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White begpackers are also begging because they are in need

Caucasian begpackers are described in South and East Asian media as privileged parasites on society. However, a new study reveals that the travellers are a heterogenous group that makes money on the street both because they want to and because they have to.
Begpacker skilt
A begpacker’s sign reads as follows: “Hi. I am... from Russia. I am travelling through Asia for 12 months, Hong Kong is a very unique place, but the living costs are very high. I have run out of money to continue on my journey. I hope that you will help.” Private photo.


Most people know what a backpacker is, but have you heard of a begpacker?

A begpacker is someone, typically of Caucasian ancestry, who travels around in East Asia and finances the trip either by begging, asking for donations for street shows or by selling souvenirs, post cards or other small items on the street.

Ostracised by the media
Together with three other researchers, tourism researcher and assistant professor at Roskilde University, Matias Thuen Jørgensen, has studied why these begpackers have received so much criticism from media in Hong Kong.

“It’s hard to understand how big of an issue this is in Hong Kong and throughout East and South Asia when you are in Denmark. However, it’s a huge subject of debate. The narrative in the media has been – and is – that there is a kind of re-colonisation taking place where rich, white West Europeans come to Asia and use it as their exotic playground, and now, on top of that, they also want the ‘poor’ Asians to pay for their trips,” says Matias Thuen Jørgensen.

“Our project puts a human face on a group that is heavily discussed but who have not otherwise had a voice in the debate,” he explains.

“In the media, there is no distinction made between those who beg and those who play music or sell things. The recurring theme is that there are outsiders who use begpacking to finance their trips – and that is where the potential problem is, because taking a trip is viewed as a luxury.”

Travelling around the world and making money for your needs and the next leg of the journey is according to Matias Thuen Jørgensen neither a new or a geographically-limited phenomenon. What is new is that today this type of travel is more organised, as begpackers meet in various online forums, exchange tips and search for information.

The narrative was found to be untrue
Based on the negative coverage, the researcher group believed that their study would focus on why a white middle-class group had begun going to Asia to let a less well-off local population pay for their self-realisation projects.

The reality, however, turned out to be quite different:

“All of the begpackers that we interviewed and by far the majority of those we talked to but who did not want to be part of our study turned out to be, to some extent, begging for money or donations because they had to do so,” says Matias Thuen Jørgensen.

The researcher group spoke to a total of 20 begpackers, and eight of them agreed to formal interviews. Out of those eight, four earned money from ‘busking’ - i.e., playing the guitar, making theatre or performance art in return for donations from those walking past. Two of the begpackers sold various items while the remaining two simply begged for money.

Begpackers from former USSR countries
Over half of the begpackers who the researchers interacted with were from former USSR countries, which came as a surprise to the researchers.

“We interviewed some Russians and Ukrainians who couldn’t go home for security-related reasons - in principle, they were refugees. After they had left, conflicts stated in their home country that meant that they couldn’t actually go home,” he says.

The researcher group could therefore conclude that begpackers are a somewhat more heterogenous group compared to how they were being represented in the public debate. There is an overlap between those who want experiences, those for whom this is a lifestyle and those who do it because they have to.

“We had expected the first two, but not so much the last component that was seen in our study. They have to do it because they can’t just go home and they can’t get a visa to another European country - so instead, they spend their time elsewhere,” says Matias Thuen Jørgensen.

Some begpackers make good money from it. On average, the eight participants in the study made DKK 250 per day, while the highest earners made around DKK 1,000 per day.


 

Begpacker
Matias Thuen Jørgensen’s researcher colleague, who works on the begpacker experiment at various locations in Hong Kong. Private photo.