Begpackers seen by a third-worldist
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Since a bit more than a year, you might have heard of a growing phenomenon (especially in Asia and to a lesser extent in South America): begpackers. Since then, there has already been a long debate about the ethics of this phenomenon. But for me, the real issues are different and much broader.
Begpackers, what is it?
“Begpacker” is a contraction of the English words “begging” and “backpackers”.
The begpackers are travellers, usually westerners, who travel to countries where the cost of living may be cheaper (often in Southeast Asia). Once there, to continue their journey, they beg, busk, sell hugs, postcards…
(You will see in this article some photos taken on the web of begpackers in Asia — of course we do not know all the context and the history of the people in these photos).
Is it legal ?
In fact, in most countries, it’s simply illegal because you’re not supposed to make money on a tourist visa, but also because there are often strict rules for busking or selling on the streets.
But because the phenomenon has grown, some countries like Thailand have taken stricter measures: visitors may be required to prove that they have at least 20,000 Baht (approx. 525€) in cash on them before being allowed to enter in the country.
The debate on the web
After reading a lot of opinions on the subject (you just need to google “begpackers” to find plethora of articles debating the subject), there are two large clans that stand out. The anti-begpackers for ethical and moral reasons and those who tolerate some forms of begpacking depending on the circumstances.
- The anti-begpackers are certainly the ones we’ve heard the most since last year. They talk about all the reasons why this phenomenon is ethically and morally questionable. For them, begpacking is a bad combination of white privilege and millennial entitlement. The lesson is simple, if you can’t afford it, do not travel.
- The other group tolerates certain cases. For them, there are many stories in the begpacking community: some beg to pay for a return ticket due to unfortunate circumstances, while others beg to pay for their next part of their trip, or their next night out. Some also justify this way of travelling because some Western countries (especially in Eastern Europe) are not as wealthy as countries like Singapore or Hong Kong.
I will not focus on these points because for me it is unequivocal, begpacking is undeniably white privilege with a small touch of millennial entitlement. Expecting locals to pay for the next part of your trip because you decided it was ok to enter their country with insufficient funds, it’s white privilege!
Why ? In my opinion, there is no debate about the legitimacy of begpacking as it is simply illegal and not even practiced in the home country of its practitioners. Wanting to do something that you do not do at home, illegally and starting a debate to justify yourself is really “Western privilege”.
I also understand that not all Western tourists are wealthy and that some want to travel, share, discover other cultures, but there are other ways to do it, that have existed for centuries and respect local cultures. We can, as many do, travel cheaply by working (legally) or by occasionally enjoying the hospitality and help of locals who choose to offer you a meal, a bed, a place in their car … And if you have real emergencies, in this case, contact your consulate or the relevant authorities.
Choosing to beg to travel (reminder: here, travel is a luxury, not a necessity) in countries where the cost of living can be lower than the one of your home country, next to locals who beg to survive, regardless of the laws of those countries, racial problems or even the often difficult history of these countries with colonialism, is to choose to live a utopia in a total lack of respect for the host country and its inhabitants. It’s just insulting!
Beyond the current debate, the points that interest me.
As a reminder, one of the important rules of travel, in my opinion, is not to judge only in the context of your own circumstances, it is necessary to take into account the context of the country in which you travel. The essence of the journey is to understand other cultures. That’s why the opinions that resonated much more with me are those of locals and Westerners who live permanently in these countries. The experiences of these people made me feel a sense of injustice.
1 — Let’s be honest, the debate only exists because the beggars are white Westerners.
Another westerner (who is not white) could hardly do the same with all the prejudices that we all know of. Westerners aside, there would be no grounds for debate. The debate above is the very image of white and western privilege, it ignores the local context and discuss the thing from a purely western point of view, which does not know how to see things in the reversed situation .
Take Europe for example if we want to reverse the situation, where are those who look like begpackers? They do not exist ! In Europe, you have non-European tourists who have complied with all the rules to enter the territory and who spend their savings for their holidays or European tourists who enjoy the benefits of the EU and choose with more flexibility how the travel. Otherwise, foreigners who beg are usually called refugees. They beg for survival, yet they are often treated with contempt. And we all remember fierce debates in the West as to why immigrants should make a positive contribution to the local economy and not abuse state allocations.
However, when European tourists do it elsewhere for the pleasure of travelling, it’s a new ‘cool’ way to travel. It becomes something of which we can be proud of. Is it a joke ?!
Of course, I can already hear some voices rising:
- people are free to give them money or not. Yes, but in this case, let’s not forget that they clearly benefit from the fact that the world is biased in their favor (a legacy of the colonial past). Not sure that Asian or African tourists would have the same reception. Some locals think that westerners on holidays have more money, so if they start begging they really must be in a difficult situation and being a stranger they are far from their family, so that they must help them. It’s abusing their kindness and benevolence!
- Playing in the street for a few coins to travel is technically a service. Sure, but still, it would have to be legal. Ask all these street vendors on the streets of big cities why they run away at the sight of the police!
- We can not judge these tourists without knowing their history. 100% agreed, but here I judge the movement and not the individuality of each traveller.
2 — The privilege of the passport.
To use a short example: I have two passports from African countries and for most countries that I visit (including in Africa) I have to show most of the time a clean slate( even extra clean!). Visa procedures are long, expensive and require a lot of things (a minimum of income, money available during the trip, a return ticket, hotel reservations, insurance, precise itineraries, contacts in the country…) . There are still countries where I can travel without a visa, but even there I always take all my precautions to be sure to be able to prove on arrival that I have sufficient funds if there is an additional verification. Why ? Because unfortunately those are the rules of the game and the world is full of prejudices against me.
So travelling without money is not even a possibility in my mind. When I travel, I know that it is a luxury and a privilege and that it must go with respect for my host country and its rules (whether they please me or not).
And I think that I share the experience of many people around the globe, especially in those countries where life is cheaper (despite what tvsmithmy seems to think — see photo above — For part of the globe, these rules apply, even in 2018).
So if you enter a country without having to apply for a visa in advance, do not forget to read the entry conditions and ask yourself what are the conditions for locals to obtain a visa in order to visit your country. And maybe you will better understand their point of view.
On another note, perhaps a solution for some of these countries would be to simply enforce diplomatic reciprocity when it comes to visas.
3 — Poverty, a false symbol of social status
But the problem is also that begpackers brag about their achievements and make them public on social networks. They spread the word to others and offer to teach them how to do the same thing. Apparently, it’s cool and it’s buzzing.
Of course, cheaper travel solutions have always been discussed to allow everyone to enjoy travelling even with limited resources. And in this case, many solutions exist: finding odd jobs, learning a job where you can work remotely if you want to do this long term … But here, it is not about the resources of the begpacker, it is about travelling with virtually nothing regardless of your financial situation in your home country.
All of this mirrors, for me, the wave of “poverty porn” where travellers give some coins to beggars or orphans to immediately take pictures with them and post them on Instagram. Or again, the organised favela tours to see the poverty in live and stock up on photos. To live as the poorest in a given country, to experience their suffering by choice and to know that you can stop the “experience” when you want, is the very definition of a privilege. There is nothing honorable about pretending to be poor to make yourself interesting. Honourability is to recognise and understand one’s privileges.
4 — The debate of knowing how to travel.
Finally, begpacking is undeniably in the eyes of many locals a lack of respect for their culture. And here I think that we can join an almost international debate on how to travel. Even in Europe, one must not go very far to understand why the inhabitants of Lisbon, Mallorca, Barcelona, etc. are fed up of the lack of respect that some tourists have towards their cultures, regardless of their origins.
Residents offer you some space to discover and understand them, not to exploit or disrespect them. Other cultures are not objects for your pleasure. In this equation, you are the guest and like any good guest, you must understand and appreciate the rules of your host without invading.
Knowing how to travel means respecting sacred places, local laws, local people and their way of life. It is not to turn their country into a caricature, a mystical land of adventures or simply a playground for tourists. The question that often comes up in these cases is “Why don’ you do the same thing at home?”
In conclusion, you do not need to be rich to travel, but to choose to travel is to offer yourself an experience according to your means and not to rely on the money of others or on any rights that you grant yourself to the detriment of the local population. Being able to travel is a privilege and it goes with the responsibility of not taking advantage of others (or at least trying not to)! And beyond the debate about its legitimacy, the begpackers phenomenon also highlights other key issues of our societies that are important to consider, especially when travelling.
As highlighted by Luise, a young Malaysian:
This phenomenon just highlights the fact that the tourist industry in the global south is highly problematic and contributes to the myth of the “good savage”, this person of colour who is gentle and well-meaning, but poor and ignorant, and whose only goal is to serve the white man and welcome him to his country.
So if you want to do an odd job or share your art to travel, make sure to do so legally. And if you are one of those who really do not see the underlying problem, then at least have the decency to use one of the many crowdfunding platforms to get money at home before you leave. I am absolutely not a fan of this process but at least there will be less disrespect towards the country that will welcome you.