Paul Hansford, aka the Naked Traveller, believes there needs to be a stripping back of the backpacker industry in order for it to flourish again…
You see Australia used to be the land of fruit and honey for backpackers, a place where you could travel and experience its delights on the cheap, the famous “We’ve got three dollars to the pound!” song ringing in our ears as another drunken rabble fell out of a beachside bar.
Not any more. Backpacking in Australia has become an expensive proposition and clued up independent travellers have become acutely aware of the fact.
The number of people staying in hostels is down seven per cent compared to two years ago, and the number of British travellers visiting – Australia’s largest market – is down a massive 20 per cent in the same time period.
Some backpacker operators are going so far as to call the situation a crisis, while Backpacker Youth Tourism Council chairman Peter Ovenden believes the industry is facing it’s most challenging time in two decades.
On the surface it would seem that the same old reasons are to blame: the strength of the Aussie dollar, the global financial crisis and the rising cost of air travel.
Alex Harmon, editor of TNT Magazine and Backpacker Trade News, agrees that cost is a major factor for the drop in backpacking numbers.
“The whole philosophy behind being a backpacker is stretching your trip for as long as you can without having the constraints of work, or the worry of money,” says Harmon.
“Backpackers now have to work to support their travel here and it’s a massive game changer. They’re doing shorter trips, or worse, saving the money they make in Sydney so they can live it up in Asia on the way home.
“Us Aussie’s used to complain about London, but now it is reversed. Whenever we speak to backpackers, nine out of 10 people’s first comment is: ‘I can’t believe how expensive it is to drink here’.”
It would be erroneous to say the cost of a beer is the entire story though. Harmon also points to several other key issues as to why backpackers aren’t visiting, one of which is an out-dated Working Holiday Visa scheme.
“First of all, the backpacker is getting older and the Working Holiday Visa needs to reflect that, increasing eligibility to 35 years, as they do in New Zealand and Canada.
“Furthermore I think I think backpackers should be able to gain the WHV more than once, so they come in their early 20s and again in their 30s. A position paper has been put forward to the government making this very
suggestion – Australia is such a big country and we should be encouraging travellers to come back.”
Another factor is ‘smoasting’, something I’m lucky that Alex went on to explain, as I’m certainly not ‘down with the kids’ enough to understand it on my own.
“You can’t ignore ‘smoasting’ – or social media boasting – as a issue too,” says Harmon. “They want to fly in, get their picture taken, tick it off and move onto the next thing. Backpackers are re-evaluating the time and funds they have. They don’t want to take as many risks, so they see and do the things they’ve been recommended by their peers.”
Harmon takes an optimistic stance on the ability of Aussie backpacking to bounce back, which is understandable considering how closely she works with those in the industry. I, on the other hand, am a little more pessimistic.
As editor of TNT Magazine myself for three years at the turn of the millennium, I’ve witnessed the dwindling numbers of backpackers – and the changing priorities and desires of the ones who are here – for well over a decade now.
The issues linked to the decreasing number of backpackers aren’t new; it’s just that we now have the data to confirm what many have been seeing and experiencing for years.
So how can backpacking in Australia be saved? The only solution I see is a drastic one.
Much like a bushfire, where the majority of a forest is destroyed only to return replenished and stronger, I feel maybe this ‘crisis’ needs to see a shrinking of the industry in order to survive.
With less hostels and operators in the market, there would be a return to basics, where quality over quantity leads the way and the ‘old school’ spirit of backpacking is revived.
Granted it might mean that the number of backpackers might never reach the heights of the late ’90s, but lengthier stays and bigger spends by the ones who are here will mean a more robust and profitable industry.
Of course, this outcome would have a catastrophic effect on many small business owners, most of whom would simply cease to operate, but if backpacking is to survive in this country, I think things have got to get worse before they get better.
To read more from the Naked Traveller, click here.