South-East Asia now #1 destination for Round the World travel.

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According to STA Travel, South-East Asia is now the #1 destination for Round the World itineraries. Does this huge rise in backpacker tourism have a positive effect on these developing economies?

As I waited to board the dreaded flight back to reality, I allowed myself to reflect on the adventure that was South-East Asia. Despite friends’ and families’ concern for my safety in these exotic lands, along with admiration for my intrepid pursuit of ‘finding myself’ in such a difficult environment, I had survived. And what a time I‘d had too. However, amongst these happy, often hazy memories, lay a slightly conflicting sentiment. Perhaps this ‘exotic’ and \’difficult environment\’ was really a well-trodden and very deliberate trail for naive rich kids hell bent on drinking their way round South-East Asia, in as many bars as possible. Perhaps I wasn’t the intrepid traveller that I was keen to portray on my return, but merely a pampered westerner who, perhaps caused more damage than good to this beautiful area of the world.

It was in the 1970’s that backpacking found its way to the region, mainly due to the birth of low-cost airline fares. The hippy trail extended first into India and eventually found its way into South-East Asia. Not long after, the travel guidebooks such as the Lonely Planet series arrived, opening up previously unthought of possibilities for would-be travellers. Increasing numbers of backpackers were attracted to South-East Asia’s cheap living costs combined with the truly beautiful and varied surroundings.

And it truly is an astonishingly beautiful destination, where so many varied experiences are possible. I have trekked in north Thailand amongst the hill tribes and sailed the splendour of Ha-Long Bay in Vietnam. Even spending two days travelling from Thailand to Laos on a heavily crowded “slow-boat”, wedged in between a motorbike, a pig and a flock of chickens, was an experience I will never forget. It\’s not just the sights and attractions that made my adventure so memorable; spending time with beautiful and gentle people, of countries I had barely heard of before my travels, is something I will always treasure. Who would have thought barely three decades on from the Vietnam-American War that a Vietnamese restaurant owner would invite a bunch of Western strangers into her house, so that we could meet her children? All the countries were extremely accommodating and generous, even Cambodia despite its very recent and brutal history.

Yet, a place like Vang Vieng doesn’t fit as easily into the aforementioned experiences. Sitting bang in the middle of Laos, and considered an essential stop-over in anyone’s itinerary, Vang Vieng is almost solely reliant on the backpacker. Here, the order of the day is lying on purpose built sofa beds, watching back-to-back episodes of Friends, with the worrying offer of an accompanying “opium shake” or “happy pizza”.

Likewise, Nha Trang, a beautiful coastal resort in Vietnam, has hundreds of bars, many employing Westerners to attract travellers into their establishment for some ridiculously cheap binge drinking; 40p buckets of vodka that seemed to attract hoards of Swedish girls. I admit I wasn’t complaining.

So was my slight feeling of guilt simply from not escaping the obvious backpacking trail? Joanna Merredew of STA Travel agrees this is common amongst first time travellers.

“South-East Asia will always be a popular \”first stop\” on a round the world itinerary for first time gap year travellers but we find that those that take a gap year after graduating or as a career break tend to spend longer in countries, exploring in more detail and getting off the beaten track. Of course, there are exceptions for first time travellers and constructive gap years are on the increase with many young people choosing to do conservation and voluntary projects or teaching abroad in one country.”

In fact, with around 73% of University students planning on taking a gap year according to STA Travel research, the focus is more and more on spending the year constructively. There are plenty of options for this in South-East Asia, for example teaching English in Thailand, which still allows time to visit the beautiful beaches, temples and jungles that the region has to offer. It seems nearly all travel agencies now advertise voluntary or conservation projects which allow backpackers to provide a positive effect on the region.

In its guide for the “Top Ten Hottest Destinations for 2006”, STA Travel admits, “Young travellers have significant impact and influence on the world’s travel industry.” Unfortunately, this impact can often be negative. As points out, “there is a big downside, with tourism far from being the smokeless industry it is self-promoted as.” Travellers collectively can shape a more responsible and sustainable industry for some of these emerging economies. It is vital that backpackers spend money on locally produced rather than imported goods. Many hostels for instance, especially in Cambodia, are foreign owned and therefore channel the revenue out of the economy. Backpackers also have to consider local behaviours and dress etiquettes to minimise any offence which they could cause to the local population. Another important point raised by is, by getting involved in illegal activities such as opium in Laos or prostitution pretty much anywhere in the region, you are supporting an industry that often ends in misery for the supplier. All in all, backpackers must realise the huge influence they have on these developing nations. With thought and consideration, backpacking tourism provides major economic development for the region.

As a first-time traveller, I think its quite possible I fell into the trap of sticking rigidly to the backpacking trail in South-East Asia. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a wonderful time as, after all, the trail is there for a reason, passing thorough some of the most beautiful destinations. However, travellers are now realising that it is possible to spend their time in a constructive way. With preparation and consideration, the backpacker can be a responsible tourist and leave a lasting and beneficial impact on this beautiful region of the world.