Ben Iaquinto, human geographer, weighs the pros and cons of backpacker communities.
When we think about backpacker communities, we imagine travel, easy-living and care-free youth. Despite appearances, backpacker communities can teach us a lot about how to effectively engage with resident communities.
While backpackers can provide local communities with economic benefits as well as eye-opening encounters between tourists and local residents, they can also be a source of conflict when they do not adhere to local laws and/or neighbourly expectations. By looking at how backpacker communities integrate with the communities they visit, we can build a better understanding of how the public respond to ‘the stranger’ and what effect that might have on community consultation practices.
Benefits of backpacker communities
Backpackers can provide benefits to the communities in which they reside. They help ensure the survival of some agricultural communities by providing much-needed labour, and can also improve to social capital. Backpacker tourism forces strangers into close proximity with one another, leading to beneficial cultural exchange as backpackers settle in communities in non-disruptive ways.
For communities to thrive, people need to be able to trust each other. For example, they need to trust that other community members will not harm them when they walk down the street or that the food served in local restaurants will not make them sick. Communities do not function well without trust. An important aspect of trust is to know when to grant it. Backpackers build trust with the community when they accept jobs with little knowledge of the local laws and conditions. When backpackers work hard and help to sustain Australia’s agricultural industries, these communities build trust with them. Relationships such as these develop out of mutual trust.
Unlike other tourist types, backpacker communities do not always stick to the main tourist sites and hotels. They merge more closely with communities as they gain employment, providing more opportunities for social interactions with community members. This can build feelings of well-being and belonging, and allows different types of people to interact thereby creating social connections – a key element of community engagement for community development practitioners.
Backpackers have also established a sense of trust with each other. In many backpacker hostels around Australia, laptops and phones will be left unattended in common areas and in dorm rooms. This won’t happen in every hostel, but it’s common enough to be surprising. It’s unclear why the level of trust would vary from hostel to hostel, but the hostels with the more trustworthy backpackers were definitely more enjoyable. The hostel environment was more relaxed, meal times were more communal, and the conversations were more interesting. When you can trust other backpackers, it makes the trip extra enjoyable. You can feel at home and relax.
The trust between backpackers also extended to their use of online rideshare forums and hostel notice boards to get around Australia. Backpackers will meet up with people they have only just met and drive across Australia with them. This not only requires people to trust that strangers will not directly harm them but also that they will drive responsibly. Among backpackers there appears to be an understanding that you will look out for each other.
For a community to have strong social bonds, it’s been found that having public spaces to facilitate joint community activities is very important. But community members must also be willing to participate. Community participation in shared activities is an important aspect of community engagement because it provides an opportunity for community members to build relationships with each other.
Backpacker communities are usually quite open to meeting new people as part of the appeal of backpacking is the social opportunities it provides. Compared to other tourist types, backpackers are able to have more prolonged engagement with communities in Australia as the Working Holiday Visa lets them stay in Australia for up to twelve months and work full time for up to six months. Since community engagement cannot function without relationship development, backpackers are ideally placed to contribute in this area.
Backpackers join local sports teams or bushwalking groups, or they would hang out in public parks and strike up conversations. This is an ad hoc form of relationship development so it might not assist in the goal of extension or engagement which requires a more directed form of community engagement. However, these types of interactions are a necessary part of community engagement for service delivery teams. The informal connection built between community members creates a sense of belonging leading to community engagement. The openness of backpackers and their social skills are highly useful in enabling this form of community engagement. How backpackers interact with community members indicates ways to initiate community engagement for those using the form of community engagement practiced by service delivery teams and community development.
Drawbacks of backpacker communities
It’s important to acknowledge that backpackers don’t always have a positive benefit on the communities in which they reside. Sometimes they choose not to engage with the community and crowd together in enclaves. Backpacker enclaves are a type of ‘tourist bubble’ in which backpacker tourists are able to limit their contact to other backpackers and tourism industry employees. While backpacker enclaves differ from conventional tourist bubbles as they are still accessible by local residents and non-backpackers, they can be exclusionary when backpackers choose to socialise only with other backpackers. Community engagement can be measured by the number of connections between community members. When backpackers cluster into enclaves and socialise only among themselves, they are limiting the amount of connections that can be made between people in a community. This limits the depth and breadth of community engagement.
While clustering together in enclaves could be described as a passive form of community disengagement, sometimes the activities of backpackers can be actively disruptive to local residents. This is particularly an issue in beachside suburbs such as Bondi and Coogee in Sydney and St Kilda in Melbourne. When large numbers of backpackers congregate it can lead to tensions with local residents as backpackers host loud parties, vandalise private property and dump excess rubbish. Through their encounters with drunken backpackers, some local residents can feel less comfortable in their own neighbourhoods. Another source of tension is that the cost of cleaning up is paid by the local residents in their council rates, while backpackers do not pay for these services.
As many people around the world are now required to settle in a range of destinations throughout their careers, conflicts between local residents and backpackers are emblematic of what can happen when a highly mobile and international labour source interacts with a more sedentary and locally-based community. The different needs and priorities between backpackers and local residents can lead to tensions, as can the antisocial behaviour of backpackers. Since the strength of community engagement can be measured by the number of interactions between community members, community engagement will suffer if residents are less inclined to interact with each other because of the potential for negative encounters.
Negative reflections on backpacker communities
Backpackers are not always the perpetrators of unsettling behaviour. Sometimes they are the victims.
Backpacker communities are sometimes the victims of economic exploitation and sexual assault. There have been reports of backpackers being underpaid, denied extra rates for overtime work, and getting overcharged for rent. Backpackers have also reported being sexually assaulted by their employers. Relationship development is an important part of community engagement. When people harm and exploit vulnerable members of their community it is a crime that reduces the ability of community members to develop relationships with each other. It damages trust, reduces social connections and ruins the potential for community members to work together. It also further highlights how violence against women in Australia remains a serious problem. The exploitation and assault of backpackers also have the potential to damage the Australian tourism industry and the industries dependent on backpacker labour in the same way that the violence against Indian students reported in 2009 had negative repercussions for Australia’s tertiary sector.
Collective performance of communities
When backpacker communities merge with local communities it can be disruptive, dangerous, amicable or enjoyable. Backpackers are an interesting case study through which to explore issues of community engagement. Their actions and the responses they provoke from local residents highlight a range of different ways Australians respond to outsiders.
The backpacker case study suggests how better consultative engagement practices might be created through activities that build trust between community members or from initiatives that enable community participation in shared activities. It also suggests how community engagement can emerge through the willingness to learn about a foreign culture in an open and empathic way. The case study of backpacker communities is also useful because it can demonstrate how opportunities for engagement are curtailed when people fail to consider how their behaviour affects others.
Backpacker communities also show us how community engagement is a collective performance. Not only do outsiders have a responsibility to consider the needs of local residents, communities which receive outsiders must do so in a respectful way.
Dr Ben Iaquinto is a human geographer with research interests in sustainability, mobilities and practices.
Header Photo: Lisa Redfern/pixabay/cc