Why you should care

Because vacations shouldn’t be charity cases. 

Scrunched between raucous hostels and a shuttered bia hơi stall on Ho Chi Minh City’s Phạm Ngũ Lão Street, a panhandler sits behind a cardboard sign asking for handouts. Normally, I wouldn’t do a double take. Except the clean-shaven, 27-year-old Ilya, who doesn’t dare share his last name, is thousands of miles from his home in St. Petersburg. No, he’s not begging for food or water in this backpacker haven. Rather, he wants me to help bankroll his surfing trip to the pristine beaches of the Philippines.

Because a journey of a thousand miles begins with, um, a charitable donation?

Pay no attention to the pricey digital camera propping up his tattered cardboard sign. He’s part of a bizarre travel trend called “beg-packing” — that’s begging plus backpacking — in which frugal travelers cadge money in order to fund the next leg of their trip. Their exact numbers are hard to come by, but the hashtag #begpackers has been trending on Twitter as of late, with dozens of photos of these well-heeled beggars surfacing online. These tourists, mostly from Western Europe and North America, are increasingly camping out on the gritty sidewalk streets that dot the world’s well-worn backpacking trails in Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines, and in some instances have been spotted all the way down in New Zealand and Australia. In some places where these relatively affluent vagabonds are passing the hat, the average price of a meal can easily cost less than $5 and the poverty level can be as high as 25 percent, according to the Asian Development Bank.

To witness such a growing spectacle is a bit “sad,” says Nhung Nguyễn, a travel consultant based in Hanoi. Over the years, she’s seen her fair share of posh globe-trotting twentysomethings consumed by wanderlust, but the growing crowd of street-begging Western millennials on her home turf is, erm, a foreign sight. “If you beg for money for your daily life, such as food and drinks, I understand, but if you beg for travel, that devalues the country you are visiting,” she says, hiding a grimace.

If you beg money for your daily life … I understand, but if you beg for travel, that devalues the country you are visiting.

Nhung Nguyen, travel consultant, Hanoi

But then again, is it hurting anyone if beg-packers are just sitting quietly with a sign that says “Support My Trip Around the World“ in scrawled handwriting? The short answer: That’s for you to decide. For Candy Krajangsri, who works at the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Los Angeles, the answer is not clear-cut: “Does it necessarily take away from the locals? I personally don’t think so. But it’s really subjective.” The breezy backpacker life has long been romanticized as a quest for pure adventure and reckless abandon — like, say, quitting your job and moving to Tahiti to (puke) do what you love.

But in the process, some voyagers, whether they’re aware or not, find themselves on shaky moral ground by siphoning away “money that could go to locals in much greater need” and exoticizing “the Other,” says Nguyễn. Too many tourists end up treating foreign countries like check marks on a bucket-list journey to self-discovery, without heed to the people, places and cultures they are affecting. That is to say, a backpacker flashing his fancy iPhone while looking for some pocket change to visit Angkor Wat is never a good move.

Of course, stepping out of line in someone else’s land is not unheard of. And the rise of beg-packing sounds like the offline version of another travel craze: crowdsourcing websites like GoFundMe and FundMyTravel that help finance forays into foreign lands with the help of people with deep pockets. At times, the purpose of travel gets reduced to bragging rights and entire cultural treasures into a single Instagram selfie — much like the friend who tells you how he “did” Cambodia in a day. (GoFundMe and FundMyTravel did not respond to requests for comment.)

Sure, the history of crowdsourcing is rooted in leveraging the “power of the internet” to fund meaningful expeditions, goals and journeys, says Alex Stephany, a crowdfunding expert in London. But these platforms also make it easier for people to cajole someone else into paying for their vanity tour. So, where should we draw the line between beg-packing and being entrepreneurial? “I don’t know if I would consider backpacking as true crowdfunding,” Stephany says. “This feels very old-fashioned and quaint. There’s something anachronistic about them with their cardboard signs, like it’s something out of the ’60s.”

But let’s be frank, there’s no stopping the strategy if people willingly refill beg-packers’ wallets. From his dusty sidewalk corner in Ho Chi Minh City, Ilya seems perfectly at ease, gazing fondly at his day’s bounty of 600,000 Vietnamese đồng (about $26) — more than enough for a bus ticket up north. Moments later, someone else drops another bill into his hat. He doesn’t even look up to say thanks.

Audio produced by Meradith Hoddinott

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