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McBackpackers: Unpacking the pleasures of globalisation

March 1, 2005 by Rebecca Bennett

This paper critiques backpacking in the context of economic globalisation. It constructs independent travel as one of globalisations pleasures — making it a challenging industry (and modality) to locate and thus critique. My aim is to search for a more reflexive, critical and contested globalisation, rather than taking a modernist, binary anti globalisation stance. What I am trying to argue in my title is that in order to make visible the exclusions, limits, margins, discontents and flaws in globalisation as a trope, focus of critique needs to be diverted away from obvious global icons such as Nike and McDonalds and placed in the centre of pleasure and leisure discourses of the global elite. Spaces such as those created by the 'independent travel networks' need to be unpacked, in order to reveal how globalisations main benefactors use the commodification of experience to simultaneously maintain and mask the unequal distribution of wealth, literacy, access, and agency that underpins the so-called globalised 'world'.

Use of the term 'MacBackpacker' suggests that independent travel has become a dangerous globalising discourse. Independent travel modalities reflect the fluid shape of global capitalism more accurately than the Golden Arches, Coke or the Swoosh. Travellers are more than multinational icons: they perform a metonymic function in understanding global ideological flows. To articulate the focus of a complex, dirty and unfinished critique of the backpacker-as-metonym, I propose a heuristic structure of tourist movements that places backpackers in a potentially disruptive, yet usually supportive space in globalisation hegemony. This reveals the spatial and global powers associated with choosing to embark on a travel experience in a fluid 'independent' form: the space created by the image of the backpacker. Once independent travelling space is revealed as a familiar shape of late modern capitalist power, I provide a brief deglobal critique of backpacking's support of consumer culture. This exemplifies one of many critical steps towards promoting self-reflexivity and auto-ethnography of the travel process in the hope that this might instil a desire amongst globalisations benefactors to instigate meaningful, global political change.

Backpacker discourse and practice, like globalisation, is difficult to hold in a singular and all-encompassing definition because it is an image that signifies constant movement and change. Fursich's attempt to generalise and label backpacking images is undermined by the paradox that occurs when quantitative attempts are made to capture moving targets. He states:

Backpackers are often well-educated college or university students from Western countries, and now increasingly also from periphery states (eg. Korea), Eastern European countries or Japan: E Fursich, 'Packaging Culture: The potential and limitations of travel programs on global television', Communication Quarterly, Spring 2002, vol. 50, no. 2, p. 204(23). Available from Expanded Academic ASAP, A98371073.

Use of the increasingly shaky and unreliable term 'Western' for an obviously expanding multicultural and hybrid practice is made more confusing when Koreans, Eastern Europeans and Japanese are added to the travelling melting pot. Backpacking has its origins in marketing terminology. It refers to a product: the 'backpack' that represents a lifestyle and travel choice in defiance of the cumbersome suitcase. Much of the significance of the marketing connotation in the term 'backpacker' is why I have chosen to keep the label alive in this critique. However it is not to be taken literally. Not all backpackers carry a 'backpack', and many travellers who buy into backpacker brands and modalities do not identify themselves as backpackers. Fursich outlines a potential target market for the multitude of products, tours, flights, literature, clothing and camping equipment associated with a class of travellers. Such a definition may help companies looking to sell experiences to surfaces, but it is not a definition that independent travellers might identify with as a reflection of the experience of travelling community/ies.

Labels and familiar stereotypes are not empowered in a travel space that searches for unfamiliarity and difference. To define backpackers as being 'university educated', 'Western' or even as 'wearers of backpacks' misses the political point. Travel definitions that rely on labels can be easily rebutted. Travellers are allowed to deny political responsibility when faced with a critique of their movements, if they are defined using positivist, rigid and exclusive terms. Mobile classes are all too familiar with avoiding commitment by rationalising identity in slippery postmodern combinations of individualism and fragmentation. By refusing labels, independent travellers can avoid criticism and critique. A more flexible and accurate definition of independent travel needs to be made, if backpackers are to claim their 'global' weight and use it to instigate change.

Backpacking does not so easily escape the swift and strong clutches of critique, if it is seen as a metonym for globalisations supporters. Scrutinising mobility-as-power, for bodies as well as currency, backpackers become distinguished by the way they move in relation to globalisation discourse. On this front, Fursich continues his definition of the backpacker where he should have began:

What unites them is that they do not want to spend a lot on travelling, and they have vacations long enough to go on extended trips: E Fursich, Ibid.

From this perspective backpacker discourse creates a fluid travel identity based on a combination of — and the manipulation of — choice, cash and time. If you look at backpackers as being united by their choice to stretch currency over time and space in the context of globalisation, backpackers become not only metaphors for capital they are corporeal capital flows themselves. This sets them apart from two other travelling metonyms floating in globalisation discourse's ocean of significance: the '5 Star' and the 'Package' tourists. I make a heuristic distinction between '5 star', 'independent' and 'package' tourists in order to clarify where I place backpacking practice and theory within the context of globalisation and its limits. This is simplified and clumsy structure, but it assists in my cultural mapping of global power structures on-the-move.

Tourism enters the globalisation debate, as an exercise of global power, whether conscious or unconsciously recognised by the tourists themselves. Zygmunt Bauman suggests that in globalisation:

Mobility climbs to the rank of the uppermost of coveted values-and the freedom to move, perpetually a scarce and unequally distributed commodity, fast becomes the main stratifying factor of our late modern or postmodern times: Zygmunt Bauman, Globalisation: The human consequences, Polity Press, 1998, p. 2.

Travellers most obviously exercise the power of mobility. As Bauman suggests freedom of movement is major currency in the fluid globalisation strata. A realisation of movement being neither a shield, nor an escape but powerful currency in globalisation helps unblock the avenues to reflexive and open responses to ideological and physical political change. If movement is seen as being closely aligned with global power it can be contained in its fluid form as a space that demands critical attention. To emphasis mobility-as-power means that global benefactors can no longer run away in the face of critique.

Remanets of modernist, Fordist class structures help forge the tentative paths that tourists follow around the globe. In order to reveal the functions of different tourist modalities, temporal, spatial and cultural limitations need to be addressed. Bauman suggests that present-day society has shifted emphasis from production to consumption. He states:

The way present-day society shapes its members is dictated first and foremost by the duty to play the role of the consumer. The norm our society holds up to its members is that of the ability and willingness to play it: Bauman, p. 80.

Consumer driven power structures are reflected in movement, brand names and enforced locality. Local producers, who make the goods Nike sell on a global market do not often have access to the mobile pleasures that globalisation offers its benefactors. The Nike name represents power and status for those who buy the trainers, not those who sew on the 'Swoosh'. People get mugged for designer shoes. Brand names are evidence of global worth. To eat a burger with golden arches on its wrapper or to wear jeans with a red tag reveals more about global worth than having money in the bank. As Bauman states,

Consumers are first and foremost gatherers of sensations; they are collectors of things only in a secondary and derivative sense: Bauman, p. 83.

Consumers do not buy from necessity; they buy to exercise and make visible their power of choice. Nike trainers are not necessarily more comfortable, nor do they guarantee greater sporting prowess. They do however sell an ideology. They signify fitness, wealth, fame and world-wide recognition. Brands offer celebrity to those off screen. They are tickets to participation in the global economy. The right red and white soft drink can in hand afford global recognition. The hand may not be famous, rich or popular but the 'thing' it is holding certainly is. Branded products are tickets into the globalised world. They hold particular relevance for those who cannot afford to buy plane tickets.

Immobile consumers of 'global' icons are the fringes of globalisation. They have to buy the 'thing' in order to feel the globalisation sensation. To be bounded by locality means restricted access to consume and globally powerful sensations firsthand.

The power to move beyond geographical locality means brand names can be left behind in pursuit of ephemeral consumption of difference, experience time, and space. The ability to consume increases when mobility ensures access to the consumption of space and time as well as hard produce. Tourism markets 'sensation' through manipulation of the conceptual realms of space and time. It helps reinforce a world of cultural capital. It offers corporeal experiences of globalisation narratives. Tourist movements mirror technology and currency networks celebrated in globalisation. Globalisation is not a 'thing' it is neither still nor stable, it is a theory of movement, hybridity and the commodification of constant change. Access to tourist networks means access to the fluid centre of globalisation hegemony.

Tourists, however, are not equally mobile. They do not all have the same entry visas, time constraints and travel options. They do not make the same choices and they do not have the same choices to make. Making the decision to travel for extended time periods and to travel 'on the cheap' is encouraged in backpacker discourse. 'Package tourists' do not exercise the power to run from locality in the same way. They take trips that are safely and firmly encased in space and time. Maps of travel movements, written by somebody else, precede 'package tourist' motion and detailed timetables carefully control time. 'Package' trips are metaphors for safe, predictable and easily traceable mobility.

Package tourists do not have freedom to manipulate time and space on tour to the same degree as long-haul backpackers. This travel space is neatly labelled and grounded in the locality of preset destinations. Package tourists are not exterritorial. They shift from one 'locality' to another. Boundaries are not 'blurred' in the purchase of preset expectations and fixed destinations. Package holidays signify 'sun', 'sites' and sea. Framed as breaks in routine; these travel modalities do not represent a 'lifestyle' — they are a temporary 'escape' from the specific and powerful 'locality' called 'home'.

Symbolically, the package tourist cannot afford travel-for-pleasure as a lifestyle choice. After a carefully planned 'break' in routine, consumers of pre-set tours return back to work firmly ensconced in their locality. 'Package Tourists' save enough capital (meaning 'time' as well as 'cash') to buy a glimpse into the world of a mythical, global elite. Their travel modality does not however suggest they are allowed to enter the world of the global 'full time'.

Mobility and consumption are close allies in postmodern globalisation. Production is connected to locality in the remembering of modernist, preglobal images of the past. Package tourists are limited consumers because they are offered limited movement. Binding space and time inhibits mobility and unfamiliar sensations. Package tourist modalities are reminiscent of Fordist, mass produced, fixed and predictable products. These modalities do not fully participate in Manuel Castells "space of flows, superseding the space of places epitomizes the increasing differentiation between power and experience": Manuel Castelles, 'The Information City', in J Beynon and D Dunkerly (eds.), Globalisation: The reader, The Athelone Press, London, 2000, p. 73. Instead they focus on destination and 'place' over movement and unfamiliarity.

Independent travellers are willing participants in unstable and temporarily flexible forms of mobility. They move through and in-between places that can be departed on a whim for somewhere else. However, backpackers' manipulation of time and space runs out along with their credit card limits. They occupy a powerful position in globalisation hierarchies, but they have to get their hands dirty, and deal with local limitations face-to-face. Backpacker modalities do not resemble the invisible, exclusive space of the third tourist imagining that exemplifies my tourist class structure: this being the realm of the '5 Star' tourist.

'Five Star' tourists are unique because they do not have to move in order to exercise global power. They do not have to get their hands dirty because they can pay others to their dirty work. 'Locality' is irrelevant to those who control the currency and dominant tourist networks in globalisation because '5 Star' tourists are exterritorial. Travel does not focus on difference for this class. Fragmentation, unfamiliarity and diversity are ideological masks that sell the sensations that keep them powerful, whilst diverting attention away from their power. Buffered, secure walls of identical five-star hotel rooms create a 'private' supra-national non-space.

In the '5 Star' world, direct relations with 'local', public spaces are not necessary for movement; public interactions become calculated choices. Luxury hotel-rooms, private jets and limousines are the secret, shrouded homes of a global elite. This form of mobility represents not only benefactors of globalisation but the leaders. Occupants of happy and invisible supra-national bubbles hold the power of veto in globalisation narratives. '5 Star' tourists write globalisation discourse from their penthouse suites, but do not sign their name. The global exterritory is, as Bauman articulates:

a territory stripped of public space [that] provides little chance for norms being debated, for values to be confronted, to clash and to be negotiated. The verdicts of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, proper and improper, useful and useless may only descend from on high, from regions to be penetrated by any but a most inquisitive eye; the verdicts are unquestionable since no questions may be meaningfully addressed to the judges since the judges left no address-not even an e-mail address-and no one can be sure where they reside. No room is left for the local opinion leaders; no room is left for 'local' opinion as such: Bauman, p. 26.

'Five Star' tourists represent those who do not need to move to exercise their power. They are visible on their own terms and in ways that make it near impossible for the public to unmediatedly confront them face-to-face.

Backpackers have email addresses, rather than fixed addresses, which makes them trans territorial but not ex territorial like the '5 Stars'. The malleability of digital addresses, coupled with the random nature of independent travel movements make backpackers difficult to locate, but they can be tracked. '5 Star' Tourists have the power of invisibility. Backpackers offer visible and iconic representations of mobility, sensation and consumption. This is what makes them a necessary focus of deglobal critique. Independent traveller movements keep the private '5 star' world hidden, and the space of the 'local' a smiling provider of difference and romance. The key in this thesis is to catch the backpacker long enough to deglobalise their movements. To unpack independent travel, gives the five-star world form and searches beyond the local's smile.

Pico Iyer articulates a familiar independent traveller narrative: the narrative of the citizen who enters the global realm, and then forgets the 'local' because 'localised' immobile spaces restrict pleasures in movement and constant change:

I am an example of an entirely new breed of people, and intercontinental breed of wanderers that is multiplying as fast as international phone lines and frequent flyer programs. We are the Transit Loungers, forever heading to the departure gate, forever orbiting the world. We enjoy our habits duty-free, we eat our food on plastic plates, and we catch the world through rented headphones: P Iyer, 'The Soul of an intercontinental wanderer', Harpers, April 1993, vol. 286, no. 1715, p. 13(5). Available from Expanded Academic ASAP, A13807607.

'Transit Loungers' are the mobile middle classes emerging in the new capitalist networks of globalisation. They are the backpacker metonym pushed to its clinical, consumerist limits. The sentiment that stands out as representative of my thesis is, 'we enjoy our habits duty free'. This is the problem at the heart of backpacker discourse and consumer-based globalisation. To enjoy movement without feeling a duty to understanding and taking responsibility for the structures that allow mobile pleasure allows backpackers to ignore very human consequences to their actions. Duty free signifies that once the space of the Transit Lounger, is occupied, there is no longer a need to care. Iyer suggests that to emancipate the self from the confines of physical 'space' as 'independent' travellers do in blurred and hybrid experiences of destinations, maps and others means backpacker movements become alarmingly aligned with the clinical, uncritical, and uncaring movements of capital flows in a 'free market' economy. Capital takes a corporeal form in the movement of bodies seeking pleasure by floating through multiple 'local' spaces, without taking responsibility for their actions.

Coward attacks this backpacker narrative in his reaction in the Ecologist online in response to the 2002 Bali Bombings, which killed a number of Australian tourists. He states,

There is a staggering lack of awareness among these travellers that their lifestyle could be seen in any other light than the one they shed on it: universal youthful pleasures bringing the much needed tourist dollar to a poor country: R Coward, Bali, Bombs and Backpackers [online] [accessed 10 February 2003].

Although such a statement does not encompass all long-haul travellers, it does represent a narrative that makes experiences of poverty more digestible for globalisation's pleasure seekers. By spending money in poor local spaces, travellers justify their movements as helping boost poorer economies. This sentiment is echoed in tourism theory by Scheyvens who suggests that "encouraging local people to cater for the needs of backpackers poses a challenge to foreign domination of tourism enterprises": R Scheyvens, 'Backpacker Tourism and Third World Development', Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 29, no. 1, 2001, p. 155. If power rested entirely on a Fordist economic model, Scheyvens logic makes sense. She embodies an anti globalist stance, suggesting boycotts of multinational corporations infuse backpacker movements with subversive politics. She fails to address the argument that movement itself is a tourist enterprise. Tourist mobility provides evidence of possessing a wealth of cultural capital which is fast becoming globalisation's dominant power source. Recognising the political weight of mobile cultural capital is a necessity in the deglobalisation of leisure and pleasure industries and movements.

Movement is vital in the consumption of experience and so is the search for the unfamiliar. Urry articulates in his description of the post tourist that "there is a search for delight in contrasts between societies rather than a longing for conformity or superiority": John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and travel in contemporary societies, Sage Publications, London, 1990, p. 167. In order to contrast societies one must move between them. To be able to search for post modern delights means the independent tourist becomes a superior consumer. Good consumers can move. Greater freedom of movement means a larger pool of consumption. When time, space and experience paid for as travel-for-pleasure an exterritorial world of consumption opens up, where new and different local produce can be updated for as long as the traveller can afford to consume. Bauman states that,

As a matter of fact, the promise is all the more attractive the less familiar is the need in question; there is a lot of fun in living through an experience one did not know existed, and a good consumer is a fun-loving adventurer: Bauman, p. 82.

Backpackers inspire an image of the ultimate 'fun-loving adventurer': they physically embody and represent Bauman's definition of a 'good' consumer. When they are not working to save up in order to do more backpacking, people on open-ended extended travel journeys dedicate their waking hours to the art of extraterritorial consumption of 'fun'.

This is where the 'budget' backpacker, living on stale bread, 'local' food, stretching their last dollar for as long as it will travel — comes apart at the seams. There is a prevalent budget ethic amongst long haul travellers often like to stretch their money as far as it will take them, both temporally and geographically. From a paper based on the interview of a small cross section of backpackers, Cooley decides that "this type of travel involves two things above all others: an overstuffed nylon backpack and a severe budget ethic": A Cooley, Against Commoditization: Backpacking Culture [online] [accessed 3 January 2003]. Whilst Cooley fails to address issues of mobility in his thesis, he does refer to a dominant narrative amongst independent travellers which is to mainly travel 'on the cheap'. This 'budget' mentality does not necessarily imply that backpackers are 'poor' and it is deceptive for them to read themselves or be read as such. Wealth of mobility ensures backpackers can move until somebody feeds them, they can 'slum it' until that desperate phone call to mum and dad asking for a 'loan', they can move until someone gives them a 'job' to pay for rent, for dinner or for some more elastic 'traveller' dollars to be stretched as far as they can.

Independent travellers rapidly devour infinite languages, landscapes, 'artefacts', tours, bus rides, train trips, parties, cuisines, novels, journals, internet connections, minidisk players, tents, hiking boots, backpacks, canteens and hostels. In certain spaces, backpackers sustain themselves on the consumption of 'locally' produced goods and services alone, forgetting that the parts for their Microsoft MP3 player, Sony Discman, International Nokia phone and Nike trainers were most likely locally produced too. The producer and the local are thus conflated in globalisation consumer driven society. They are both relegated to bottom-feeder status in the global hierarchy. Immobile 'locals' or the enforced mobility of refugees, who can neither consume nor produce anything of global worth evaporate in globalisation discussions. In the consumer driven world, they cease to exist.

Unfortunately for locals who interact with globals moving through their spatial prison; "the culture of consumer society is mostly about forgetting, not learning": Bauman, p. 82. and this is where I call for change. As travel culture reads as a global metonym, backpackers tread a dangerous and precarious path when discussing the global fate of immobile 'locals'. As Bauman states,

If it so happened that the encounter enforced by the other side-the moment of 'otherness' tried to flex its muscles and make its strength felt, capital would have little difficulty with packing it's tents and finding an environment that was more hospitable-that is unresisting, malleable, soft: Bauman, p. 11.

Backpacker can move on if difference becomes a conflict, political, boring or unpleasant. This is where the image of the MacBackpaker emerges as a more necessary focus of globalisation critique than McDonalds. Tourism discourse must infuse its pleasures with meaning and realise their price in a global market. Mobile pleasures need to be released from becoming uncritical experiences of difference, if globalisations exclusive and politically damaging shape is to change. As benefactors of globalisation, independent travellers have power to offer a critique of the discourse that will be heard. The first step is to encourage self-reflexivity and auto-ethnography during the travel process. Backpackers have become the new institutional model of global power, which is fluid, murky and difficult to critique. It is not however impossible. Global pleasures need to be critiqued with the same political seriousness as is afforded to the critics of economic globalisation if structural inequalities in a globally visible, yet locally muted worldview are to change.