Issue date: 28 June 2002

What is it that motivates a person to grab a rucksack and take off for an extended trip to far-flung climes? How does backpacking affect someone's future choices and lifestyle? Are there different types of backpackers, and when is a traveller a tourist or a tourist a traveller? To what degree do travel writers inspire the choice of destinations and mode of travel?

These are just a few of the questions that Dr Julie Wilson, a researcher at the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of the West of England, will ask travellers in two of the world’s most popular initial destinations for backpackers - Bangkok and Sydney. Julie will go to Khao San Road in Bangkok and King's Cross in Sydney, both renowned hostel magnets for travellers about to embark on trips around South East Asia and Australia. Her research is being undertaken in conjunction with the Association of Tourism and Leisure Education (ATLAS) Backpacker Research Group, which has members across Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. Established in 2000, the group has since embarked on a whole programme of research relating to various aspects of backpacking, in its many forms.

Julie Wilson said, “Backpacker travel has been an increasing phenomenon in the last 30 years or so, and over this period, there have been many and varied changes to this global activity. My research aims to understand what different types of backpacker exist within today's tourist markets, as it is more and more difficult to treat them as a single group with entirely common characteristics. For example, the worldwide growth in Internet cafes and specialist student and budget travel companies has had a huge impact on the type and form of backpacking experiences. The research will also help inform the travel industry so that they can target the different markets, but more importantly, it will allow us to understand what different types of impact that different types of backpackers are having on the destinations that they visit. Research has been done before at the basic market level, for example - in terms of how much backpackers spend on average, but not much has been done to understand what it is that makes someone get up and go and what it is that characterises different styles of backpacker travel.

“I look at backpacking as a ‘sub-culture’ and have examined some of the more popular symbols of this sub-culture, such as the Lonely Planet guides, a backpack and tight budget and seeing how they applied to different styles of backpacker travel. Certain 'assumed' backpacker rituals, such as mixing in hostels and a preference for higher-risk activities such as bungee jumping and white water rafting are also of interest, although is it no longer appropriate to make generalisations about this very diverse group of travellers. Many aspects of the backpacker experience have changed dramatically over the past 30 years, for example - in the 1960s and 70s, many travellers drifted along the hippie trail overland, using all kinds of transport. Nowadays, a traveller is just as likely to be less independent and more organised - flying to a gateway city like Bangkok on a student travel ticket, armed with a big budget, a guidebook and a hotmail address. Another important development seems to have been a desire to seek out other backpackers, with the aim of exchanging stories and experiences, as well as to hook up with new travelling companions.”

Julie's research has been funded by the Royal Geographical Society's HSBC Holdings Small Grant Scheme, the Royal Society's Dudley Stamp Memorial Trust and a grant from her faculty at the University of the West of England.

Whilst in Bangkok for her research, Julie will also present a paper, “Backpacker Icons; Influential Nomads and the Formation of Backpacker Identities” at the ATLAS Expert Meeting on Backpacker Travel. International Student Travel Consortium (ISTC) and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) sponsor the meeting, which will be attended by academic experts on backpacking from the ATLAS Backpacker Research Group. Julie's paper was co-written with Dr Greg Richards, of the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands and it examines how 'literary nomads' such as Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Michael Palin and Bill Bryson influence actual and potential backpacker travellers. The focus is on how the work of these authors (travellers who write as well as writers who travel) reflects the symbols and identities of modern backpacker experiences, as their books certainly reflect different 'travel styles'.

Back to top