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A (non-too-exhaustive) survey would seem to indicate the answer is ‘yes’

Then other day I started to muse to myself about the relationship of backpackers with Thailand. Had they fallen out of love with the Land of Smiles, I wondered?

There were two reasons for this. The first was the pronouncement by a government official that, in future, Thailand would look to concentrate more on wealthy people coming to visit the country. The second was a picture indicating that Bangkok’s Khao San Road has had a bit of a makeover recently.

Now, I should make several things clear.

1. I am no expert on backpacking. I have never done it in my life, and, in truth, I am in no hurry to. The idea of ‘roughing it’ when it comes to the sleeping arrangements is not my idea of fun. But I have no reason to speak out against this mode of travel. Each to his or her own.
2. It would be wrong on my part to label all backpackers as lacking in cash. Though certainly, in my perception, they tend to be ‘careful’ in what they spend so they can eke out their resources and stay on their travels longer. Hence, they seem more likely to sleep in cheap hostels.
3. The Khao San Road is not the only place in Bangkok frequented by backpackers but, if it wasn’t already on the map, it was certainly put there by its portrayal in the Alex Garland book, The Beach, and the subsequent film of the same name where it featured in the movie’s opening sequence. Garland’s book was published late in 1996 and the film came out early in 2000. The film was still doing the rounds when I arrived in Thailand – also early in 2000.

The Government man who, in effect, said “no riff-raff” is the tourism minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn who indicated in an interview that the marketing resources of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) would concentrate on targeting big spenders who seek privacy and social distancing in the post-COVID-19 era.

Fewer visitors, but those who will spend more, seems to be the policy. I have a few thoughts in reply to this. I’ll put the elitism to one side because this seems to be a trait among the country’s so-called hi-so people.

However, I would add that among the flaws in such an approach is that the money these wealthy people spend is less likely to filter down the Thai people who really need the cash to keep their families feed.

Four- and five-star hotels would do rather well out of such a policy. And there is nothing really wrong with that. Good luck to them. But, if their guests are not the types to visit a street market (or the Khao San Road); not the types to grab a tuk tuk or a songtaew to get around; and not the types to visit a Walking Street bar in Pattaya and buy a few lady drinks, then their tourist spend in not going to be spread around sufficiently evenly for citizens who currently rely so heavily on tourism to make a living. If you are wondering who these people are maybe you will have seen them in the queues for food that tourism workers were obliged to visit to keep their heads above water during the worst of the pandemic.

The other flaw in this “wealthy folk only” approach is that, actually, I’m not sure the minister really needed to say anything. The value to the Baht is relation to many currencies is enough in itself to exclude the lo-so types. In the past 20 years the Thai currency has gone from an exchange rate with the British pound of the low 70s to the high 30s – about half.

Those (like me) who used to visit Thailand at the start of the millennium simply can no longer afford to. I regularly used to encounter firemen who would fly over then they had several days off in a row for cheap booze and … well, I’m sure you can fill in the rest.

Now I’m sure there are some readers out there who might be shedding crocodile tears about the prospect of Thailand becoming less of a go-to destination for backpackers. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Thailand slipping down the backpackers’ league table is not good for keeping some of the country’s poorer families in food.

I have carried out a bit of a straw poll of desirable backpacking destinations for 2020 around the world. Of course, each of these lists was compiled before the coronavirus spread doom and gloom to all parts. Where Thailand is mentioned, it is not always high up the list. So, let’s look at a few things I gleaned from the web.

Rough Guides put together a list of the most popular places as voted for by its readers. Thailand came in bottom of the list at No 10. Vietnam was one place higher at nine and Thai neighbours, Laos and Cambodia feature at four and three respectively. Top spot went to New Zealand.

Hello! Magazine put together a top 18 of specific places, not just countries. Bit of a random number! Top of its list is a place in Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as we used to call it, was also No 7 in the Rough Guides’ list). Queenstown in NZ was ranked second. Thailand’s Koh Lanta was 7th. Locations in Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines also got honourable mentions.

On the HostelWorld website, Thailand’s Surat Thani ranked second behind Nusa Penida in Indonesia. There were also mentions for New Zealand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Vietnam in its top 20. A pattern emerging?

The stayatbase.com site compiled a top 16 from the recommendations of its own staff members and, like Hello!, put Sri Lanka top. No south-east Asian country even got a mention!

On traveltomntom.net Thailand’s KohTao was second with Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia next in the pecking order. Vietnam was eighth.

Tripsavvy.com’s top 10 had no mention of Thailand, although Vietnam featured at No 6.

But Thailand is still No 1 with a site called trekeffect.com. Pause for muted cheering! The site says: “For the best way to enjoy Thailand on a budget, head to the northern regions and inland – basically any place away from a beach.” Hmmm, not the best of news for Pattaya, though in my experience it never really was backpackers spot.

Backpackers, as depicted in The Beach, tend to seek places off the beaten track that are unspoilt by tourists. Trouble is, these travellers then share their experiences with publications like Rough Guides, so everyone else gets to know about it and the trailblazers have to go looking elsewhere.

Will backpackers still be welcome in future? For the sake of the Thai economy and the people so reliant on tourism, I hope the answer is “yes”.

By Dave Buckley