There’s no more nobility in travelling on the cheap
Among the many hazards that you might encounter during a long overseas trip, perhaps the worst one is starting to sound like the Lonely Planet.
I don’t mean just quoting the guidebooks’ neat little factoids and pat judgments in place of any other real conversation or insight, something my wife and I have been reduced to doing for the past few months of our world trip.
A more serious sign of the malady is when you start to refer to yourself as an “independent traveller”, the standard description the books employ for their readership.
The “independent traveller” is obviously an intrepid adventurer who experiences the authentic country by staying longer, living cheaper and using the same services as the locals.
In other words a cheap arse tourist, more commonly known as a backpacker, a species rightly viewed with some distaste as basically the itinerant unemployed.
It is no doubt true that proper tourists do luxuriate in a rarefied resort-wall-cosseted unreality of chaperoned air conditioned day trips followed by poolside drinks and then the buffet containing a smattering of local dishes prepared for international tastes.
Not for them the authenticity of trying to puzzle out the Lonely Planet maps with their numbered dots on spaghetti tangles of unnamed street outlines, generally more frustrating to follow than Collingwood or St George during finals season.
Nor the authenticity of lugging bags up vertiginous stairs to a room the size of a modest walk-in closet where the decoration mainly consists of differing stains on the sheets and the bathroom is indeed “shared” with a thriving ecosystem of insect and sometimes other animal life.
Still it is a mistake to imagine the minor inconveniences of slumming abroad equate to some sort of more genuine travel experience when backpackers often exist in their own little separate sphere just as surely as their more monied tour group counterparts.
Where cheap arse tourists go, a hospitality sector invariably materialises to accommodate them.
The backpacker’s floating world topography is instantly recognisable to anyone who has been to Khao San Road in Bangkok, with its hundred hostels and no star hotels, banana pancake English menu cafes, second hand book shops and single desk travel agents.
It also noticeable that when following the Lonely Planet’s suggested attractions you start to see the same “independent” travellers working through the list as surely as if gripping a guide rope.
The tour groups will get chaperoned serenely past while you and those familiar faces book in hand frown furiously at that most ominous of Lonely Planet directions: “You won’t be able to miss…”
Where the Lonely Planet allows its “independent travel” ethos to turn into full-blown conceit is with its trumpeted commitment to “sustainable” travel.
It is arguable that any international jet travel for such a frivolous purpose as tourism is an unsustainable CO2 poke in the eye for Mother Earth, even if you plant a few trees in penance.
For insufferable smugness Lonely Planet Morocco is particularly annoying.
Under the heading “Travelling Responsibly” the book piously intones: “as always, we encourage you to consider the impact your visit will have on both the global environment and the local economies, cultures and ecosystems.”
The book is suffused with indignation at tourist developments, with golf courses being a special bugbear because they stretch water reserves.
In contrast admiration is directed at any local cooperative that grows (of course) organic food or sells handmade things to put money back into the community.
Well and good but a golf-playing tourist as opposed to purely a roadside craft-buying one is likely to put a lot more money into the local economy.
This leads to the suspicion that when the Lonely Planet talks about travel being sustainable, what they mean is that while alleviation of poverty is desirable, it shouldn’t come at the expense of picturesque exoticism to be gawked at by leisured Westerners.
Sustainable can start to sound a bit like subsistence.
The resultant jobs from higher end tourism might even provide a way for local people to aspire to more than sustaining their current living standards.
They might even aspire to one day be overseas tourists themselves, even cheap arse ones, doing the gawking and enjoying meaningful interaction with foreign hostel staff, bus drivers and waiters.
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