Begpacking your way through Asia - Is it the worst possible travel “trend” to date?

Gayatri Gopalakrishnan explores the begpacking phenomenon trending around Asia.

Image: Ben White

Conventionally, planning a trip meant charting out the places you would like to visit, things you would like to see or do, places to stay, meeting regulations, travel documents, and of course, sorting out your finances.

However, what has recently emerged as a new travel “trend” is the begpacking phenomenon. A play on the words; begging and backpacking, this refers to a growing number of Western tourists, who decide to fund their travels through support from others. Whilst GoFundMe’s are popular, a more prominent variant of this involves travelling to a place, and once there, busking, selling handmade crafts or just begging on the streets, since working on a tourist visa or as a tourist is forbidden in most places.

A video that went viral about two months back, showed a couple of Russian tourists performing some acts, including throwing their two-month old baby in the air, in a crowded mall in Malaysia. Subsequently, more photos and videos followed of Western tourists begpacking through Asia, mostly in South East Asia.

Photos and videos included begpackers bragging about their achievements or frustrated locals on a quest to name and shame them.

What emerged since then, were a volley of internet opinions, with most people agreeing that it was a combination of white privilege and millennial entitlement. Although, there were those who justified it under certain cases, like losing your travel documents or missing your flight. Finally, there were those who believed that there was nothing wrong, you have to see the world when you are young, and it does not matter how.

It is at this point, that I beg to differ. As an Asian who has travelled to the West, in order to get my travel documents and visa approved, not only did I have to show sufficient balance in my bank account to last me for the trip and longer, but also show proof of hotel bookings, an itinerary in case of regions without borders, like the Schengen, as well as flight tickets to go back home. Furthermore, owning a passport that does not give visa-free access or visa-on-arrival privileges in many countries, I have to pay a large amount in visa processing fees, not to mention the time taken. Adding on the currency exchange rates, and the costs of living, I believe that travel is a luxury, a privilege. So, on the other hand, having Western tourists in Asia begging to fund their trip, for me, personally, it reeks of white privilege.

Whilst I can agree with the sentiment that it is about the wish to see the world, that is true for everyone, irrespective of where they are from.

However, most people in Asia, work long hours, and can scarcely afford to travel even to local tourist destinations.

Seeing the world could also be done by taking up volunteering or other jobs in international destinations. Contrary to this, begpacking brings up a fair bit of ethical and moral dilemmas. Since on a tourist visa, they are not allowed to work, most begpackers expect the local people to fund their travels, competing in the “begging space” with local people who are unable to work, due to poverty, sickness or the pure need for survival. This would essentially be bringing it down to; as a third person, would you rather donate to a homeless person begging for one meal a day or to a foreigner who wants you to fund them to travel your country?

Many locals see the phenomenon as disrespecting their culture since these begpackers behave that way solely because they are in an “exotic” country, as well as wondering why people who can afford expensive camera equipment feel the need to busk or beg. This is not to mention opening flouting laws, for instance in Singapore, only those with a work permit can busk on streets, leading governments to impose rules trying to curb these, such as in Thailand and Vietnam. Hopefully this “trend” might meet its welcome end, quite quickly.


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