I have a confession to make. When I went on my first backpacking trip, the
internet hadn't been invented (before you write me off as a wizened old lady hobbling round on a walking frame I'd like to point out I'm still in my
thirties - just - and still go backpacking from time to time).
I actually 'missed' the invention of the internet. In the early 1990's I left home on a year long round-the-world trip, mainly to lesser developed countries. I kept in contact with postcards and international phone cards I used in pay phones (when I was in an area that actually had payphones) and, if I wanted to go really high-tech, sent a fax from a hostel that had a fax machine (again not that common in many countries back then). In those days long-term travels were still characterized by 'sending your photos home'. We would take a ton of pictures, get them developed (can you imagine?), and send them home to our families by snail mail.
After a year, I returned to civilization and the internet was up and running. People had email addresses, and used this strange new world wide web daily, at work at least. Few people had internet access at home at that point.
A few years later I went travelling again and everything had changed. Many hostels had (usually unreliable) internet access, and you could find an internet cafe in most big cities. People stayed in contact by emailing (though postcards were not yet extinct). I don't remember on that trip ever seeing a backpacker with a laptop or cell phone, and excessive use of technology would (I think) have been slightly scorned. A sign that you weren't a 'real' traveler.
Fast forward to 2009 and the age of flashpacking - that's backpacking with a whole lot more money, toys, and technology. Apparently, a recent survey by Hostelworld.com estimated that 21% of 'backpackers' travel with a laptop, 54% with an MP3 player, 83% with a cell phone, and 86% with a digital camera. Online travel journals and blogs have taken over from the trusty pen and paper type travel journal, and emailing, social networking and instant messaging are the natural way to stay in contact. Photos are uploaded to Flickr or Facebook for instant sharing. I don't know what's happened to postcard sales but I suspect they're not healthy.
Hostels have adapted to the 'new' backpacking and many now offer wireless internet access and increased security for travelers who need to protect their toys, including private rooms and security boxes big enough to fit laptops, SLR digital cameras and all the accessories. (I remember when if a hostel had security boxes they only needed to be big enough to accommodate a passport and a few travelers' checks). There are 'luxury hostels', which seems a bit of a contradiction in terms, sprouting up everywhere to cater to travelers willing to pay for luxury but not wanting to sell out completely and go to the nearest Holiday Inn.
Tour companies are also well and truly on the flashpacking bandwagon, offering helicopter flights and jet boat rides, where once they offered hiking and kayaking. If travelers have more money to spend there will always be entrepreneurs willing to relieve them of it.
Technology is a wonderful thing, and I have no objection to luxury and comfort as general concepts. Flashpacking will no doubt make adventure travel ever more popular. Being able to travel like a backpacker but enjoy a bit more luxury will encourage more people to hit the road, and make backpacking style travel more attractive for older travelers, travelers with young families, and technology obsessed youngsters who would
find it stressful to 'unplug' for a day, never mind a few months.
I welcome the comfort of the flashpacker traveling style, which will soon spread throughout the traditional backpacker circuits of the world, but I can't help feeling wistful for the days when backpacking involved packing a pocket knife, a tent and a bed roll, sleeping rough, hitchhiking, and worrying your parents sick because they hadn't heard from you for a month. Those were the days!
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