Why ‘‘bushfire effect’ may save Australian backpacking

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…   

It’s not often backpackers garner much sympathy, but with the state of the industry in Australia at the moment, the next time you see a slightly dishevelled traveller with a massive pack on their back in your CBD, go and give them a pat on the back. They’re doing it tough.

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.

12 thoughts on “Why ‘‘bushfire effect’ may save Australian backpacking

  • August 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm
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    Wow this is exactly what we needed. Yet another person saying exactly the same thing with not one new idea to suggest. This is not a controlled economy and we don’t have to make a decision to cull backpacker operators – if they’re not doing well and not offering a good product they’ll automatically fall by the wayside – it’s called capitalism.

    Here’s an idea – forget about the UK, Europe and the stereotypical backpacker who heads straight to Bondi, gets burnt lobster red then slavishly walks into an agent to book a lightning quick, WTF just happened trip up the east coast. We’ve got a few billion people on our doorstep who are quickly becoming wealthy enough to embark on international travel. Best part is about a billion of them are young, social media aware and want to embrace the stuff they see western kids doing. What do western kids do? Backpack the world. What’s a western country close to Asia? Australia.

    There will always be the standard pommy piss head backpackers, lying on beach by day and stalking the wildlife at the Woolshed by night. But increasingly they’ll be outnumbered by those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. They couldn’t care less about when happy hour starts or about getting a tan but they still like to brag to their friends back home and have a great experience in a foreign land. They’re really not as fragile as you think and they do know that our culture is different to what they’re used to back home – that’s what they want!

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  • August 26, 2012 at 3:56 pm
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    Ballsy response from Greg, and the first time I’ve read – in any public, reasonably well visited, online forum – sentiments that I feel many within this industry would’ve been thinking about for a while. (In particular, the essence of his second and last paragraphs.)

    Throughout this year I’ve seen an ever increasing number of Asian and, in particular, south-east Asian guests coming through my hostel’s doors in numbers that are beginning to gain parity with the proportions of what I guess most of us would consider to be the typical backpacker. And like Greg states: this new set of customers are not (yet) interested in drinking – at least to nowhere near the extent traditional backpackers seem to want to do – the absolute last thing they want is a suntan (but they will purchase all the surfy styled Rip Curl and Billabong apparel they can, from Torquay) and set about smoasting (‘Smoast’? Is that really what it’s been termed?) after they’ve settled into the hostel.

    One issue I’m facing is determining how to cater for what I feel that (growing) subset of the market wants, without ostracising traditional guests. (And, I guess, vice-versa). I have consciously shaped my hostel to offer what amounts to peace and quiet for the bulk of my customers, the bulk of the time – after all, I am located in the middle of a national park, so a party hostel I ain’t – but in doing that have starting copping on-line comments from traditional backpacking guests (at least those who take the time to tap out a review) who talk about a lack of ‘atmosphere’ in my joint. And dealing with that is a challenge – going about providing an ‘atmosphere’ when I regularly see around 75% of my guests spending their in-house social-time with their faces glued to the screens of a smart-phone, laptop or tablet… (perhaps they’re ‘smoasting’?) Sure, I guess they’re socialising – just not with anyone within their direct field of vision.

    Perhaps we’re standing on the crest of a wholesale transition in our market – at least here in Australia – and should question who we are attempting to cater to: less and less from our traditional market and more towards those kids who’ve travelled away from those few billion folks who are living on our doorstep, which Greg alluded to.

    Interesting times.

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  • August 26, 2012 at 4:38 pm
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    Yeah Greg and you’re obviously the first to come up with the radical idea to welcome backpackers from Asia. Why didn’t anyone think of that before? And where are your new ideas to get them here? You may not like the pomy pisshead but they’ve been keeping the industry afloat for a long time now…

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  • August 26, 2012 at 7:30 pm
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    Greg really shot Mr Hansford down the bog. And Greg thinks that we don’t know what capitalism means while demonstrating in text he too does not. Greg has also found a billion backpackers on our doorstep who don’t like sunshine or booze and want something different. Genius.

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  • August 26, 2012 at 11:10 pm
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    Barfly, reading that we’ve ‘found’ a billion* backpackers who don’t like booze and sunshine is an ok statement from where I’m sitting. That’s a shitload – aka: 1,000,000,000 (I’ll put that at 15 or 16, or so, times the size of the UK’s population) – of potential new customers for us to gear up for.

    Sure, they don’t (yet) down booze in the quantities I reckon the industry would rather they would, and we’re a while away from seeing consistent behaviour to suggest there’s a general appreciation of what’s meant by ‘clean up after yourself’ in a communal kitchen. (And the loud, early morning logie hacking. By all means do what ya’ think you’ve gotta to clear your airways, but is there any chance you can do that with a little less noise?).

    But from all reasonable accounts we’re facing an ever increasing tidal surge of Asianackers who are ok with dossing in budget digs, but won’t be following the typical backpacker route(s), and don’t behave like our traditional backpacker types have in the past, as Greg touched on.

    What are we, as an industry, doing to get ready?

    *And yeah, I know that one billion people won’t translate to that many visitors to Australia. But, even if we attract a small percentage, surely we’re looking at a huge ground swell of arrivals to our shores within our layer of the industry, seeking a dinkum Aussie backpacking experience.

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  • August 27, 2012 at 9:13 am
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    I strongly believe the youth & adventure market in Australia is nearing the end of its existing life cycle with the beginning of our new cycle just around the corner. We tend to be focusing to much on the negatives and not enough on the positives.

    I think we are in a fortunate position at the moment. The youth & adventure industry is very resilient and we know, that as an industry we can adapt. We also have history behind us! We know how to develop and capitalise on markets and we know how to work collectively as an industry.

    We already have the tools and knowledge to pick this industry up and get it pumping again. We know over the next 10 years our biggest source markets will be Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) maybe Indonesia and a few others. Although Tourism Australia (TA) do at times forget about our industry, we need to utilise everything that is available to us like TA initiatives, grants etc and use the knowledge we have learn’t over the past 20 years and apply this to these new markets.

    Maybe its time for all the associations to come together?

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  • August 27, 2012 at 9:18 am
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    Or a steering committee focusing on the BRIC markets only

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  • August 27, 2012 at 10:54 am
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    Tony, I can totally relate to your experiences, just last week I had a Japanese girl walk past me while I was eating breakfast, hocking up some phlegm from the depths with great gusto. I didn’t finish my breakfast.

    Anyway I’m not pretending I was the first to mention Asian backpackers, but I do find that those who are uncomfortable with the language and cultural challenges are all too eager to put them in the too hard basket and turn back to what they understand – english speaking travellers. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just feel that a market of this size, relatively close by, cannot be ignored.

    I must admit a personal bias as in a previous, vastly different career I worked in investment banking and was focused on emerging markets in India, Pakistan & Sri Lanka. So yeah Barfly, I know nothing about capitalism, obviously we were all raging communists at Morgan Stanley 😉

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  • August 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm
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    An investment banker. Haven’t those guys shown themselves to be light years from reality in recent times. But kudos to you.

    But, but, but…

    …” if they’re not doing well and not offering a good product they’ll automatically fall by the wayside – it’s called capitalism”. Greg, in Australian backpacker parlance not offering a good product is par for the course and they don’t fall anywhere while they’re sucking the life out of the great products. Mr Naked Traveller says quality over quantity. The big idea in the room is quality for those looking for one in his post.

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  • August 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm
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    Greg, Tony etc will do well in realising and embracing the required market source changes needed to sustain their business’s. Industry colleagues should ‘jump on’ board (pardon the pun, Greg) and get working together to capitilise on the possibilities rather than sitting back moaning how dire things are.

    @Barfly, my thoughts on Australian backpacker parlance for capitalism is a bit different to yours. ‘Good quality products fall by the wayside because they get the life sucked out of them by high commission demanding agents that continually support poor quality products’.

    Oh, having just checked the definition of your pseudonym at http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=barfly, I now understand where your posts originate!

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  • August 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm
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    Yeah g’day Paul. I’ll happily say that – at least in my joint – we’ve 100% realised the change in the market. In fact, I’d need to have been blind not to have seen it unfold over the past 18 or so months.

    But it’s getting my s__t together to embrace what needs to be done to cater for those changes that I’m finding a little more difficult…

    ‘Cause I’m basically a dumb bastard I still get simple things wrong, like mixing up Taiwan with Thailand. Or Thailand with Taipei. I inadvertently offend Korean guests by asking whether they’re from the north or south. And I’m not really sure how to politely bridge the question with a guest from Hong Kong about whether they consider themselves to be Chinese. (Etc, etc.)

    But, we’re taking small steps and I reckon are heading in the right direction. (NOT to be confused with One Direction.)

    Someone suggested to me once words that went something like “if you don’t swim with the tide of change, you’ll drown beneath it”. So, on that, we’re feverishly flailing our arms about in a fashion that would make Laurie Lawrence proud.

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  • August 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm
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    Why thank you Paul. I returned the favour: you by urban definition are a sweet cool guy that everyone wants to be. Which explains nothing at all about you.

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