Once upon a time, the “budget traveler” was ubiquitous — and largely celebrated. Toting backpacks, trading transportation hacks, sleeping in hostels, meeting fellow travelers while cooking in the kitchen, and taking advantage of “off hours” and cheap drinks, these people sought out strategies for “traveling the world on $10 a day.” Entire brands were built around stretching every last cent to the greatest extent possible.
But the tourism industry is changing: Venice is instituting a day fee for tourists. Bhutan, which has always had a day fee, is increasing its fee significantly. And, it appears that the days of rock-bottom airline prices are numbered.
As the tourism pendulum swings in this new direction, though, it’s leaving some travelers behind.
The “new age” of tourism we’re entering is responding to market demands and conscious consumers — and focusing on specific community needs and adhering to high ethical standards can come at both a financial and social cost. Additionally, it’s increasingly centered on attracting “high-quality” travelers — travelers who have more time to spend in a single place, more resources available to positively impact the destinations they visit, and more money to pay for the privilege to travel.
In other words, the tourism industry is prioritizing travelers who have the means to eat out, hire guides and pay for excursions, and stay in accommodations owned and run by local residents. It’s no longer catering to those travelers eating packaged ramen from the supermarket or trading time behind a hostel’s front desk in exchange for a bed.
In theory, this evolution in tourism is a good one. After all, one of the industry’s recent goals has been to create a tourism model that maximizes positive economic and socio-cultural impact for people and the places they call home while minimizing the environmental impact. This doesn’t happen when travelers exploit local resources while failing to benefit the places they visit in any meaningful way.
And yet, there’s a bit of dissonance that needs to be reconciled here: Travel is a privilege, but it shouldn't only be reserved for those with privilege. Nor should it be reserved for those travel companies with big budgets, large networks of staff, and the capacity to navigate this changing tourism landscape.
One of the tourism industry’s other recent goals has been to make travel more accessible. This means eliminating barriers so that a wider diversity of people can enjoy traveling, regardless of their ability, socio-economic status, or citizenship.
“High-quality” travelers are not necessarily the same ones who have large bank accounts and passport privilege.
So, what can the tourism industry do to invite this wide spectrum in while also being mindful that, in places like Venice, less is more?
Travel can be a powerfully transformational experience. Countless studies and articles have heralded the benefits of travel on a personal level, which include everything from enhancing personal well being and relieving stress to exposing people to new ways of understanding power dynamics, colonialism, and oppression in the world. In an increasingly divisive society, there’s a case to be made for using tourism as a tool to foster peace and cross-cultural understanding.
However, research conducted in 2021 found that almost half of Americans earning less than US$30,000 have never left the United States. The highest earners were not only more likely to have traveled abroad, but they were also significantly more likely to have visited more countries.
Granted, it’s important to make a distinction between a budget traveler’s activities (which are focused on spending a minimal amount of money) and the proverbial budget traveler mindset (party hard, drift aimlessly, and last as long as possible with only a fistful of cash). A budget traveler in their mid-20s might be cash-strapped, but they might also be consciously aware of the need to appreciate and not appropriate cultures or take advantage of local generosity.
It’s also important to note that traveling at this age may surface potential career paths while serving up real-life lessons in soft skills like listening and characteristics like empathy — skill-building that should be encouraged. After all, these are tomorrow’s decision-makers and leaders. We shouldn’t want to discourage them from traveling; instead, we want to encourage them to travel more mindfully and with intention.
Even as the tourism industry creates barriers around places and experiences in order to preserve their integrity, it must recognize and acknowledge the importance of making meaningful travel experiences available to those who can’t afford or access them. Currently, there appears to be a lack of solutions addressing this challenge, but this issue should be addressed along with the creation of tourism’s new framework that claims to promote inclusivity and accessibility.
These potential solutions could include:
- Travel scholarship programs for people who have been historically underrepresented funded by destinations and tour companies.
- Tiered fee structures at attractions and for experiences with daily allotments.
- Reduced visa restrictions for people who intended to travel in a single destination for an extended period of time.
- Tourism fees used to fund reparations and pay liveable wages to Indigenous people and other exploited communities both in the travel sector and beyond.
- Subsidies for small, local tourism businesses forced to compete against multinational travel companies.
- Partnerships between low-cost accommodations and experiences with high benefit for both travelers and local people.
- Priority access for service providers owned by historically marginalized communities.
- Incentives and discounts for domestic travelers.
- Easier and more affordable access for young adults to study and live abroad.
- Increased fees for frequent flyers used to offset the cost for first-time flyers.
For every action the tourism industry makes, it must also carefully consider the consequences. And, in considering those consequences, it may need to develop additional solutions to offset further harm.
Because a tourism ecosystem that values appropriate destination management, community-focused initiatives, and environmental integrity should also be one that promotes holistic inclusivity and doesn’t reinforce elitism.