JAKARTA – Hanging out in cheap hotels and spending their limited funds at the lower end of society where it was needed the most, backpackers played a pioneering role in the growth of Southeast Asia’s until recently money-spinning tourism industry.

They were disheveled, they smoked marijuana and, to officialdom at least, they were not the ideal well-heeled foreign tourist who flew in on business class, stayed in five-star hotels and spent freely on package tours, precious stones and over-priced souvenirs.

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Immigration officials were quoted as saying that when Bali finally reopens to international travelers they would be screening out those of “low quality. We will filter arriving tourists. We don’t want backpackers coming to a clean Bali. We want quality visitors.

We just don’t want them to come for a while, Indonesian Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan told Asian Times, frustrated that some parts of Bali were still at level three on a Covid-19 outbreak scale despite the tourist island enjoying one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.

Scores of tourists have already been deported for this reason, including a disproportionate number of seemingly well-off Russians who, according to local officials, are proving to be more troublesome than the usually troublesome Australians.

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Leaping to the defense of the humble traveler, an editorial in the Bali Discovery newsletter pointed to extensive World Trade Organization (WTO) research showing the global youth tourist market is now worth an estimated US$400 billion a year.

Before the pandemic turned everything upside down, it was the fastest-growing travel segment, representing 23% of the one billion international holiday trips taken annually around the world.

Because of the youth market’s affinity for the internet and social network marketing, they provide an incomparable and valuable instantaneous boom to any destination they visit.

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In Indonesia, the editorial said, budget travelers will lead the way in helping the government attain its tourism goals, especially in the so-called “10 new Bali’s” – a reference to the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island chain which includes Lombok, Flores and Timor.

Bali became what it is today thanks to an early influx of seat-of-the-pants Australian surfers and its position on the overland trail for Europe-bound backpackers traveling from Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory to East Timor and then onward across the archipelago to Jakarta.

Thailand’s first beach resort of Pattaya, southeast of Bangkok, grew up around rabble-rousing American servicemen on rest and recreation from Vietnam. But other destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand all began life as backpacker havens.

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Budget travelers today are not nearly as impoverished as in the 1970’s when most of those on the road were simply footloose hitch-hikers, enjoying being the first post-World War II generation to have the opportunity to get out and about.

Financed to some degree by family money, many of today’s young backpackers are students on their gap year – the period between high school graduation and university enrollment when they supposedly try to discover themselves.

Others are millennials, often with well-paying jobs, looking for something different on their travels and often well off the beaten track. Even some of Indonesia’s own backpackers – and there are many of them – can be found in this category.

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Indeed, the World Youth Student and Education Confederation finds the average member of the youth market spends $1,000 a week, stays at their chosen destination for extended periods and spends 60% of their budget in the local community.

Overseas visitors to Indonesia, confined to carefully screened businessmen and digital nomads, must submit proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test result, take a test on arrival and spend eight days in quarantine in a designated hotel no real backpacker can afford.

It can’t come soon enough, but it will take some yet before Australia – still the main source of Bali’s tourist trade – opens up sufficiently to allow its citizens including backpackers freedom of travel to countries where the coronavirus remains an issue.

Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2021.

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