Proof: Science says yes to backpacking

A new global study proves what young people already know – that backpacking the world is good for you.

Edith Cowan University in collaboration with Sun Yat-sen University and Shaanxi Normal University surveyed 500 Australian, international and Chinese backpackers to determine how backpacking changes an individual’s self-esteem, self-efficacy and personal development.

According to the findings, Westerners experienced the following improvements from backpacking:

  • 91 per cent thought their capacity to identify and resolve problems had been improved
  • 89 per cent thought their communication capability had been improved
  • 88 per cent thought they were able to successfully overcome many challenges
  • 80 per cent felt that even when things were tough, they could perform quite well
  • 80 per cent indicated that backpacking had raised their confidence
  • 62 per cent thought their money management skills had been improved
  • 61 per cent thought their time management skills had been improved

Edith Cowan University School of Business and Law Professor Sam Huang says the study uses five domains to show whether backpacking can improve a person’s personal development: capability (time and money management), emotional stability (regulate emotions and skills), self-consciousness (self-identity), self-competence and a world view.

“World view means they form a kind of new version of the world… that will guide their future life, that will benefit their future life, and self consciousness,” Professor Huang says.

Professor Sam Huang says normally personal development is enabled through the compulsory 12 year formal education system to allow individuals to develop on their numerous aspects and to become a whole person in society.

“But we also see there’s maybe some alternative ways to develop a person and it may be more effective when people are getting into the young adult stage, if they travel, they take some of the challenges, they can still grow themselves in this capability dimension and emotional regulation, or even becoming emotionally strong.

“If they have that set of values that can direct their life, they tend to be more confident or more capable, and that’s how we would like to explore the issues around personality development,” Professor Huang says.

A spectacular WA sunset.
Photo: Emily Farquhar

Despite the improvements to backpacking, the study highlights one key difference in personal development between Chinese and Western backpackers.

The 250 Chinese backpackers were found to have increased feelings of negativity towards backpacking, where there is a negative correlation between their personal development and their self confidence.

Professor Huang says this is an interesting finding and one that can only be interpreted by drawing on relevant theories in the field, such as the transformative learning theory.

“The only possible explanation can be: they are in different stages of backpacking. Chinese backpackers, they are less experienced compared to Western backpackers.

“And if we refer to the transformative learning theory we see normally that transformation can only happen when people disrupt their previous beliefs, their value system, and then they can reconstruct their value system – after that, they are more confident,” Professor Huang says.

Professor Huang says because of the literature around backpacking, it can be regarded as a good technical form of transformative learning.

“But if we apply the transformative learning theory in this process with the Chinese backpackers because they are still fresh and maybe at the early stage, that’s really a possibility that it poses as a crisis point to threaten their self identity.

“But after that if you look at this as a process, I think eventually they will get to a stage where they can be more confident and then once they finish that transformation, I think this is just a stage issue”, he says.

Professor Huang says the characteristics of Chinese backpackers are mainly influenced by their collective culture, whereby they tend to backpack in small groups rather than travel individually.

“That’s the big difference. So I think there must’ve been some cultural reasons there to explain the differences and also the societal reasons,” he says.

University of Western Australia School of Political Science and International Relations Professor Jie Chen explains the reasons behind why Chinese may have increased feelings of negativity.

He says backpacking has only become newly trendy in China and therefore is not considered a traditional way of tourism.

“Chinese people widely if not unanimously see it as a Western exercise (retired people drive caravans around, while the adventurous young people backpack – this is what they know about Australia),” Professor Chen says.

He says Chinese people don’t even do much backpacking in China itself.

“The larger background is: international tourism is still new to the Chinese (just 10 years ago few people had the money); the Chinese culturally don’t feel comfortable getting into an alien foreign environment as individual and possibly isolated backpackers, so they tend to travel in groups and move around in busloads.”

From a larger cultural context, Professor Chen says the collectivist Chinese culture makes it hard to develop a practice of individual backpacking.

“So it is understandable that backpacking is more developed in those Chinese societies which are more closely connected to Western culture, such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, but not the mainland Chinese migrant communities in Australia. My family and friends consider a night in a tent in Rottnest Island to be adventurous enough,” Professor Chen says.

Backpacking through the Grand Canyon.
Photo: Emily Farquhar

Professor Huang says the study should encourage people to break from their stereotypical mentality about backpackers.

“As a human being they develop themselves, they face challenging difficulties on their own and they are a budget traveller through how they manage their money to travel to get the experience.

“So why can’t we just look at the bright side of the issue? I think if we evaluate the benefits against the costs, I think they definitely benefit more.. and overall, I don’t think backpacking is a bad way of life,” he says.

Professor Huang says even encouraging young Australians to travel overseas is supported by the Australian government through their New Colombo Plan which allows young Australian citizens studying at any university to take a cross-cultural learning experience.

“Backpacking can be the same. It can be even more beneficial. But we don’t really have grants from the government to encourage backpacking, but backpacking can allow our young people to get the same benefits,” he says.

Addressing broader issues, Professor Huang says backpacking can be another way of resolving societal issues such as mental health for future generations.

“Mental health. This may not be a issue in your one country, this may be an issue in many countries, even developing countries like China, and young people are getting more stressed or depressed because of this urban, urbanized lifestyle.

“That’s why the next step may be to look at the relationship between backpacking, that type of personality development and general wellbeing of a person’s life,” he says.

Overall, Professor Huang says the study doesn’t just focus on one culture but many because backpackers personal development is a global construct.

“No matter what culture you come from, you definitely can benefit from backpacking,” he says.

Holidaying in the snow.
Photo: Emily Farquhar