ironic” seems to be as poor as Alanis Morissette’s.

See, although people such as yourself have written extensively about its evils, I don’t unequivocally believe that Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai is a “bad” place (while, on the other hand, I do believe its sister tiger temple in Kanchanaburi is). To be sure, the article I wrote on the topic doesn’t make a judgment one way or another: It encourages my readers to visit, if they so choose, and come to their own conclusions.

And isn’t that the whole point of travel – to see the world for yourself, so that you may uncover your own moral path and code? I mean, if I wanted to live my life based on the righteous testimony of others, I probably wouldn’t have left the Catholic Church.

There’s nothing ironic about practicing exactly what you preach!

P.S. Stylistically speaking, you shouldn’t “spell out” a word for someone when you are rhetorically questioning their ability to spell it themselves. But then again, it’s par for the course with how unaware you seem to be of what comes out of your mouth.

Green Global Travel February 12, 2014 at 10:31 am

Just interviewed the filmmaker and mentioned this convo. Will tag you when we post it.

Robert Schrader February 13, 2014 at 4:11 am

Nice! I am very interested to see.

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