A critique of the backpacker who has been there, done that and told everyone
I stumbled upon a travel blog post the other day that had stirred up a lot of controversy.
Lurking in the bowels of the Internet is “‘I did Europe this week’. Please stop saying this!!” The article admonishes tourists who say that they ‘did’ a country or continent, having spent very little time there.
The author of this 2017 piece contrasts Europe’s size, complexity and diversity with visitors who say stuff like ‘We did France’ after a one-day flying visit to Paris.
I’ve met people like this, so I can see where he is coming from.
To me, ‘did’ sounds a bit like it implies completion. I prefer ‘visited’ or ‘went to’. Surely you can’t ‘do’ France, a country of 67 million people, in a day? As much as I’m in favour of poking fun at the French, this seems slightly farfetched.
People writing in the comments section bluntly told the author he was a snob for focusing in on this word, though.
They argued that ‘did’ means different things to different people, because everyone’s travel wish list is personal. If you are planning a trip to France because you particularly want to see the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, then maybe you can legitimately say you ‘did’ France after hitting those two sites.
Then there’s the fact that we all have varying appetites for cultural immersion. Not to mention limitations on our time. Does the author expect us to spend a week living with a local in each of France’s 101 departments before we can say we ‘did’ the country? Does ‘did’ even imply completion at all?
These are all fair points, but I’ll admit that ‘did’ still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Because although most tourists are well meaning, there is a very proud backpacker minority for whom ‘doing’ countries can become a competitive exercise in box ticking, self-promotion and being ‘better’ at travelling than others.
Travel should make us humble, not boastful
Anyone who has spent time in a hostel can rattle off all sorts of traveller stereotypes – you can find a dozen blog posts about them.
These stereotypes range from shoestring backpackers pursuing an eccentric personal challenge (like traversing Holland on a unicycle), to the one-upper – a self-styled connoisseur who boasts about where they have been.
Travellers taking on a personal challenge are my favourite people to meet when abroad. Their experiences are fundamentally different from most on the circuit, and they’ve often overcome genuine obstacles along their way.
On my last trip, I met a girl slumming it from Jakarta to Paris, exclusively using local transport. She made light of language barriers, sleep deprivation and sketchy routes through the jungle.
This sort of traveller doesn’t expect that their way of getting from A to B is for everyone. They will laugh awkwardly at the perplexed looks they get from other hostellers, unaccustomed to such a Spartan lifestyle.
Their quirky trips also make me feel a bit guilty for enjoying a comfortable bed, clean clothes and nice food. Not guilty enough to make me sleep in a bus and eat pot noodles every day, admittedly.
The one-upper stereotype is at the other end of the spectrum. No matter what you have seen or where you have been, a one-upper will flaunt ‘superior’ travel credentials.
A one-upper will hijack a typical group conversation about everyone’s journeys to draw attention to their own unparalleled expertise. Sometimes it’s more subtle, sometimes less so.
“You were in the Alps? Oh that’s cool. I did the Himalayas and they were breathtaking.”
“You went to Serbia? I did Serbia a few years ago but it wasn’t the real Balkans. ”
“Oh, I did Angkor Wat by helicopter. You could see so much more.”
“When I was in Cuba I actually started a military coup and there’s a bronze statue of me in the capital.”
The one-upper fails to listen to or appreciate other perspectives. They can leave aspiring travellers feeling frustrated, resentful or inadequate, because nothing anyone else says seems to register.
But there’s no reason to think that the one-upper is as intrepid as the personal project traveller. Or as any one of us, for that matter.
Because we shouldn’t underestimate how many of the popular countries, regions and UNESCO sites you can ‘do’ even with little time or money.
Not all travel is challenging
With a bit of planning, it’s not especially hard to polish off a lot of highlights in quick succession.
Until Covid torpedoed commercial aviation this year, the industry was buoyant. In 2019, there were almost 39 million flights worldwide. 2009, which saw 26 million, was the last time the sector posted a net profit loss.
We all know that Europe is served by a glut of budget airlines, but it’s a similar story elsewhere. Heading east, there’s AirAsia – a popular Malaysian budget airline group that covers 25 countries and is consistently voted the best low-cost carrier in the world.
Even as Covid rages, AirAsia makes the 600 kilometre journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second biggest city, in under 90 minutes and for under GBP 30. And that’s booking a day before take off.
The point is that in recent times it has not only been easy to hop across the globe at the tap of a smartphone screen, but also to cover huge amounts of ground when you get there.
When talking to a one-upper, we should remember that going to lots of places doesn’t necessarily confer superior knowledge and experience – or demonstrate much resolve, grit or strength of character – when you can zip between destinations as and when you feel like it.
In reality, one-uppers have often been on the travel equivalent of a Netflix binge. They have chosen to see a lot of the most sought-after sights in a targeted regional hit. And they have just framed it in discussions to suggest their life is one long highlight montage.
The Internet has acted as a catalyst for this.
Social media fans the flames of pretence
The Internet helps us find groups of people with whom we share interests. Within the travel and tourism sector, there is a niche but flourishing community of ‘competitive travellers’. They gather on websites like Nomad Mania, an organisation that ranks its members by how many countries they have knocked off and how long it took them.
Becoming the next Phileas Fogg isn’t my cup of tea. But at least Nomad Mania is upfront about its mission. You probably won’t find many people complaining that it gives backpackers a bad name.
It’s the one-uppers who are doing that, by disingenuously promoting their travel on platforms that encourage us to share only the photogenic bits.
The social medium of choice for travellers is Instagram. It’s obvious why. Instagram is about posting attention-grabbing photos with captions. It’s especially conducive to one-upmanship.
There are also huge incentives for drawing attention to yourself. Google suggests that the term ‘travel influencer’ took off around 2015-16. This moniker identifies popular Instagram personalities who earn money promoting various products in their photos. A few lucky ones make up to GBP 30,000 a month doing so.
There are lots of travel influencers who produce engaging material that raises the profile of underappreciated destinations or promotes wholesome adventure. But there are many exceptions.
One popular blogger described his dismay at a beach cleanup in Bali, where influencers spent longer filming themselves on the beach with their drones than actually picking up litter. And major news networks have discussed the stigma now surrounding the travel influencer way of life, which some see as arrogant and misleading.
In many senses, these few badly behaved influencers are an extreme version of the one-upper you will meet in a hostel. What matters to them more than the experience itself is the documentation and promotion of that experience.
They can exploit this for social capital. And if social media allow them to reach a wider audience and maybe get paid one day as well, all the more reason to keep doing it.
It’s actually by ‘doing’ everything that one-uppers can miss out
While discussing the myth of authentic travel, I mentioned that some of my most memorable experiences involved simply driving around the Asian countryside, camping and taking it in.
In other words: slower travel. Fewer flashy, Instagram-friendly moments. More Jerome K Jerome than sunrise with smoothie bowl.
I think the headline UNESCO sites, temples and waterfalls are all really cool, but they are not the whole picture.
It’s naturally tempting to compare ourselves with others who have been to these show-stopper attractions, but this is meaningless when so many travel experiences are a commodity that can be curated, embellished and ‘done’.
And if you set aside the yarns being spun to focus on what you can observe to be true, you might ultimately ask: if a one-upper’s lifestyle really is so uniquely inspiring and glamorous, why are they staying in a grotty 8-bed hostel dorm, chipping in to group conversations, and drinking cheap beer out of a coffee mug, just like the rest of us?
Bali’s sunset is one of the world’s most photographed. Are you jealous yet?