COVID-19 and budget travel: Is the traditional, cheapskate backpacker doomed?

The change had begun before the pandemic. You could spot it in the altered nature of modern-day travellers, in their tastes and preferences, in the places they were visiting, in the accommodation available to them, in the tours on offer.

Backpacking was a dying art. And COVID-19 could be the final blow.

I say this with sadness as someone who began their career known as "The Backpacker". I have loved the experience of low-budget travel, of long-term travel, of scraping together money and making it last as long as possible with dorm-room stays and noodle dinners.

But those days are becoming a thing of the past. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not necessarily a good thing. It just is. And you only have to look around you to see the evidence that it's real.

Budget travel had changed pre-pandemic. Check out the spate of "flashpacker" hostels appearing in every popular tourist city, the way accommodation providers were having to adapt to the demands of young travellers. People wanted mod-cons, they wanted privacy, they wanted space, they wanted something that was going to look good on Instagram, and they were prepared to pay extra for it.

Styles of movement were changing as well. Traditional backpacker favourites such as Contiki had all but ended their range of low-budget camping tours and moved almost exclusively towards more expensive, hotel-based excursions, catering to travellers more interested in local culture and cuisine than having a massive night at the campsite bar.

Those classic adventure overlanders, the London-to-Kathmandu bus trips of the '70s and '80s where everything would go wrong and people would celebrate the experience, had just ceased to exist.

Tastes are changing too. Food is now such a huge part of the travel experience for everyone, and that includes young, budget-conscious travellers. It once seemed like a point of pride to exist on the cheapest supermarket food you could find, to spend every night in the hostel kitchen cooking up packet noodles or seeing which unmarked leftovers you could semi-legitimately steal.

But people recognise now that that's such a waste of an opportunity, and that if you can't afford to eat locally then you probably shouldn't be there.

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Even actual luggage is changing. Plenty of young travellers have now recognised that a hard case on wheels is a lot more practical than a big bag with straps if you're only hopping from city to city on a well-trodden path.

A big part of all this is because young travellers are just different now. They want different things.

Another part, however, is that the necessity for ultra-budget travel is diminishing. Backpacking used to be essential – few people ever stayed in a dingy dorm room with 12 of their stinkiest new friends because they truly loved it – but that's not so much the case anymore.

Cheap flights have changed all of that. It used to be that you would have to save for years to be able to afford an airfare, and when you could you would have to make it count: you'd go to Europe for a year; you'd spend six months roaming south-east Asia.

But travel doesn't work like that anymore. You can (or at least you could pre-pandemic, and probably will be able to again) get to Thailand for the price of a few weeks' rent. You could fly to the US for a little more.

That means young travellers were able to take shorter holidays than they used to, and to splash a bit more cash on accommodation, on tours and on experiences when they got there. People just didn't have to scrimp as much.

And then came COVID-19. Ultra-budget travel is likely to be the last sector to recover from this pandemic – all signs point to luxury travel bouncing back first, and then so on down the budgetary food chain.

Because really, who wants to share a bedroom with 10 strangers after having experienced a global pandemic? Who wants to share kitchen facilities with a whole heap of other travellers if they don't have to? Who wants to stay in a dingy hostel with questionable hygiene? Who wants to be shoved into any small space with a bunch of randos if there's another option?

Our first steps back into international tourism are likely to be tentative ones, governed by where we're allowed to go, and where we're going to be allowed to come home from. Few people will want to take undue risks in foreign lands, and that is likely to affect the style of travel they choose to indulge in.

It's going to be tough out there for budget travel companies – in fact plenty have already disappeared, including much-loved tour operator Tucan Travel, and adventure travel specialists Oasis Overland.

There will, of course, always be travellers around the world who fit the old backpacking label. There will always be low-budget adventurers who choose to rough it to make the experience last. But backpacking as a cultural phenomenon, as a rite of passage, as an almost assumed experience for young people going out to see the world?

That might be finished.

Do you think backpacking is finished? Why, or why not? How do you plan to travel once international visits are allowed? Would you be sad to see backpacking as a cultural phenomenon disappear?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

See also: 13 signs you're too old to be a backpacker

See also: The golden age of cheap, easy travel is over

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