Fast Capitalism issue 4.1 2008

Exploring the Liquid Politics of Tourism: Developing Reflexivity in Backpacker Discourse

Rebecca Jane Bennett

Buoyed by three A-levels and a place at university, Jonty and Bunty and a quarter of a million of their mates set out to save the world. First, they went climbing in Kathmandu. Then they stumbled into a local school and taught English to baffled Nepalese. Fifty spliffs and a thousand emails later, they returned home with a Hindu charm and tie-dye trousers. They had lots of great stories but the world remained thoroughly unsaved.[1] P. Barkham, 2006.
Backpackers climbing the Inca Trail

[Backpackers climbing the Inca Trail: Author’s own image][2]


‘Lonely Planet? They do books for backpackers’: I’ve felt obliged to correct that misconception almost as many times as I’ve had to answer, ‘What’s your favourite place?’ We’re not strictly a backpacker publisher. We publish books for almost every market segment, from young family groups to city weekend escapees, Tokyo business travellers to Africa safari explorers.[3]
Tony Wheeler, Lonely Planet Co-founder, 2005.

In their recent autobiography Once While Travelling[4], Tony and Maureen Wheeler – cofounders of global travel-merchandise label, Lonely Planet[5] –narrate their journey from scruffy ‘world’ travellers to multi-million dollar business moguls. Reflecting on thirty years of travel – “from twenty-something backpackers with no money but a passion for travel to fifty-something owners of a multi-million dollar company, still with the same passion” [6] – the Wheelers have continued trekking around the globe, despite natural disasters, political conflict, war, famine, terrorism and global warming. The pathway to economic success that follows their travels in literary landscapes and global markets means that the founders of a travel label closely linked with backpacker tourism have beat one of the rarest tracks in an increasingly interconnected globe; the one that leads to becoming part of the miniscule percentage of multi-millionaires world-wide.

Lonely Planet’s exponentially manicured fingers reach across a spectrum of tourism products including glossy hard cover ‘coffee table’ books[7], ‘shoe string’ budget travel guides[8] and, more recently, a ‘green’ travel[9] guide catering to a globally warming eco-market. This leading publisher in popular tourism pedagogy claims to have the knowledges and resources to safely ‘guide’ an array of tourist consumers – from budget to luxury – through unfamiliar cultures, customs, people and products. For over three decades, the Lonely Planet brand has ventured ‘off the beaten track’ into remote pockets of the globe. It has made millions whilst challenging tiny local economies to sink or swim in a global tsunami of free-market-shares and capitalist sensibilities that make up Bauman’s apt metaphor of the dynamic global economic climate as being in a state of liquid modernity[10]. Mirroring Lonely Planet’s success is the figure of the backpacker: a contested tourist image with connotations of youthful hedonism, left-wing ecological rhetoric, and the embodied practice of hiking and camping simulating colonially reminiscent explorations into remote and dangerous destinations. Investigating how backpacker tourism has, over time, morphed into an image that supports and exemplifies fluid global power structures offers a critical framework to assess the continual marginalization catalyzed and maintained through tourist mobility.

Focusing on the ‘popular’ pedagogic realm of tourism critiques the paradoxical faces of Otherness available for backpacker consumption. Sadar states that “Orientalism is very much alive in contemporary cultural practice. All of its main tropes have been seamlessly integrated into modernity.”[11] Liquid modernity translates Orientalist tropes into a paradoxical language that supports the marketing of difference as a pleasure by suppressing or denying its politics. Such imperialist and Orientalist travel narrations manifest themselves today in a globalised form in popular tourist discourse. Reading manifestations of the non-tourist Other in discourses readily available to the tourist-consumer finds that geopolitics is often cashed in at the departure gate. The desire to maintain colonial power through staking a claim in the tourable ‘unknown’ has lent backpacker discourse the power to manipulate paradox and politics, transforming poverty, civil conflicts and terrorism into enticing, experiential products available for the consumer looking to purchase shrinking virtual real-estate off the tourism industry’s malignant beaten tracks.

Everyday independent, flexible tourism that loosely falls under a ‘backpacker’ umbrella requires interdisciplinary academic attention because it often masks the socio-political realities of the everyday lives of non-tourist communities, nations and individuals. O’Dell’s argues that:

If we are to truly appreciate the role that tourism plays as a force in society today … there is a need to more systematically place the study of tourism within a larger cultural and economic context of the everyday life in which it is embedded.[12]

Placing a theoretical focus on uncomfortable and exclusionary aspects of backpacker discourse challenges popular tourist media to develop reflexivity in a political and academic arena. Reflexivity in backpacker discourse reveals a colonial-historical reiteration of fearful and/or exotic Others to sell the tourism product. Non-tourist voices, perspectives, politics and knowledges are often left out of images of the ‘tourable’ world.

Locals appear as pleasurable commodity or feared savage, justified through a leisure-driven, tourist-centric, re-writing of colonial discourse using ‘experience’ capitalism and ‘pleasure’ politics as a ‘new’ imperial lingua-franca.

Written for tourists, by tourists, with little or no agency given to local-host perspectives, the popular knowledge-base about the ‘world’ conflated in non-fiction travel ‘guidance’ is skewed in favour of the tourism industry. Over-writing, re-writing and transforming the politics involved in meetings between spatially and socially disparate individuals into inherently desirable experiences denies oftentimes extreme economic and cultural gaps between local hosts – who directly or indirectly set a scenic backdrop for, or cater to tourist consumers – and pleasure-seeking global guests. Knitting together an arbitrary pleasure-politics division in global geopolitics infuses tourist movements with meaning and justifies theoretical assessment of backpacker discourse.

Metaphor to Metonym: Re-focusing Tourist Studies:

[Shadow of tourist taking photo of local: Author’s own image] [13]

In addition to economic attempts to prevent tourist dollars from ‘leaking’ before they reach local populations and individuals who service the industry, and ecotourism projects that encourage more respectful and ecologically-based tourist destinations, studies of tourism might also look for ways in which to change popular narratives about tourism. Aiming to change what Phipps surmises as “the common sense assumption that tourists are, by definition, innocent of the implications of global geopolitics”[14] moves towards a more socially just tourist culture. For tourism planners, writers, marketers and tourists to assess the implications of their actions requires a basic understanding of global geopolitics and the critical resources to make connections between tourism and global power.

Tourism is not as simple as its market surface promotes. Popular and academic literature on the topic must attest to its complexity.

Despite multiple theoretical investigations into accelerating capitalism[15], mobility theory [16] and liquid modernity[17], academic critique is rarely aimed directly at the tourism industry[18] . Holden worries that,

…perhaps with the exception of economics, the application of the social sciences to the investigation of tourism is relatively weak compared to other areas of social enquiry.[19]

Critical readings of popular tourism discourses and associated tourist identities address a theoretical ‘weakness’ in tourist studies. A critical sociological approach to tourism is supported by Urry’s statement that “mobilities as both metaphor and as process are at the heart of social life and thus should be central to sociological analysis.”[20] However, a theoretical distraction with tourist metaphors enables corporeal tourism –including the texts, bodies and products that form a popular pedagogy about the ‘tourable world’ – to promote tired tales about ‘authenticity’[21], ‘colonialism’[22], Orientalism[23] and self-liberation[24] . Tourism’s original referent is under-theorised. In contemporary critical sociology and Cultural Studies it appears that travel metaphors take precedence over ‘actual’ tourism in the form of the ‘nomads’[25], ‘vagabonds’[26], ‘post-tourists’[27] and ‘virtual-tourists’[28] . Moving tourism theory beyond the metaphorical, independent tourism praxis becomes a persuasive and popular re-articulation of colonial narratives inter-woven with a mobile and increasingly powerful ‘culture of consumption’. The function of mobile sociological metaphors in relation to the metonymic function of bodies and identities they directly refer to requires further investigation.

Searching for inclusive, critical and thoughtful manifestations of tourism discourse requires a focus on tourism-in-process. Viewing tourism as a metonym for larger global forces calls for a change in popular pedagogy that might promote greater geopolitical literacy and cultural sensitivity amongst the class of people across the globe with the ‘power to tour’.

Liquid Tourism

Tourism – as a signifier – was mobile before it became a popular and pervasive metaphor for contemporary conceptions of the global. It is pre-globalisation as a defining discourse. Tourism thus has relevant historical applications in mobility theory because it signified mobility when the modern world was composed of significantly more fixed signs. Now that modernity is transforming, tourism-as-process has been lost in oceans of global significance, and thus has gotten away with discursive, ideological and structural exploitation of non-tourist cultures and individuals.

Bauman writes of an ideological and structural shift running parallel to the emergence of globalisation as a defining discourse in recent times. He eschews the infinitely paradoxical, postmodern assumption that a modern era that favoured universal discourses, Fordist production lines, and overtly binary logic, is over. Bauman suggests that the present global climate did not replace ‘old’ capitalist models of power with ‘new’, open, flexible, heterogeneous and equivocal global networks. He posits that:

The society which enters the twenty-first century is no less ‘modern’ than the society which entered the twentieth; the most one can say is that it is modern in a different way.[29]

Modernity, he argues, has not ended. It has changed its shape. Modern history is still being written, capitalism persists, and economic, national, classed, raced and gendered conflicts and discriminations have not been resolved; but they have become slippery and difficult to articulate. The modernising process continues, yet it appears harder to read. Bauman highlights that the molecules – the basic building blocks of modern power – have not altered. However, the visible matter of modern power has changed from solid into liquid form as we enter a phase of liquid modernity.

Examining the overlap between Bauman’s liquid modernity theory and the colonial processes of defining the Self by claiming authority over geographically and/or ideologically distanced Others[30], critiques liquefied Orientalist structures in backpacker popular culture. Tourists are not the only identities involved in tourism; there is a less often recognised infrastructure comprised of immobile locals and people at work instead of leisure. The Other side of the tourist coin – the local or worker – are given limited scope. As Balibar states:

The other scene of politics is also the ‘scene of the other’, where the visible, yet incomprehensible, victims and enemies are located at the level of fantasy.[31]

Voices of non-tourists are relatively invisible or imaginary in backpacker discourse. They appear as travel commodities rated on a scale of tourist satisfaction or as exotic and engaging characters that set the scene for brave and adventurous colonial narratives that place the traveller as hero/protagonist. The travel scene is rarely set in reverse with tourists in the background and local voices in the fore. Considering the way the ‘scene of the Other’ is configured (or omitted) in backpacker theory and popular culture invites political discussions into a pleasurable realm. Leisure and pleasure have been allowed to shy away from politics for too long, given the histories of domination and power that inform leisure practices and discourses. Historical trajectories of power and marginalisation are visualised – and reflexivity is encouraged – when the Other scene in tourism is given as much political weight as the backpacker ‘scene of the Self’.

Backpackers exercise their ‘right to mobility’ through a ‘rite of passage’ which is available only to globalized classes. Such a ‘rite’ is exclusive and directly related to global power. Mobile global tourist power is signposted by a series of immobile localities. Without fixed places to leave behind, travel mobility is indistinguishable from home. The ability to travel for pleasure is far from universal in its reach; however, liquid dominant tourist discourses often overlook fixtures that allow fluidity to appear ‘new’. The absence of solid modern signifiers describing macro-political differences in tourist popular memory suggests that backpackers are no longer seeking to ‘find’ themselves in travel narratives, as much as they seek to lose themselves in an ephemeral world of seemingly endless difference, novelty, newness, diversity, experience and in-between-ness. The ‘difference-loving’ post-tourist does not have to shoulder blame for uneasy encounters with Others when they can move on to sample a more tasty delight. The liquid tourist, however, offers a more critical conceptual frame.

Easily adapting in a liquid modern economy, late-capitalist independent tourists oscillate between beaten and unbeaten tracks, camp-sites and five-star hotels. Backpacking does not necessarily denote budget travel or scruffy students. The Lonely Planet cofounders’ narrations exemplify paradox in the contemporary tourism market’s ‘liquid’ consistency. Wheeler writes that:

Although I still sample backpacker places every year (in some places there is no alternative), I also have a taste for hotels where rooms come with their own swimming pools.[32]

Here, the interchanging of tourist labels is shown to be easy and desirable. To stake a claim off the tourist map requires certain luxuries to be relinquished. Reading Wheeler’s luxury-backpacker identity from a post-colonial perspective finds that the dualism enables concurrent colonial trajectories to be re-traced. Five-star tourism – while re-enacting a master-slave colonial narration where local hosts play servant roles catering to high-paying to tourists’ individualized whims – does not simulate colonial narratives that proffer to ‘boldly go where no one else has gone before’. Five-star tourism requires infrastructure and hosts that are acutely familiar with their guest’s needs so there is not much opportunity to experience wild and seemingly ‘un-civilised’ territory as ‘brave and adventurous’ imperial explorers[33]. It appears that backpacker tourism in a liquid modern market offers an avenue through which a post-colonization of local spaces can be re-enacted for pleasure, regardless of age or income. In this way backpacker destinations can be seen to add flavor and adventure to liquid modern five-star tourist identities, as well as maintaining youthful, budget focused, and independent connotations. A malleable and fluid marketing label and tourist signifier, backpacking offers an ideal example of a liquid modern product.

Backpacking and Power

Malleable, individually customized tourist modalities – travels outside of temporally and spatially bound ‘package tours’ – visualize Bauman’s articulation of post-millennial modern power. He suggests that:

The prime technique of power is now escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement with its cumbersome corollaries of order building, order-maintenance and the responsibility for the consequences of it all as well as of the necessity to bear their costs.[34]

Independent tourism offers an escape from the territorial confines of ‘home’, as well as ‘away’ for those who can afford the time and currency to embark on an individualized leisure journey. The power to ‘escape’ from responsibilities and limitations in fixed localities and enter a ‘care-free’ trans-local space is envisaged in the flexible mobility of contemporary backpacker travel modalities.

Squeezing complex global and structural theory into a brightly colored backpack positions tourism as a metonym for global power. Applying post structural and post-colonial critical methods directly to tourism texts develops a reflexivity that implicates tourist classes in the unequal distribution of wealth, access and power. Critiquing backpacker movements through popular culture finds evidence in support of Urry’s premise that:

There are not two separate entities, the ‘global’ and ‘tourism’ bearing some external connections with each other. Rather they are part and parcel of the same set of complex and interconnected processes.[35]

Given the rapidly changing and often contradictory readings of the globalization trope’s relevance and definition, the correlation between global inequality and global tourism can appear complicated, blurred or suppressed. However, visualizing the interdependence between market liberalization, flexible post-Fordist capitalism and the increasing presence of tourists across the globe provides further insight into the unequal distribution of wealth, access and agency that persists through solid and liquid phases of modernity. Richards and Wilson find further correlation between globalization and tourism. They state:

Globalisation not only increases the speed at which cultures are marginalised, but also increases the speed with which the tourist can travel. The presence of tourists around the globe is not only a sign of the progress of globalisation; it is also an integral part of the globalisation process.[36]

If global movement results in the marginalisation of particular voices, economic classes, religions, nations, and cultures then tourism is implicated in the marginalization process. Configuring the mobile, independent tourist as a flexible consumer with freedom and agency to manipulate time, space and mobility into pleasurable leisure pursuits develops a classed backpacker discourse with the potential to overwrite local destination specificity and politics. Isolating the backpacker image as being representative of a mobile and shifting tourist class system allows themes of global and local interaction in an individualizing, consumer driven, post-Fordist leisure environment to be explored through a familiar and accessible cultural site.

Backpacking: Pleasure and Politics

[web1_touristguy.jpg: Author Unknown] [37]

To don Urry’s ‘tourist gaze’[38] shades is to know that access to mobility-as-pleasure will not be denied. The liquid modern foundations of tourist experience, however, offer no guarantee that spontaneous – instant – pleasures will last. When pleasure is found in the act of movement it cannot be contained and is therefore an insecure goal. The fun-loving ‘post-tourist’ mentality thriving in globalized cultures is coupled with uncertainty. Bauman posits that individualized, pleasure-driven tourist mobility is a sign of insecurity as well as affluence. He states:

We now travel without an idea of destination to guide us neither looking for a good society, nor quite sure what in the society we inhabit makes us listless and eager to run.[39]

Independent travelers are not necessarily searching for a ‘better’ society, a ‘better’ culture, or a truly authentic and exotic Other to colonize, poach and own. In liquid modernity, backpacking appears to be an intricate form of navel gazing. Globalisation’s push for individualism, niche-marketing and independence fragments tourist visions of Other nations and cultures that were once viewed as ‘unified’ communities or political realities. Consequently, readings of Otherness are liquefied into a collection of individualized additions to a global melting pot. Macro economic, political and structural inequalities are skimmed off the surface of travel landscapes, because they make for a bitter tasting tourist broth.

The Pleasure Product

It seems that in an unstable, divided and politically fractured global environment the consumer desire to seek out cultural differences for leisure purposes is strong. Lonely Planet co-founders, writers, readers and their generic offshoots, continue to traverse the globe in large numbers searching for pleasurable and ‘safe’ experiences of difference. The Wheelers, by choice or by luck, find themselves at a crest of liquid-modern power: Surfing a wave of experience capital. O’Dell states that:

Experiences have become the hottest commodities the market has to offer. Whether we turn on the television at night, read the paper in the morning, stroll down a city street at noon, we are inundated by advertisements promoting products that promise to provide us with some ephemeral experience that is newer, better, bigger, more thrilling, more genuine, more flexible, or more fun than anything we have encountered previously. At the same time, consumers are increasingly willing to go to greater lengths, invest larger sums of money, and take greater risks to avoid ‘the beaten track’ and experience something new.[40]

Tourism is an industry that sells ‘experience’; backpacker tourism leads tourism discourse off the ‘beaten track’. Examining the commodification of experience in the form of the tourism product finds that individuals, communities and nations that play host to experience-hungry tourists are translated into a market-driven simulacrum of tourist representation. Non-tourist Others’ agency, politics and life experience are transformed into signifiers for exotic difference, pleasure, excitement, knowledge and/or risk. Local destinations become disembodied, free-floating signifiers that allow global consumers to custom-design a tourism product that meets individualized expectations. From this critical perspective, independent tourist discourse manipulates images of Otherness to write customized narratives about the tourist-Self at the expense of political agency or authority of hosts over their own destination.

While refurbished ‘reds under the bed’ fairytales evoke localised fear, global trans-national movement for pleasure extends its reach through tourism. Globalisation power and ideology are poured into suitcases, travel guides, brochures, websites, hostels and backpacks as citizens take an apolitical break from the harsh realities and fears associated with their country of departure and the ‘newsworthy’ political landscape. Bauman warns that “the main vehicle of this particular political economy of our times is the escape of power from politics.”[41] Backpacker tourism, in this light, might be configured as an escape vehicle. Backpacker imagery creates a safe and exciting world full of pleasurable, educational and new attractions for the global tourist. Proffered as being outside of politics and political globalization, backpackers carry the power of the market by simulating a global utopia where nations, classes, cultures and landscapes are united by a common bond.

A thorough understanding of the diverse, yet uniform, manifestations of power agency and access that give some global citizens the power to tour over Others who cannot is not yet prevalent in backpacker theory, media or practice. Backpacker discourse neutralizes intercultural exchange with appeals to an economically rationalised happy universalism. Wells, cites Price’s,

Universality Principle… that is … most strongly promoted by companies such as Coca-Cola and Benetton. They present a happy world with people of all shades of colour smiling to each other into the camera.[42]

This principle underpins happy globalization rhetoric and is also evoked to promote global tourism: images of the multicolored blissful world where diverse cultures, religions, creeds and races put their differences aside and recognize their shared ‘humanity’ through passing around a can of Coca-Cola and a Big Mac. The inside-cover of Lonely Planet’s Blue List 06 – 07 publication reads:

Lonely Planet believes travellers can make a positive contribution to the countries they visit; both through their appreciation of the countries’ cultures, wildlife and nature, and through the money they spend.[43]

International travel enacts a global egalitarian dream by displaying happy Otherness. The ‘money they spend’ pays for the cast, crew and script for the Benetton backpacker world. Tourist marketing disallows uncomfortable, difficult and angry host imagery because underlying problems and powers in the industry are in danger of being realised and challenged. An unhappy local host can devalue a destination by reducing its desirability for global consumers. Global – local interdependence is vital in areas heavy with backpacker traffic. To ensure economic survival, hosts work with the tourist industry to mask ‘evil’ and dissenting images of Otherness in discourses and interactions designed to promote – and profit from – the tourism product.

Terrorism and Tourism

The so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the invasion of Iraq are based on ideological, rather than physical differences. Terror attacks within powerful global and capitalist icons, such as London and New York, mean that the evil-Other is as likely to be living next-door as overseas. The seemingly all-pervasive threat of evil has arguably allowed physical distance to maintain pleasurable connotations in politically insecure times. The eagerness for cross-border travels to remain associated with leisure and pleasure is reflected in the, relatively brief, amount of time it took for international tourists to take flight again after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. The World Tourism Organization responded to 9/11 rapidly. They stated that:

The impact of September 11th confirms the World Tourism Organisation’s initial analysis. Countries perceived as being close to the conflict, countries heavily dependent on US traffic, and areas dependent on long-haul air traffic clearly suffered the most.[44]

However, the title of the World Tourism Organization’s report as soon as April 2002 suggested that 9/11 was nothing more than a ‘glitch’ in the global tourist industry. A claim to be able to see “the light at the end of the tunnel”[45] only six months after the terror attacks indicated that world tourism shifted its focus away from the United States, but the global spread of tourism continued in other forms and directions. The WTO report states:

It is clear that; overall, the situation of world tourism is improving. However, as we predicted in earlier papers, there has been a significant redistribution of traffic.[46]

Mobility represents an escape. Once global ‘foreigners’ were marked, tourists could avoid ‘terror’ hotspots by moving without giving up a pleasurable re-enactment of the colonial experience of ‘discovery’. Terrorism discourse easily visualised or contained ‘Others to be feared’ in clearly labelled destinations and political debates. The WTO report on the impact of the September 11 attacks on tourism states that their Crisis Committee was “quickly renamed the Tourism Recovery Committee during its first meeting to emphasise its positive and constructive intentions” [and that at the first meeting] “confidence was expressed in tourism’s proven ability to bounce back after crisis.”[47] The tourist industry’s ability to ‘bounce back’ from crisis is embedded in its ability to clean up, wash off and polish the political world and package it as an egalitarian and unusual product.

Despite the apparent ideological separation between pleasure tourism and politicized terror-ridden globalization, terrorism adds fuel to independent tourists’ desire to travel off the beaten track and go places where many would not dare. In the Lonely Planet Blue List 06 – 07 terrorism has been rewritten as a political justification for tourist movement and as a testament to the bravery and commitment of the independent leisure traveler. Travel writer Don George writes that, in the wake of global terror attacks:

Travellers seem to have made peace with the truth that life is uncertain and instable wherever they may be, and seem to have recommitted themselves to travelling no matter what may happen.[48]

Lonely Planet uses terrorism to ‘set the scene’ for a re-writing of the brave, fearless and adventurous colonial explorer narrative. The terrorist-Other reaffirms the traveler’s power and determination in the face of adversity. George suggests that travel continues, “clearly in part a gritty defiance of the terrorists’ goals of disrupting global commerce and communication and propagating intercultural distrust and fear.”[49] Terrorism is rewritten into a narrative that maintains tourism is paradoxically a political act, whilst remaining politically neutral. Such narratives deny an unbreakable alliance between backpacker tourism and the capitalist market that invented the travel genre.

The tourism industry powers on in the face of fear: globalization’s dominance continues in the face of terror. Tourism and terrorism are intimately tied. Terrorism determines the direction of both mainstream and backpacker tourist trails. It creates exotic danger, or a redirection of traffic. It also gives tourism a political edge. Website We are Not Afraid (WNA) encourages global citizens to continue to travel to destinations in the aftermath of terror attacks and to travel to dangerous destinations in spite of terror attacks. The site stated in October 2005:

It has happened. We were born out of the London attacks, Now another round of three bombs have taken their toll, once more in Bali. It seems there are 20 dead and many injured. If their aim is to intimidate tourists and isolate Indonesia, let’s show them that we are not afraid. Please send your pictures and make your statements … we will be running a special gallery of pictures we have already received from Bali.[50]

The personal pain that inspired this website overpowers investigations into why terrorists are targeting globally successful citizens. We are Not Afraid suggests that tourism is an appropriate political response to insecurity and fear, undermining terrorism academics Lutz and Lutz’s suggestions that “acts of violence are designed to create power in situations in which power previously had been lacking.”[51] Terrorism is horrific, brutal and violent. It is a desperate act by the disempowered to have their opinions heard in the global cacophony of accelerated capitalism. WNA encourages tourists to go to New York, Bali, Madrid and London and take photos of themselves defiantly having ‘fun’ in sites of global terror attacks. Reconfigured into a tourism advertisement, We are Not Afraid asks global consumers to transform terrorism sites into tourist attraction. This display of ‘political protest’ empowers the liquid modern backpacker market by manipulating localised political conflicts into sought after ‘experiences’. Overwriting discomfort in the celebration of access to mobility, liquid capital and experiential robs the unhappy local of agency and allows an accelerated and liquefied re-enactment of colonial domination fuelled by new capitalist, rather than military, might.

Dangerous Destinations: The ‘New’ Unbeaten Tracks

In a profit-driven paradoxical re-packaging, political conflicts in local destinations offer a renewed niche in the Lonely Planet’s continued saturation of the independent tourist market. To read the 06-07 Blue List it would appear that dangerous destinations represent unbeaten tourist tracks in globalization. Sights of political unrest are useful for backpacker consumers looking to appear as more adventurous and fearless than ‘ordinary’ tourists. Travel to foreign places, where the threat of attack looms, simulates the colonial explorer conquering savage landscapes and inhospitable natives.

Six years after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, tourist consumption is promoted in defiance of globalization’s political, ideological and savage ‘evil-terrorist’ Others. Lonely Planet – founded and based in Australia – includes Nepal, Colombia, Indonesia, Israel and Yemen[52] in its list of recommended ‘places to go’ in 2006 and 2007. All five destinations had travel advisory warnings placed on them by the Australian government in the recommended time period for travel. The website Smart Traveller advised “against all travel”[53] to Nepal and advised “to reconsider your need to travel”[54] to Colombia, Indonesia, Israel and Yemen in April 2006. Lonely Planet’s encouragement to travel to places that are considered a danger to tourists confirms that backpacker discourse maintains a desire to go places where mainstream tourists might not.

Backpacker discourse’s desire to isolate itself from the rest of the tourist market and to bravely go where no other travelers will dare is shown in the positioning of Afghanistan in the 06 – 07 Blue List. The home of September 11’s publicly demonized instigator, Osama Bin Laden, is revered almost as an ‘ultimate’ backpacker destination. Afghanistan toped the Australian Government’s ‘do not go’ list in 2007.[55] The Blue List publication heeds this warning by agreeing that that Afghanistan is an un-safe destination.[56] Despite a warning in the later pages, however, Lonely Planet cofounder, Tony Wheeler, includes Afghanistan in his personal ‘Blue List’ for the coming twelve months. It is also rated as number three on a “Tough Travel Destinations” list with the blurb:

Its people are friendly, its countryside is beautiful, it’s blessed with an impressive history and rich and diverse culture, but … Afghanistan post-Taliban, is still a country to be avoided by the casual backpacker.[57]

This statement implies that for super backpackers like Tony Wheeler, Afghanistan is a fine place to travel. It appears that the terror warnings, imminent danger and local people that violently oppose a tourist presence form an ideal destination for the flexing of backpacker muscle. Rather than being labeled as a place to be avoided, Afghanistan appears as the ultimate backpacker destination. It turns backpacking into an Xtreme sport where ‘terror-travel’ joins ‘base jumping’ and ‘cliff diving’ as a travel experience offering an extra rush.


From terror warnings to global warming tourism appears to surge on unfettered and unfazed by moral and real panics, natural disasters and environmental catastrophes. Unabashedly espousing the joys of owning Ferrari’s and frequenting five-star hotels[58], the Wheeler’s journey from backpackers to millionaires suggests that the more economic, cultural and geographical diversity is celebrated, gazed upon, consumed and enjoyed the clearer the pathway to global power, wealth and success. Lonely Planet has overcome the threat of terrorism to continue an economically successful journey. Re-imaging the attack on the World Trade Center in New York is achieved in a chapter of the Lonely Planet cofounders autobiography flippantly titled, “September 11 and all that”[59]. In this chapter, the events now referred to as “911” are written as a brief downturn in Lonely Planet sales, not as an indication that some citizens are vehemently unhappy with the global powers of which tourism is a part. A travel publisher that encourages individualized, independent, risky and unusual destinations, Lonely Planet promotes holidays that are not only relaxing, but also offer the experience of something new. Part of the reason for the Lonely Planet’s success lies in a tourist hegemony that accepts an arbitrary blurring of the lines between pleasure and politics so the ‘world’ is transformed into a desirable liquid modern product for those who are able to tour.

Searching for uneasy and less-pleasurable relationships between backpacking and politics considers contributions that tourism makes to global inequalities, dangers and conflicts. New capitalist powers defy fixed definition and reflect chameleonic flexibility and adaptability in the face of contextual change. Backpacking offers a valuable theoretical metonym to assist in the attempt to politicise the stratified commodification of experience in consumer-driven globalisation. With the ability to turn danger, terrorism and sites of political conflict into leisure products for globally mobile elite, the backpacker label is as slippery and malleable as the fluid global economy that frames its paradoxical journey into the present. When viewed as a metonym – an integral part of prevailing global power structures – backpacker discourse is implicated in global inequality and discontent.

The lack of reflexivity – especially in seemingly neutral realms such as leisure and pleasure – amongst individuals to place themselves in direct relation to global power structures forms a blockage in the instigation of political, ideological and economic change. A realization that tourist movement is more than a distraction or form of escape – that it also represents a powerful currency in globalization – helps unblock avenues for reflexive and open views to political change. As Jameson writes:

The results of these lightning-like movements of immense quantities of money around the globe are incalculable, yet already have clearly produced new kinds of political blockage and also new and unrepresentable symptoms in late-capitalist everyday life.[60]

When money loses material shape and form, experience is easily commodified. Solid, tangible, older, modernist powers appear to disappear in a whirl of seemingly ‘endless signification’.[61] Familiar structural discrepancies persist between rich and poor, fed and underfed, housed and the homeless, Self and Other; yet to present such discrepancies as concrete and meaningful ‘realities’ in globalization discourse is increasingly difficult. The speed of global capital transactions and technological advancement does not appear to pause for political thought. Even the relatively powerful within the globalized context struggle to maintain and improve new technological literacies, trends and complex hybrid identity formations. The speed with which technological change is presented makes possibilities for other kinds of lasting change (for example, economic, political or ideological change) appear beyond individual control. Tourism is a popular activity that necessitates face-to-face interactions between economically, religiously, linguistically, and geographically diverse individuals and can thus have serious political implications in a globally dominant world-view. Making independent tourism discourse more transparent necessitates a focus on the popular as well as the academic. Tourists cannot be encouraged to change their consumption patterns, expectations or behavior if they are not shown the global and ideological effects of such actions. Developing a reflexive approach to backpacker discourses has the potential to show tourism students (both inside and outside of university classrooms) that tourist popular culture is a serious force, and that tourist consumers are powerful global agents that can instigate political change through pleasurable activity.

A theoretical challenge in the search for inequalities and political ramifications in backpacker discourse lies in the attempt to remove the experiential shroud from an industry that, by definition, provides an arguably necessary ‘break’ from everyday fears, guilt, responsibilities, conflicts and worries for global middle classes. Comparing and contrasting tourism pedagogy in popular, as well as formal, contexts helps projects that aim to transform the tourist experience in to a more mutually-beneficial transnational leisure activity. Developing a critical and reflexive approach to backpacker discourse suggests that a greater potential for improving intercultural relations begins with embracing and exposing the multitude of ways the international tourist industry is implicated in the division of wealth, literacy and access on a global economic scale.


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[1] P. Barkham, “Are these the new colonialists?” The Guardian, Friday August 18, 2006:,,1852960,00.html (Accessed Online: 10/12/06).

[2] Author’s Own Image, “Backpackers climbing the Inca Trail “, Peru, 2002.

[3] T. Wheeler & M. Wheeler, Once While Travelling: The Lonely Planet Story, Viking, Penguin Group, Camberwell, 2005, pp388 – 389.

[4] Wheeler & Wheeler, Once While Travelling.

[5] Lonely Planet (Accessed Online 04/04/03)

[6] Wheeler & Wheeler, Once While Travelling, pvii.

[7] The Travel Book: A Journey through Every Country in the World, Lonely Planet Publications, Melbourne, 2004.

[8] Lonely Planet Shop:;ODLPSID=H4S2bdKg5r4P3HmrJGpndqpdlQwd1hvvSWDDgTGMPHyH9CZdwbfT!556040470!-1197928597?bmUID=1207456502356 (Accessed Online: 04/04/08)

[9] K. Lorimer & E. Gelber (eds), Code Green: Experiences of a Lifetime. Lonely Planet Publications, Melbourne, 2006.

[10] Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2000.

[11] Z Sardar, Orientalism, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1999, p107.

[12] T. O’Dell, “Experiencescapes: Blurring Borders and Testing Connections”, in T. O’Dell & P. Billing (eds), Experiencescapes: Tourism, Culture, and Economy, Copenhagen Business School Press, Abingdon, 2005, p14.

[13] Author’s own image: “Shadow of tourist taking a photo of local”, Copacabana, Bolivia, 2002:

[14] P. Phipps, “Tourism and Terrorism: An Intimate Equivalence”, in S. Bohn-Gmelch (ed) Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, Waveland Press, Long Grove, 2004, p71.

[15] B. Agger (ed.) Fast Capitalism, [online journal], 2005-present:

[16] J. Urry, Sociology beyond Societies; Mobilities for the twenty-first century, Oxon & Routledge, New York, 2000.

[17] Bauman, Liquid Modernity.

[18] See: S. Bohn-Gmelch, “Why Tourism Matters”. In S. Bohn-Gmelch (ed.) Tourists and Tourism: A Reader, Waveland Press, Long Grove, 2004, pp3-22.

[19] A. Holden, Tourism Studies and the Social Sciences, Routledge, New York, 2005, p1.

[20] Urry, Sociology beyond Societies, p49.

[21] D. MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Schoken Books, New York, 1976.

[22] M Hall & H. Tucker (eds), Tourism and Postcolonialism: Contested Discourses, Identities and Representations, Routledge, London and New York, 2004.

[23] E. Said, Orientalism, Random House, New York, 1978.

[24] C. Rojek, Ways of Escape: Modern Transformations in Leisure and Travel, The Macmillan Press, London, 1993.

[25] G. Richards 7 J. Wilson (eds), The Global Nomad: Backpacker Travel in Theory and Practice, Channel View Publications, Clevedon, 2004.

[26] Z. Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Polity Press, Oxford, 1998.

[27] J. Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, Sage Publications, London, 1990.

[28] G. Smith, “Cooperative virtual environments from 2D multi-user interfaces”, ACM Press, New York, 1996: (Accessed Online: 27/06/07).

[29] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p28.

[30] Said, Orientalism.

[31] E. Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, Verso, London & New York, 2002, pxiii.

[32] Wheeler & Wheeler, Once While Travelling, p389.

[33] For further examination of colonial re-enactments enlivened through tourism products and experiences see: Hall & Tucker (eds), Tourism and Postcolonialism.

[34] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p11.

[35] J. Urry, Globalising the Tourist Gaze: (Accessed Online: 29/05/05).

[36] G. Richards 7 J. Wilson , “Drifting Towards the Global Nomad”, in G. Richards & J. Wilson (eds), The Global Nomad: Backpacker Travel in Theory and Practice, Channel View Publications, Clevedon, 2004, p4.

[37] Author Unknown: Web1_touristguy.jpg: The origin of this ‘doctored’ image is debated and discussed in a multitude of online resources including Wikipedia: (, (, and . Due to its controversial content, no one has claimed authorship over the original image. The Tourist of Death Website attempts to document the images ‘urban history’: “This image first appeared a few days after 9/11. Many people believed it to be real, the common belief being that the picture was found on a camera in the debris of the WTC. However, this could not be further from the truth. After much speculation, it was found to be an edited picture or a hoax”. (Accessed Online 15/04/08).

[38] Urry, The Tourist Gaze.

[39] Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p134.

[40] T. O’Dell, “Experiencescapes: Blurring Borders and Testing Connections”, in T. O’Dell & P. Billing (eds), Experiencescapes: Tourism, Culture, and Economy, Copenhagen Business School Press, Abingdon, 2005, p12.

[41] Z. Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001, p52.

[42] H. Wells, “About romance and reality: Popular European imagery in postcolonial tourism in southern Africa” in, M. Hall & H. Tucker (eds) Tourism and Postcolonialism: Contested Discourses, Identities and Representations, Routledge, London and New York, 2004, p85.

[43] Lonely Planet Blue List. 618 Things to Do & Places to Go, 06 – 07, Lonely Planet Publications, Melbourne, January 2006, inside front cover.

[44] World Tourism Organization, Special Report Number 20, “The impact of the September 11th attacks on tourism: The light at the end of the tunnel” (April 2002), p16.

[45] World Tourism Organization, Special Report Number 20.

[46] Ibid, p7.

[47] Ibid, p9.

[48] George, “Defining Moments in Travel”, Lonely Planet Blue List, p11.

[49] Ibid, p12.

[50] Wearenotafraid: (Accessed Online: 28/04/06).

[51] J.M. Lutz & B.J. Lutz, Global Terrorism, Routledge, London, 2004, p10.

[52] Lonely Planet Blue List, pp4 – 5.

[53] Smarttraveller: (Accessed Online: 28/04/06).

[54] Smarttraveller: (Accessed Online: 28/04/06).

[55] Smarttraveller: (Accessed Online: 28/04/06).

[56] Lonely Planet Blue List, p185.

[57] Ibid, p31.

[58] Wheeler & Wheeler, Once While Travelling.

[59] Wheeler & Wheeler, Once While Travelling, p368.

[60] F. Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983 – 1998, Verso, London, 1998, p143.

[61] J. Baudrillard, Simulations, Translated by P. Foss, Semiotext, New York, 1983, p11.