When Hong Kong resident Ashley James first started seeing “begpackers” on the streets of his city in spring of 2023, he had two simultaneous thoughts: leisure tourism had returned to Asia, and it was time to make some memes about it.
James, a comedian, is one of the posters behind the Instagram page Chaotic Hong Kong Expats. He shared a picture of a tourist sitting on a busy road with a cup of change and a sign in front of them and wrote “nature is healing, begpackers are back.”
If you’ve ever seen a shaggy-haired young person selling woven bracelets or playing drums near a tourist attraction, odds are you are familiar with the concept of begpacking.
The term is a portmanteau of “begging” and “backpacking” and is usually used to negatively describe people who are asking the public for money to fund their travels.
Typically, southeast and south Asian destinations like Thailand, India and Indonesia have been the hotspots for these so-called begpackers. Yet in most cases, the practice is illegal.
“We mock everything,” James says about the Instagram account, which is a spinoff of a Facebook page. But he notes that some of the page’s best-performing posts take potshots at begpackers.
What makes these specific travelers such a target? And what will happen as they return to Asia after the pandemic?
A day in the life of a begpacker
Someone who knows more about begpackers than most people is Stephen Pratt, department chair of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida.
He’s studied the phenomenon from an academic perspective.
While in graduate school at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, he and several colleagues conducted fieldwork during which Pratt – the lone White male native English speaker in the group – volunteered to pose as a begpacker himself.
Armed with his ukulele and a sign reading “Please help me with my trip around the world” in Chinese, he set up in a busy park in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district.
A Cantonese-speaking colleague waited nearby to see who interacted with Pratt, then pigeonholed them to ask questions – and, in some cases, return the money they’d given.
Generally, Pratt explains, begpackers can be divided into three categories: those who busk (playing music or performing in some way), those who sell something (such as jewelry, postcards, or a service like hair braiding), and those who simply ask for money without offering anything in return.
In turn, passers-by respond differently based on which of the groups the “begpackers” are in.
During Pratt’s study, most people who gave him money made a mention of his ukulele – even if his playing wasn’t great, they said they appreciated that he made an effort.
It’s not entirely clear how long begpacking has been around. In his book “A Time of Gifts,” English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor recounts peddling juvenile sketches for cash during his 1933 journey by foot across Europe.
But the age of social media has catapulted the activity into public consciousness with a wave of begpacking-shaming Instagram accounts and Facebook pages.
Pratt says such online judgments imply that travelers must meet economic thresholds before embarking on their adventures. It also reflects a wider culture of criticism.
“(This shaming) does raise the point of, ‘is international travel only for a certain class of people or people over a certain amount of income?’” says Pratt. “I think tourists themselves are being held more accountable now than in the past.”
Will Hatton, founder of budget travel advice site The Broke Backpacker, pushes back at the word “begpacker” and the negative connotations that come with it.
“I definitely don’t approve of people sitting on the curb begging,” he explains. But when it comes to people who busk or sell things to be able to afford more travel, “you’ve got these people who hit the road, who are being brave and trying to explore a different way of living.”
Joshua Bernstein, a lecturer in the Language Institute at Thamassat University in Thailand, says that some of the anger around begpacking connects to issues of gentrification and privilege.
“I think a lot of this rage is from foreigners,” he says. Bernstein observed begpackers in Bangkok and concluded that locals were much more interested in stopping, chatting or buying things than foreigners were.
“There’s policing that expats do among themselves. There’s an unfriendliness sometimes that expats have to each other of ‘I don’t want you to ruin this for me’ or ‘I don’t want you to make me look bad.’ There’s lots of those types of sentiments.”
He points out that people who begpack aren’t getting rich. They stay in cheap hostels for a few dollars a night and are eating street food, not Michelin-starred meals.
For James, the comedian, scorn against so-called begpackers all comes down to a single word: entitlement.
“Hong Kong is a very expensive place to live and the average (monthly) wage is 15,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,915). Rent prices are so high, you have local people in cage homes. The locals can’t even afford (to live) here. Why are you in one of the most expensive places in the world and asking us to buy beads? Travel is a luxury around the world, and people saying ‘pay for my travel’ is stupid and entitled.”
Questions of privilege
While James acknowledges the irony of a White expat laughing at other White expats, not everyone thinks making fun of begpackers is merely entertainment.
Filipino human rights attorney Raphael Pangalangan wrote in an April 2023 column that the begpackers highlighted the phenomenon of “passport privilege.”
The term is used to highlight the difference in ease of travel for people with certain passports over others – for example, members of European Union countries who can travel around the continent freely versus people like Pangalangan who must endure waits and paperwork in order to secure travel visas and go overseas.
“Begpacking exposes the double standards of passport privilege and reveals the inherent inequalities in our global society,” Pangalangan wrote. “If the shoe were on the other foot, begpacking would be simply called vagrancy.”
Hatton believes that shaming around begpackers is more about race than class, or perceived class.
“The issue is with people having the idea that folks from first-world countries are very rich,” says Hatton. “Perhaps they are, but there are poor people in first-world countries and some of them support themselves through busking. That makes up like 90% of the class of people who get referred to as begpackers.”
He adds: “Hostility tends to come down to skin color.”
The future of begpacking
With Asia slower to reopen post-pandemic than countries in Europe and North America, it’s not yet clear whether so-called begpackers will return to their traditional stamping grounds or if their era is over.
Viral social media photos of begpackers in places like Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong have been appearing on social media in recent months, re-igniting debate over the issue. But Bernstein, the professor in Thailand, believes that this kind of lifestyle is moving online.
People who are trying to raise money for travel have a variety of options, from established websites like Go Fund Me to sharing a donation jar or mentioning a username for mobile payment service Venmo in their vlogs or social media posts.
Is yesterday’s street busker today’s content creator?
Rather than depend on the kindness of strangers, some travelers opt to build online followings and ask their fans to help support them financially.
“I think it kind of represents the growing arena of location-independent tourists blurring boundaries between leisure and work,” says Bernstein.
“I think there is a generational shift between valuing experience over things.”