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Why Adventurers Should be Wary of Backpacktivism

What type of impact is your prearranged adventure having, really?

By: Jacalyn Beales + Save to a List

It happens all too often: people book a trip through a "responsible tour operator," only to come home after 20-40 days feeling disillusioned and foolhardy. You may think it would never happen to you, but at some point, it very well could. 

It's called "backpacktivism," a relatively recent term for a not-so-new trend whereby millennials pay thousands of dollars to participate in pre-planned, organized trips to various parts of the globe in the hopes of experiencing adventure, and maybe helping the planet out whilst they travel. Unlike ecotourism, backpacktivism involves literally backpacking various cities, countries or regions of the world with a tour operator who promises you an a-typical experience. Maybe you'll learn how to grow crops in Cambodia or volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Asia. Perhaps you'll feel good knowing you've somehow helped the planet, but what's the reality of it all? 

Most responsible tour operators don't actually know what responsible tourism is - many convince naive travellers or young adventurers that it entails visiting a wildlife refuge in India, or something equally as enticing. But then, the operator will send its participants to a facility where wildlife can be interacted with, fed, used for photo-ops and maybe even cuddled - for a fee, of course. 

Some claim they'll provide you with an enriching, life-altering experience by planning and offering trips which revolve around staying with host families in remote villages to learn more about culture and diversity in countries like Tanzania. But you'll likely realize how little this experience actually benefits those people - nor yourself. 

The issue with backpacktivism is not the concept or idea of it, but the actual practice of it. If backpacking for a cause, or with a goal of changing the planet, were to actually be effective, then you wouldn't have to pay thousands of dollars to do it. Your parents wouldn't have to gift you your college fund so you could go "save the world" in one, 25-day trip to Africa, nor would you have to save every cent you have to pay to visit indigenous peoples in South America for one day, not really accomplishing anything but a stellar Instagram photo. Instead, backpacktivism would have to entail being an ethical and responsible traveler - something you don't have to pay a company hundreds and hundreds of dollars to do. 

The premise behind backpacktivism is simple: you pay to participate in a trip to a "remote" or "exotic" destination like Africa or Asia through a company which claims to be a responsible tour operator. This company will "liaison" with local NGOs in your destination country, making prearranged plans for people just like you to release a few sea turtles or pet lions somewhere with lots of open land or lush rainforests. You'll have the opportunity to do lots of traveling, lots of no sleeping and a heck of a lot of money spending. You won't have saved the planet, changed the lives of indigenous peoples or preserved a wild species. Why? Because that cannot be done in one 4-week trip. 

Don't get me wrong: activism is awesome. The amount of young people standing up for the conservation of our planet and actually getting outdoors (even if it is only to play Pokemon Go) is amazing. But we're doing it all wrong when we assume backpacktivism is the answer. Not only does this traveling trend take advantage of wildlife and indigenous peoples, but it also makes the assumption that backpacking with a tour company for 40 days or less is the "only" way to experience life - both nature and otherwise - from a global perspective. It also presumes that the easiest or most "authentic" way of getting outdoors and experiencing what the world has to offer, is through paying to do it, even when it's under the guise of "eco tourism." When you pay to participate in a trip that essentially makes a spectacle out of animals and peoples native to a region, country or area of the globe, that's not ecotourism or activism. 

An example of this is the so-called "ecotourism" trend of petting and walking with lions in Africa. As a writer who regularly focuses on trends and topics of wild conservation, I can tell you that the number of captive-born-and-bred lions sitting in cages, used only for petting activities and interactions, is astronomical. You may be surprised, for instance, when I tell you that just in South Africa alone, there are more than 8,000 captive-bred lions which are used for petting and walking activities with tourists every single day. And, perhaps more shockingly, these lions are never released into the wild, because they can't be - captive bred lions cannot be "set free." They often end up in canned hunts, which involve shooting a lion in an enclosed space where it has no chance of escaping the "hunter." The lion you pet at a petting facility in Africa will likely die in a hunt in 2-3 years. Don't believe me? Check this out

Not to mention, visiting a country and participating in an activity that supposedly "gives back" to indigenous peoples, rarely (if ever) does. In fact, one of the greatest challenges of eco and responsible tourism is sourcing ways in which such tourism can actually help indigenous peoples and wildlife. So your expensive backpacking trip with a tour company may be nothing more than that - expensive. 

Adventurers need to be wary of commercial backpacktivism for the simple fact that it is not going to save the planet anymore than our 20 minute hikes will. As nature enthusiasts, lovers of the outdoors and those who share a fascination with wildlife and travel, you likely already know that to be in nature holds a certain responsibility to cherish it by taking care of it. Does that entail a $15,000 backpacking trip to see remote villages, sometimes ones existing in extreme poverty, and no direction with which to help? Does that involve interacting with wildlife which are there strictly for entertainment's sake? The answer is, and always should be, no. 

Love the outdoors, cherish nature, appreciate the wild and always strive to spend more time in it. The world has so much stellar, natural stuff to offer us. Just do it all without being fooled by backpacktivism. And, if chances are you do want to do a little bit of helpful backpacking, find an ethical tour operator that's truly responsible, and not just one which looks good on paper. 

Cover Image // Austin Ban

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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