A new advert for the rebranded and spruced up Hostelworld shows backpackers stripping naked and jumping into a stunning Mexican sinkhole, but with recent incidents of backpackers getting into legal trouble and even being deported for stripping off around the world, is this advert just bad timing? Or is it contributing to the already negative stereotype that backpackers are nothing more than hedonistic thrill seekers who do not respect the places or cultures they visit?
Please note, after this article was published the Hostelworld ad was removed from all official sources, so this article was amended to remove the links to it.
Let’s face it, backpackers in general do not have a good reputation at the moment in western society. Or the rest of the world for that matter.
An Unfortunate Reputation.
We have always had a bit of a reputation as stinky hobos slumming it around the world and trying to escape, or avoid, ‘real’ life for as long as possible, and to be honest most of us can live with that. The problem is now the rise of begpackers, irresponsible voluntourism and general bad behaviour is getting worse, and getting us all labelled with negative stereotypes in the process.
The inexplicable craze for stripping off in front of famous monuments or grand landscapes is making everything even worse. The craze has been growing in recent months and even though these disrespectful tourists are in the absolute minority, now infamous stories in the media of these naked tourists being arrested and deported are becoming increasingly regular.
Aside from the idiots who get caught and end up in serious trouble, there are plenty more who don’t get caught and still insult the countries and cultures they are visiting. This trend has just reinforced the erroneous stereotype that backpackers do nothing but drunkenly stumble from one full moon party to the next in complete disregard of culture, norms or religious beliefs and sensitivities of the places they visit.
I mean really, we all know it isn’t accurate, not for a great many backpackers at least, but it’s hardly a great image is it?
Tourist Vs Traveller.
There is often a high brow paradigm that there really is no difference between a traveller and a tourist. It is current ‘right think’ that we are all really just tourists at the end of the day and that we are all travellers too, that we are all the same.
I’m sorry but that is rubbish, incidents like this just prove it.
I am a backpacker, I am an independent traveller. And I refuse to be labelled alongside those idiot tourists who think it is okay to strip off at a sacred site and insult a culture’s beliefs and norms.
Unfortunately the marketing departments in the gap year industry seem to be latching onto this stereotype, aiming their marketing squarely at the ‘very young and adventurous’, with ‘spontaneous fun’ becoming a buzz word to target their focus groups with.
There seems to be a paradigm now amongst the gap year industry that their target market are all hedonistic fun seekers, and they are perpetuating this fallacy that the epitome of ‘living life to the full’ means stripping off and running with wild abandon into the unknown.
Now don’t get me wrong, travellers in general do love to party and have some fun, and we’ve all had fun times getting naked in various adventurous locations, but there is a time and a place and judging us all on that alone seems a little superficial at best.
There are some – not just Hostelworld – who even use this stereotype as an excuse for otherwise appalling behaviour. Radhika Sanghani, writing in the Telegraph argues that backpackers stripping naked on mount Kinabalu can just be dismissed as just a bit of fun, just a prank by someone who was fulfilling the ethos of being a backpacker by ‘living life to the full’.
Apart from the fact that everything about that sentence and her assumption is completely wrong, since when did living life to the full involve stripping off and insulting everyone?
Worst Timing Ever?
Now to be fair, there is a heavy dose of bad timing on the part of the Hostelworld ad. I’m sure – given that backpackers are their prime audience – that they wouldn’t want to do anything to offend the community as a whole or bring it into disrepute. They weren’t to know when they released the advert, that at the very same time some fool tourists would be getting very publicly shamed in the mass media, lambasted in their host country and eventually deported for stripping off on top of mount Kinabalu and offending local tribes in Malaysia.
But by the same token they frankly should have known better too!
The backlash against this type of behaviour is not new. A host of countries and tourism authorities are starting to clamp down hard on the nude selfie craze, Angkor Wat is the latest major tourist site to do just that with ‘common sense guidelines being displayed prominently at the site itself as well as being distributed to hotels and tour groups. Malaysia is following suit after the recent media frenzy following the arrest and deportation of tourists on Mount Kinabalu.
Places as disparate as Egypt, Machu Picchu and even Everest have seen their fair share of these disrespectful tourists, and many locals are not happy about it.
Did no one at Hostelworld just stop for a moment and think maybe this isn’t such a good idea? Or was this the brainchild of a middle aged marketing executive desperate to be hip and wanting to appeal to that ‘young adventurer’ target audience who couldn’t quite let the erroneous stereotype go?
With the backlash against this type of behaviour gaining pace, I’ll bet there was more than one sigh of relief when the advert was banned in the UK on a health and safety technicality!
Why Is Being ‘Young And Spontaneous’ Equated With Stripping Off?
Is this what ‘adventure’ is now? Have all the wonderful and exciting experiences that make up that grandest of words all been boiled down to a vacuous and self obsessed need to vainly show off how crazy and out there we are by getting naked for a selfie?
We are better than that aren’t we?
Backpackers are both Hostelworld’s target audience and their customers, and have been for quite a while now. Long enough for Hostelworld to know the backpacker community pretty well. They know that whilst there are groups of backpackers who are hedonistic party seekers and are barely above a package tourist in their knowledge of and respect for local customs and cultures, they are in the relative minority.
The majority of backpackers and independent travellers are better.
Time To Focus On The Positive.
Aside from the idiot minority there are also backpackers who travel to broaden their minds, improve themselves and at least try to improve the world around them too.
Backpacking around the world is one of the grandest adventures anyone can have in their lives, and people do take on that adventure to live life to the fullest, but many backpackers seek that adventure without stripping off. Many backpackers take the time to get to know local communities, cultures and religions, expanding their own minds and understanding of the world around them. By simple virtue of travelling through and understanding other cultures they become more tolerant, more respectful, more empathetic and compassionate.
Backpackers are often the type to embrace adventure, not the type that involves superficially stripping off, but real adventure. The type of adventure that makes a person bolder and self confident, self reliant, more social, more enterprising and adaptable to sudden changes.
Many backpackers volunteer their time and give back to community projects or causes close to their hearts, incorporating the ethics of responsible travel into their own adventures and making positive contributions to the world around them as they travel.
As a collective whole backpackers frankly make up some of the best people on this planet. Yes, many backpackers are free spirited and enjoy spontaneous fun and adventure, but they do that in a positive way. With their clothes on. Mostly.
And Hostelworld do know that. They see that in the scores of backpackers that use their service every day.
So why not celebrate that aspect of taking a gap year? Why not show all the positives of being a backpacker – a traveller – beyond the limited stereotype of stripping off and doing something crazy because apparently that is what constitutes craving an adventure’?
Why not make an advert that shows a nervous first time backpacker coming out of their shell, becoming more self confident, making new friends, gaining cultural awareness, seeking real adventure by exploring tropical jungles and vast mountain ranges, gaining new, valuable skills like diving or climbing, participating in activities that most people only ever dream of and seeing wonders of the world first hand.
Why not show backpackers with professional skills and qualifications making a difference in a responsible volunteer capacity or gaining career experience by teaching English abroad? Why not show all the positives that being a backpacker is all about?
Let’s move away from the hedonistic full moon party stereotype and show the world who backpackers really are, and what backpacking the world is really like.
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