Backpacking and Sustainable Tourism

Tourists are increasingly searching for forms of travel that provide an “alternative” experience to the mainstream. Alternative tourism, particularly backpackers has developed significantly in recent times. Backpacking is independent travel without too much pre-planning and allows for impulsive decisions. Its rapid development has contributed to criticism of potential negative effects of the 3 pillars of sustainability i.e. environmental, economic, and socio-cultural impacts associated with backpacker tourism. As it rises in popularity, backpacking is beginning to attract some dissatisfaction with its growing resemblance to mass travel.

A growing concern with the Sustainability of backpacker tourism appears to Centre on both its impact on local communities and its increasingly commercial edge. This article summarizes the #sttachangemakers tweet chat on Backpacker Tourism seeking to define whether the backpacker market is attractive for emerging African Destinations, the travel motivations for backpackers, whether the backpacking is compatible with Sustainable tourism ideals and what should be included in a responsible travel guide for backpacking.

Is the backpacker market attractive for emerging African destinations?

A unique mix of adventure, culture, and wildlife attractions, make Africa an attractive destination for backpacking tourism. There were different opinions from the #sttachangemakers. Some said it is attractive while others said it is not attractive to the emerging African destinations. The following are the opinions ;

  1. The backpacking market is not attractive for emerging African destinations because of the perception of DMOs that Africa is a prime destination and not for budget travelers.
  2. This market segment is attractive because backpackers are open to experiencing remote and unpopular attractions.
  3. It is attractive because destinations have opportunities for changing the narrative that it is expensive to travel within Africa.
  4. It is attractive because the opportunities presented through backpacking to meet other people, especially other backpackers, and to make new friends is a major “push factor”.
  5. Backpacker market is attractive to emerging African destinations because tourists are increasingly searching for forms of travel that provide an alternative experience to the mainstream, a good example of this phenomenon is Backpacker tourism.

Backpacking mostly relates to budget travel, but today it is all not about cheap travel. Flashpacking and posh packing are forms of backpacking for affluent travelers. South Africa got inspiring examples for these; in road travel connecting its cities and marketing to youth travel segments.

What are the travel motivations for backpackers?

Motivations to backpack are diverse and multi-faceted, emphasizing the hybrid nature of Tourism motivation generally. Nevertheless, a dominant theme in backpacker motivational literature is the idea of travel as a form of “escape”, supporting the statement that people are motivated in their leisure to escape both the personal and interpersonal worlds, backpackers seek to break away from such things as the dullness and monotony of everyday life and jobs. The stresses of everyday life may also induce young men and women to take time out through travel, motivated by ideas of freedom, independence, adventure, and seeking new and different experiences. The desire to socialize and meet up with other travelers is oftentimes a key motivation for backpacking. The motivation to travel and encounter the “unknown” often leads to self-discovery. This quest for personal growth and understanding occur as backpackers expose themselves to new and challenging situations through interaction with foreign cultures and people. The desire to travel for status enhancement and improved social standings among family and peers appears to be a common motivator for backpacker travel. Backpackers’ desire increased social status from visiting published destinations, providing them with cultural capital for flaunting to other backpackers or upon their return home.

A good number of #sttachangemakers also cited that the freedom and flexibility of itinerary is the grater motivator for the backpackers to travel. Backpackers are also motivated to travel for transformation, a search for paradise, spiritually and self-fulfillment

Is backpacking compatible with Sustainable tourism ideals?

As a tourism alternative for small host communities, especially those without high-quality amenities, backpacker tourism can contribute significantly to a local region, with spending largely concentrated on locally produced goods and services and accommodation facilities run by local families. Backpacking is compatible with certain principles of Sustainable tourism like low impact travel and the fact that backpacking is more of social and participatory holidays, so it has better connections with the local community in terms of economic and other benefits from tourism.

Backpacker experience may facilitate Sustainability through the process of assisting the local communities and people upon whom backpacker tourism strongly relies while providing an authentic and meaningful experience for the individual backpacker. Sustainability goals, covering environment, economic and socio-cultural dimensions might, therefore, be achieved through a variety of means including ;

  1. I) Finding ways to increase the financial benefits accruing to participating host communities. Backpackers are flexible with their itineraries and therefore can extend their stay longer in destinations. Because they can have a longer average length of stay than other travelers can, they can have more spending on destinations.
  2. II)  Helping to venture and protect the natural environment and wildlife via conservation efforts. When comparing pressures mounted on resources by backpackers and common luxurious travelers, backpackers emerge as the most conservative with limited consumption of energy, water, and even food.

III)  Sharing knowledge and experience accumulation that not only addresses the motivational needs of backpacking participants but potentially leads to increased social awareness and activism, both within the host environment and upon their return home, based on a deeper understanding of cultural richness diversity and issues of social inequity.

N/B: Backpacker tourism is ideally suited and positioned to embrace Sustainable development.

What should be included in a responsible travel guide to backpacking?

#sttachangemakers highlighted the following policies that should be included in a responsible travel guide to backpacking;

  1. Reference points in the destinations for easy tracing of the backpackers.
  2. Code of conduct for interacting with local people.
  3. General tips on responsible travel e.g. where to get local guides and shops.
  4. Cultural sensitivities, social and environmental issues, and animal welfare problems can be included so you can make informed choices that benefit the destinations and local people.


The development of the alternative tourism market has significantly increased in recent times in most countries in particular regarding the backpacker markets. While global growth in backpacker is hard to quantify, due to the lack of maintenance of statistics by many African Countries. African Governments, the Ministries of Tourism should create promotional materials that specifically address the backpacker market. It is possible to do effective market positioning within the backpacking tourism sectors while meeting the expectations and desires of backpackers and local communities hence sustainability.

Article by Evone Ouko,

Guest Author