"Don't be a tourist. Plan less. Go slowly. I travelled in the most inefficient way possible and it took me exactly where I wanted to go."
These were the exact words of Andrew Evan who undertook an overland adventure from Washington D.C. to Antarctic. As a seasoned National Geographic travel writer, Andrew has authored various guidebooks on several cities and travelling. This mantra is one that backpackers today swear by.
Backpacking in its traditional form, is a low-cost and independent style of travel. The term itself is self-explanatory - travelling with a backpack. Backpackers often travel without packaged tours and rely on travel information from guidebooks and websites. More people today are travelling, and backpacking as a style of travel will not be unfamiliar to most.
In "The Backpacking Phenomenon", Philip Pearce suggests that backpacking is a state of mind. It is an approach to travelling, rather than a categorisation based on age or dollars spent.
Backpackers are distinguished with the following traits:
A preference for budget accommodation.
A social emphasis on meeting locals and other travellers.
An independently organised and flexible travel schedule.
Longer rather than brief holidays.
The popularity of backpacking has risen in recent years. It is most evident in the increase in number of backpacker accommodation in Singapore. There are 29 registered backpackers' hostels in Singapore according to Hotels Licensing Board. Majority of them are located in the various ethnic compounds such as Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India.
A record high of close to 13.2 million international visitors arrived in Singapore in 2011. More tourists are visiting Singapore, either as a stopover en-route to another country or as a destination itself. The Economy tier of the Hotel Industry (S$109.00 and below) registered an Average Occupancy Rate of 85% for 2011. Budget accommodation and backpackers' hostels have become increasingly popular with tourists.
There are many indicators to the rising popularity of backpackers' hotels in Singapore, with the obvious one being affordability. Singapore is the most expensive Asian country for hotel rooms, with a night averaging S$239.00 in 2011. On the other hand, a night in a backpackers' hostel cost between S$20.00 to S$50.00 for a dormitory bed and between S$60.00 to S$100.00 for a private double room.
Footprints Hostel, located in Little India, offers a bed in the 10-bed dormitory for S$22.00 a night. Keeping prices affordable has been their competitive edge, as they remain as one of the largest and more popular backpackers' hostels.
Travellers are drawn to backpackers' hostels for the affordable accommodation.
"We keep our room rates competitive. We also value-add to their stay by offering discounted attraction tickets and deals at some restaurants and cafes near us," says Christina Phang. As the General Manager of Footprints Hostel, Christina regularly sources out deals and discounts for her guests.
Prices are however not the only determining factor with the emergence of new boutique hostels clearly catered for the backpacker with the budget. Luxury and comfort is the rule for these boutique hostels as they bring services and amenities normally found in hotels. Such enhanced features can include amenities like a spacious lobby lounge, individual reading lights, bedside screens, and iPhone docks.
Mervin Kwa, 28, Operations Manager at Bunc Hostel explains that the flashpacker is a modified term for the backpacker who has a slightly more disposable budget in terms of accommodation, and yet wants to experience the interactivity and atmosphere of a hostel.
"We (Bunc Hostel) offer top hotel quality standard bedding and amenities at backpackers' rates. The dormitory beds are designed as individual capsules to provide guests with more privacy as compared to a open-style dormitory," Mervin explains. "We also organize events frequently to encourage mingling among our guests"
Bunc Hostel's custom-designed capsule bed promises comfort and privacy.
Most backpackers' hostels are also located strategically close to the city centre or are within reach of a few MRT stations. This brings forth convenience through affordability and ease of travel within Singapore. Being located in the various ethic compounds allows backpackers to experience the local flavour with the unique ethnic cultures.
For example, Little India, which is a strong Indian cultural enclave, is undisputedly the unofficial backpacker district in Singapore. It has the highest concentration of backpackers' hostels and it is not difficult to see why backpackers are drawn to Little India.
There is a steady growing relationship between the local businesses catered for the tourists and the upsurge of the tourism industry. The cafes, bars, convenience stores, Internet shops, and travel agencies have been given a boost by the influx of backpackers coming to the area. These businesses are also outlet providers of entertainment, information and recreation for them.
Singaporeans are also not unfamiliar with the backpacking fervour. "For me, it (backpacking) means to travel cheaply and independently in a foreign country," says Desmond Lui, a freelance photojournalist. Desmond is a seasoned traveller whose backpack destinations have included the exotic likes of Cambodia, India and Mongolia.
Backpacking equates to an extended and more insightful learning holiday for some. "I enjoy the greater freedom that comes with independent backpacking as compared to travelling with conventional tour packages," Desmond adds on. "I also find that by travelling for longer periods of time, spending more time in one location and visiting more places, I can get a better understanding and feel for the country or region I visit."
Desmond has travelled particularly extensively in India and China, spending three months and seven months respectively. An 18-hour jeep ride in India that took him across mountainous passes along some of the highest motor roads in the world remains as one of his fondest backpacking memories.
It appears backpacking will remain as an upward trend with more backpackers travelling to Singapore and more Singaporeans backpacking overseas. So what are you waiting for? Buy a ticket, fetch your backpack and go globetrotting today.