Backpackers aren’t usually the focus of tourist boards around the world, as governments often prefer to focus on visitors who are perceived to spend more and contribute more to the local economy. However, as a recent study carried out in Hong Kong makes clear, it’s worth paying attention to the lowly backpacker.

Until recently, Hong Kong’s tourism was dominated by the growth in the numbers of mainland Chinese visitors whose main interest was shopping. However, their numbers peaked in 2014 at 47.2 million, and had dropped to 40.3 million by 2016, compelling Hong Kong to consider diversifying its tourism offerings. Backpackers are suddenly on the radar, because they are more likely to support the local economy than other types of tourists, many of whom visit because of the country’s reputation as an international shopping destination.

Destination marketers, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere, should be aware that the reasons why backpackers visit a particular destination may differ from those of other visitors. In the case of Hong Kong, “backpackers are pushed by the search for new ideas and pulled by the unique food culture.” Wherever they go, however, they “demand little infrastructure development,” and tend to spend more money with local businesses, thus benefitting local communities.

Furthermore, it has been shown that backpackers are in general young and well-educated and like to travel independently and interact with the communities they visit. They are usually quite adventurous and prefer to explore unfamiliar places with an emphasis on outdoor activities and eco-travel. They tend to spend longer in any given destination than other types of visitor, and because of this their overall spending is often higher than that of other tourist groups. A further benefit is that they often visit more remote districts and use local services, thus injecting their expenditure throughout the local economy.

A majority of the backpackers visiting Hong Kong come from Europe and North America, with Asians making up only around 20%. While food is often cited by those backpackers as the primary reason for coming to Hong Kong, it should also be noted that this desire to experience local food is not generally associated with backpackers’ travel motivations. This is important finding because it differentiates backpackers in Hong Kong from those in other destinations – but in the case of Hong Kong it shows that food is a vital pull factor and provides a source of employment and income for local food providers, as well as offering opportunities for cultural exchange between travelers and host communities.

It was no surprise to see that Hong Kong’s backpackers were not interested in shopping, since this is not typically an activity favored by such travelers, although they did express an interest in visiting street markets. However, outdoor activities were not as popular as would normally be expected, perhaps because Hong Kong is not a destination renowned for its wilderness and hence such activities are not part of the city’s image.

Hong Kong’s backpackers were similar to those worldwide in choosing hostels as their accommodation. They valued friendly staff and the opportunities to meet other travelers. Furthermore, they were eager to experience the unique attributes of a destination, which is beneficial insofar as there is no need for any additional infrastructure to meet their needs.

Backpackers also make a positive contribution to sustainable tourism, which can be defined in terms of supporting the economic and social development of a society and the protection of its culture and environment. Backpackers have a reputation for approaching travel and tourism in a sensitive manner which generally supports sustainability and shows concern for the environment and local culture. Sustainable tourism enhances the positive effects on destinations, and this is “exactly what backpackers in Hong Kong are likely to do while enjoying their trip”.

The study also points out that marketers can attract backpackers by focusing on what a destination already is, and offers. There is no need for extensive infrastructure spending or the creation of elaborate new attractions for the backpacker market because they are primarily interested in supporting small local businesses, shopping in local markets, and visiting cultural and natural attractions. While the precise characteristics of backpackers will vary between destinations, it is argued that targeting backpackers will increase the potential for cultural exchange and environmental preservation, ultimately benefitting any destination which chooses to embrace this type of visitor.

Lung, Ching Nok, Suntikul, Wantanee, Agyeiwaah, Elizabeth and Tolkach, Denis. (2017). Backpackers in Hong Kong – Motivations, Preferences and Contribution to Sustainable Tourism. Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing, 34(8), 1058-1070.