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13 April 2017

The terrible #wanderlust of “beg-packers“ who want people in the developing world to subsidise their holidays

What possesses young travellers from the developed world to ask people in poorer countries for money?

By Neha shah

Beg-packing refers to the phenomenon of backpackers who are begging, busking and selling “art” in some of the world’s poorest nations in order to fund their trips. Thanks to a surge in the number of social media posts by horrified locals and other travellers, the phenomenon has made headlines in recent weeks.

Most of the beg-packers have been snapped in south-east Asia, the promised land for gap yah teens looking for a self-discovery adventure, in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. One Twitter user spotted white couples selling postcards and busking in Singapore.

Other users hit back, claiming that people were giving the backpackers money “of their own free will”, that busking technically counted as “providing a service” and  reminding us not to judge people whose stories we don’t know.

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Except: I can’t imagine a situation in which a person can decide to spend time in some of the most poverty-stricken areas on the planet and also fails to see that there is quite literally a world of difference between not having enough money to catch a train to their next destination and not having enough money to feed your family. Street vendors can be found in the major tourist spots of almost every city in the developing world, and Western travellers who feel entitled to do the same are taking potential profits from people who almost definitely need the money more than they do. If you’re that desperate for money, maybe just sell your iPhone?

There are options for backpackers who run out of cash – try waitressing, or working in a hostels. There is absolutely no good reason for them to pose in their new harem pants with cardboard signs reading  “I am travelling around Asia without money. Please support my trip” – an actual sign that an actual man in Hong Kong has been spotted with.

Friends in India often complain about white tourists who want to indulge in “poverty porn”, giving street beggars and orphans the equivalent of 20p before asking them to pose for photos which they put on Instagram with #breaksyourheart captions. This is awful in itself, but joining them so that they can afford a flight home? That, dear reader, is the absolute peak of white privilege.

In places like Calcutta, large parts of the economy often revolve around middle-class youth travellers. Western travellers have the ability to live like royalty at very small financial cost, often spending the equivalent of a local’s monthly salary on a single meal. Asking these same people to give you free money in order to fund your quest for self-discovery is insensitive at best.

Governments in the global north – especially Britain and America – always demand that immigrants make a positive contribution to the local economy. The Brexiteers love to chastise the mythical foreigners who come to Britain and live off state benefits; how is the new “beg-packing” trend any different? I can’t imagine many of the backpackers would be happy to be seen begging in their home countries, and it baffles me why they think this kind of behaviour is “normal” in Asia.

In addition, tourists to the global south who hail from first world countries have the privilege of being able to travel to almost anywhere they want, without their destination countries first needing to verify whether they have sufficient funds or questioning their intentions. On the other hand, people from the “exotic” Asian and African countries they love to visit have to pass multiple requirements in order to even be considered for a visa – and are often denied travel privileges even if they do have all of the requirements.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what travel is for everyone: a privilege, a luxury which many never get the chance to experience. It’s a privilege that’s often forgotten and overlooked, but it’s a privilege nonetheless. Beg-packers are so convinced that they’re living a worthy cultural experience that they lose sight of what they’re actually doing – asking strangers, many of them much less well off than themselves, to fund their holiday.