Why tourist boards shouldn’t forget about the backpackers

David Whitley 4

Targeting high-end travellers

A common theme tends to emerge when I speak to tourist board representatives. The new strategy, it seems largely across the board, is to target affluent, high-end travellers. The idea is to look for those who spend fairly big while they’re on holiday rather than go for numbers and appeal to mass-market tourism.

India’s approach

In many ways – not least sustainability and pressure on infrastructure – this makes an awful lot of sense. This article from the Times last year, about India encouraging the wealthier tourist rather than backpackers makes for an interesting read. To sum up, India wants well-heeled visitors rather than gap year students. “For a country with India’s overstretched infrastructure, backpackers do more damage than good to the economy,” said the country’s tourism guru Amitabh Kant.

Who are the affluent travellers?

Makes sense, yes? Well – apart from one little thing. It’s all very well trying to appeal to the travellers with deeper pockets, but you also have to identify who these people are. If you were to speculate, you’d say they are generally from well-educated, middle-class backgrounds and are in good, well-paying jobs. They’re also probably at least 30 years old and probably older than that.

And who are the backpackers?

Now then: What’s the difference between this market and the backpacker market? My guess is very little other than ten to twenty years. Jump in a time machine, and today’s backpackers are 2025’s sought-after affluent travellers. Let’s face it, most are either about to go to university or have just finished it; a good proportion come from fairly well-off middle-class families and there’s a good chance that they’ll only be operating on a penny-pinching budget or a certain period of their life.

What makes a destination attractive?

I have a little theory, and it goes a something like this: Backpackers are what makes a destination attractive. I don’t mean this in conventional terms – ie. That people want to go to a place because they’ll be surrounded by young people taking a year out. In fact, some of the places on the banana pancake trail in South East Asia are dire precisely because they’re full of trustafarians having nightly wanker conventions.

Word of mouth

But the key thing to remember is what happens when the backpackers get home. If they’ve had a great time somewhere, they rave about it to others. A buzz starts to generate; a destination starts to become cool; the media latches on; travellers outside the backpacker segment get curious as to what all the fuss is about.

The return

As the years go by, the original backpacker loses a bit of hair and gains a bit of a paunch. He gets a suit and tie, rises up the career ladder and perhaps starts a family. He becomes the type of person that tourist boards are so keen to attract. But he still remembers fondly the time he spent in country X whilst backpacking. The edges of the specifics are dulled, but he still talks fondly of the place to others in more general terms. And then, when the time is right, he might just go back for a very different holiday. In those intervening years, however, he has probably persuaded many to visit – fellow young backpackers at first, but increasingly the well-heeled visitor that India wants.

Two trips through the middle of Australia

Looking at it, I’m an example of this myself. When I was 22, I travelled up the middle of Australia in a backpacker bus. I loved it, although over time I was less able to explain precisely why. This didn’t stop me encouraging others to head through Central Australia however. I returned as a 30-year-old this year with my fiancée, driving a good rental car, staying in comfortable accommodation, indulging in a few fairly expensive tours and experiences and visiting a few places I’d missed the first time round. I had an even better time, and I’m still raving about it to anyone who will listen. Would I have been so keen to spend all that time and money if I’d not visited as a backpacker? I doubt it.

Think forward fifteen years…

Chasing the affluent visitor in the short term has its merits, but it shouldn’t be combined with discouraging the young, independent, shoestring traveller. After all, in fifteen years’ time, you’re probably going to want them back.

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    1. Ron Mader September 7, 2010 at 00:20 -

      Excellent essay! You have articulated a point I’ve tried to express (without much success) to many tourism marketing officials over the years. Travelers who develop a positive experience with a country are most likely to return. It behooves places that wish to be tourist destinations to offer options for various interests and in various price brackets. The long tail of tourism marketing is just beginning to be explored in depth.

    2. Steve McKenna September 7, 2010 at 11:43 -

      I agree. I was chatting about this same thing with a tourist board marketing manager for a popular British seaside city. He basically agreed too.

    3. Kash Bhattacharya September 7, 2010 at 14:27 -

      Great article and for me relevant as am from India and been back a few times…lot of changes afoot in the tourism industry.

      Before you would get 5 star hotels or absolute dives-there was no concept of a budget hotel.

      Now there is a real explosion of 2 to 3 star hotel chains springing up-cottoning onto the fact that they have to cater to all kinds of travellers not just the ones with the big money.

      And as you have rightly pointed out the backpackers of today are the business travellers of tommorrow- I think the tourism industry in India still growing up and learning how best to promote themselves. I’ve been following the official twitter account of the Indian Tourism board and its not so inspiring…..

      Now to find this Amitabh Kant…I fear if this guy is the tourism guru for India!

    4. Andrew Bostock September 8, 2010 at 11:20 -

      I basically agree with you, but I’m unsure how backpacking can be promoted succesfully at a government level. It certainly is more difficult than marketing to the luxury level, and obviously the return is far less instant.

      I think more of a change can be made at the ‘front line’. What I’d like to see are more places catering to all levels of traveller: luxury lodges that also provide camping, cultural and historical tours aimed at backpackers and the middle-aged alike.

      You are absolutely right that our first impressions of a place, especially when young and impressionable, turn into a valuable marketing tool for that country in later life.