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Backpackers aren’t what they used to be

Posted by on August 4, 2011

Ben Groundwater is Fairfax’s resident globetrotter on a shoe-string

August 3, 2011 – 8:38PM

You can still find cliches in Kings Cross, but the face of backpackers around the world is changing.You can still find cliches in Kings Cross, but the face of backpackers around the world is changing. Photo: Simon Alekna

King’s Cross is full of clichés. It’s stereotype after stereotype up there – it’s like a dress rehearsal for a badly scripted film.

Up on the strip on Darlinghurst Road you’ve got the junkies roaming aimlessly up and down the pavement, mini-skirted street-walkers drumming up business out the front of the clubs, and the beefcake security guards touting for business to wide-eyed passersby.

All are exactly as you’d expect them to be.

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A block down the hill, Victoria Street is just the same, only with different stereotypes. It’s backpacker central down there, with rows of cheap hostels, making it the perfect place for travellers to just hang out, or use the street as a makeshift sales yard for their second-hand vans.

Walk down there any time of year and it will be filled with backpackers from around the world, most of whom look like they could use an introduction to a shower. They hang out by their beaten-up old vans in beaten-up old clothes, woven friendship bands on their arms, some strumming acoustic guitars, others just smoking cigarettes to pass time.

I’ve got a friend I walk with along that street pretty frequently, and every time we stroll past the vans she grimaces: “God, I hate backpackers.”

Because that, to most people, is what backpackers are: young and destitute, probably slightly drug-addled, more concerned with sinking beers and putting notches on the bedpost than exploring a foreign land or gaining any cultural awareness.

Victoria Street is full of those stereotypes. And that might have been what your typical backpacker really did look like about 15 years ago. Now, however, those types are more the exception than the rule.

Backpackers have changed.

It’s almost impossible to even define a backpacker anymore. At it’s very simplest, obviously, it’s someone who travels with a backpack, but the term has much wider meaning than that.

It used to represent the truly budget-conscious, long-term travellers – the ones who’d sacrifice the creature comforts like food and hygiene in the pursuit of a life on the road.

But that’s a lazy generalisation these days. Check into any backpacker hostel around the world now, and you’ll notice some changes.

There used to be a time when you could brush off backpackers as dreadlocked hippies or aimless uni grads, but they now come from all walks of life, from gap kids to baby boomers, flashpackers to trust-fund babies.

They might be taking a year off to travel the world, but they’re just as likely to be on a two-week break from some high-powered city job. They might be recent university graduates who just don’t want to start their careers, or they could be 30-somethings fresh from a relationship break-up, or employees on long-service leave, taking that trip they’d always swore they would.

Plus there are all those baby boomers with an adventurous spirit, a lack of dependants, and a tidy superannuation payout (hi, Mum and Dad).

That’s not to say there aren’t still party hostels filled with drunk, broke 20-year-olds. But most are far from it.

There are plenty of reasons for the change. The most obvious one is that with budget airlines and increased ease of travel, there are more people hitting the road. And more people means different people, not just the hard core of committed wanderers.

We’re also getting more adventurous. Holidaying couples, for instance, don’t just want to spend a week in a Fijian beach resort anymore – they want to ride the Trans-Siberian, or see the gorillas in Uganda, or ride motorbikes through Vietnam.

It makes that old notion that the gnarly dudes on Victoria Street are the quintessential backpackers seem pretty outdated. The modern backpacker is young, old, rich, poor, a drunk, a teetotaller, a lay-about and a committed worker.

Which is all pretty handy, really. It means you can get older, lose your hair and get a real job, and still call yourself a backpacker.

Have you noticed the changing face of backpackers? Are you one of the new, atypical ones? What got you on the road?

Hope you’re enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me on bengroundwater@gmail.com.

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