Intrepid travelers once ventured to the jungles of Southeast Asia for genuine budget adventure, where getting around could mean sweating for hours on a bus with locals taking their chickens to market. Now, visitors to places like Thailand and Cambodia could well find themselves bundled onto a tour bus full of backpackers, relaxed after a stint by the pool, tummies full of burgers and European lager. “They’re kind of staying in a backpacker bubble,” says Mark Hampton, an associate professor at Kent University, who’s studied backpacker habits for decades. “It’s become so commercialized – and the worry is that it’s having an impact on prices for travelers, and on local communities.”
Little-to-no specific data exists on how much prices have risen in the region’s backpacking haunts, also found in Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia and Myanmar. But the region’s rapid economic development is certainly challenging notions of what it means to be a backpacker. An analysis of 1,200 questionnaires and 90 interviews by Dr. Hampton and Malaysia-based academic Amran Hamzah identified a clear trend of commercialization in the industry. Journey choices, and the scope for true independent or even spontaneous travel, appeared vastly reduced, the study found.