A new phenomenon is emerging in South Asia: “Western white” tourists would beg to partially finance their trip, either by selling postcards, playing music, or brandishing an advertising sign. These beggars of a new kind are called Begpackers, a word game between beg and backpackers. While we don’t endorse this practice, we also wanted to nuance the debate created by media articles laden with judgments and amalgamations.
An hasty judgment
When you type the word “begpackers” in a search engine, hundreds of results are displayed: you will find dozen of press articles, blog posts, comments or tweets – and all, or almost all, showing reactions rather negative about the phenomenon. And it’s a pity, because these articles (often in search of sensationalism) don’t focus on the root of the problem, but always on the form…
“White people seen begging for money in Southeast Asia? It is inevitably begpackers, young profiteers tourists who lack nothing, except respect for poor local people who don’t have a very high standard of living”.
This is a fine example of a reactionary sentence, mixing contempt, hasty judgment and many clichés. First of all, in what form did people beg (passive waiting with a cardboard? Sales of small handmade souvenirs? Music?…) and for what reasons did they do it (big issues when traveling and unable to get financial help from family/friends, street art considered as livelihood, personal enrichment, challenge?) Can we really say, without knowing them, that these tourists are rich in their country, that they lack nothing? Does living in a less developed country necessarily mean that locals are less wealthy?…
“Begpackers”, these touristes who beg in South East Asia (source: France24 – english version)
Money, crux of the matter
People who vigorously criticize the begpackers often have a conformist vision of the trip: planes, hotels, tourist agencies, guides… That is to say a mode of travel which represents a certain cost for the traveler. Only, they forget that some travelers don’t travel in the same state of mind, and prefer to camp rather than go to hotel, practicing dumpsterdiving rather than go to the restaurant, or create artistic works on the street rather than sitting behind a computer. Human diversity is also found among travelers: there is not only one way to travel!
But being honest: we also agree that traveling is a luxury – but not quite the same way that these articles mean. What our years of alternative travel with very little money have taught us is that money is not the limiting factor… But indeed our passport! Yet articles dealing with the begpackers subject decry this phenomenon everywhere in South-East Asia – while it’s a global phenomenon, also affecting developed countries (we saw a begpacker in Bulgaria, and another traveler reported to us seeing begpackers at Châtelet métro station in Paris). It should also be remembered that begpackers phenomenon also affects Singapore, a very wealthy South East Asian city whose average/median salary and passport rank are higher than in France… The “lack of respect argument to the poor local people” will not fail to make us smile!
Accused of begging for money to fund their trip, these two Westerners annoy Singaporeans (France24 – english version)
An easy amalgam
We were quite surprised to find that most articles on the subject make no difference between a beggar traveler with his “help me finance my trip” cardboard, a musician who plays in the streets here or elsewhere, and a nomad traveler offering any object / service for sale. In our eyes, there is one major difference: a street musician must be able to live on his art, no matter the country where it occurs – in Paris, moreover, no one would have judged it: either his talent would have been appreciated and encouraged by donations, or he would have been ignored but never blamed. After all, the “beggars” do not force the hand to anyone and if someone agrees to give them some money, it’s always willingly, no matter the country we are visiting!
Begpacking: why I refuse to judge westerners busking to fund gap year travels (source: Independent – english)
However, we don’t support begpackers, actually we are far from it. We are aware that among begpackers there are not only artists with good intentions, travelers willing to exchange a service (or a handmade object) for a small fee allowing them to eat and then continue their nomadic life; there are also begpackers who beg for money… and continue to travel comfortably. We do understand better, even if we don’t tolerate them, where amalgams are born and why a majority of people criticize begpackers, as the image returned by these immature travelers remains unflattering… These begpackers are not aware of the chance they have to travel around the world easily, unlike some local met on their way. These begpackers also don’t realize that by selling artifacts in Southeast Asia to pay for hotels or airplane tickets, they compete with locals who are trying to make a living to feed themselves and their families. And they are not aware that their practice (begging with a sign, singing on the street, etc.) can offend locals, because it doesn’t fit into the local customs… No, these begpackers are indeed rooted in a capitalist and liberal system, using easily earned money to buy things that are not vital. In Malaysia, young Russian parents have not hesitated to swing their baby in the air, as a show… It speaks for itself.
What we want to say is that this type of begpackers only ask and take, unlike other backpackers who travel in exchange of services and find alternatives to money use, like Maxime, an alternative traveler with a very small budget which gave french lessons in Hong Kong in exchange of meals, or like us! Fortunately, immature begpackers are a tiny minority among travelers met on the road, who prefer to meet locals, practice human exchange and mutual aid, with respect and adaptability.
Please take a step back, avoid amalgams!