You don’t need a tour—just go!

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Backpacking is a commercialized form of traveling, but that’s okay

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016

Recently, there have been a lot of critics against the popular youthful form of travelling known as backpacking. What people are saying is that backpacking no longer represents what it once did, when it came into prominence in the 1970s during the “hippy trail,” when hippies traveled across Asia and Europe in search of… themselves. Backpacking is now as much a part of conventional tourism as all-inclusive resorts and walking tours. It’s not an independent experience, but rather an experience composed by those who run businesses around tourism. Nevertheless, you should still try it.

Let’s be honest: no matter what we do, we cannot get the same experience as those hippies in the 70s. We cannot have Woodstock, no matter how many music festivals we go to. We cannot experience the thrill of special effects, no matter how many Star Wars movies we make. And we cannot expect the world to revert to a time when tourism was as new as virtual reality is today. All we can do is set off and have our own experiences, even if they are tailored for us.

The tourism industry is huge in countries where the hippy trail originated. Today, it supports the livelihood of millions of people in regions where earning a living is not always easy. Even though backpackers are known for their thrifty form of traveling, the locals recognize that an American dollar can go a long way in a place like Cambodia or Myanmar. So they want you to spend as much as possible. They don’t care about the genuine backpacking experience. They want you to buy. The genuine backpacking experience, to them, must sounds like the most pretentious piece of bullshit. Just go to their country and have fun.

Travelling is a great way to gain a perspective in the world. It’s a good way to learn independence and communication skills. However, I don’t believe going on a trip will change a person significantly. The old cliché of finding yourself in India or having an Eat, Pray, Love moment is something that doesn’t change who you are when you return home, even if you want it so much that it seems to exist in your mind. So to say that your backpacking experience is less because you planned everything on Expedia is a terrible way to look at travelling in general.

Backpacking sounds like a lot of fun, but it is also a rigorous and sometimes frustrating experience. There are brief moments of spirituality now and then, but those moments can occur in your apartment condo as well. So go backpacking, and don’t think about all the baggage that the travelling style carries with it. Go with the flow of the journey. If that means taking a flight instead of a bus, do it. If that means going on a tour instead of venturing alone, do it. If that means staying in a hotel for a few days instead of a hostel, do it. It’s your trip; there doesn’t have to be rules.

The Report Card: Vacations

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By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. Jan. 7, 2014

Welcome back from your little holiday break. I hope you got a chance to rest and spend some valuable time with your friends and family—or I hope you got an opportunity to get out of the city, away from the hustle and bustle of the holidaze, and do a bit of travelling. When it comes to travelling, there isn’t an incorrect way of seeing the world, but with limited chances, it’s important to do it right.

Pass: Backpacking

Contrary to popular belief, backpacking across a city, country, or continent is no more dangerous than any other form of travelling. Just because you aren’t staying at a five-star hotel doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time. There is a freedom to backpacking that other forms of travelling can’t replicate. You move at your own pace and decide where and what you want to eat, sleep, and do. You push yourself to get to rural destinations and see the breathtaking National Geographic sights.

Moreover, backpacking allows you to constantly meet new and interesting people, the kind you won’t meet at a resort. It also enables you to be fully engulfed in the cultural experience—especially if you don’t have a translator. Suddenly body language and patience become so important. All the skills and ethics your parents tried to instil in you from a young age are applied while backpacking. It’s a very human feeling of completeness, not in the way buying a new car or a computer makes you feel complete.

Not many North Americans are born nomads, but there is a beauty in trying new things. Limited to a backpack full of essentials, backpackers can just pick up and go. In a way, backpackers are really the only type of legitimate travellers—others are just passengers.

Fail: Tours

Is there anything worse than being told what to do? In normal life, you are always obeying your teachers, bosses, or parents—why should you be so obedient on your vacation as well? Tours are traps for travellers; it’s a way for big companies to make money. Often, tours will usher you to a popular destination and allow locals to leech off of you, selling you knick-knacks and other novelty foreign garbage that you can bring home and show to all your domesticated friends.

Of course, tours are sometimes the only method of seeing certain attractions. But more often than not, the most attractive places are ruined by the sensation that comes with being on a tour. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to visit the Galápagos Islands. As a fan of science and Charles Darwin, the archipelago off of Ecuador was a place I longed to see; sadly the only safe and legal way of exploring the island was to go on a tour with a naturalist. Let’s just say that it’s hard to have an adventure when a law-abiding environmentalist is practically holding your hand the whole way. Sure, the trip was worth it and I got to see all I wanted to see, but the experience was tarnished by the fact that it was a tour.

Perhaps at a certain age, tours will be an acceptable means of seeing the world, but not in your 20‘s. Take this opportunity to see the world without a leash holding you back.