Expats vs. Backpackers: Why All the Hate?

It’s an inescapable fact in the foreigner scene abroad: a divide exists between backpackers and expats, and the animosity that emanates between the two sides can sometimes be as spicy as Thai green curry. Among the expat community, “tourist” and “backpacker” are often used as dirty words, whereas “expat” can be sometimes be heard with a negative tone amongst backpackers.

Having been both a backpacker and an expat myself, I’ve experienced and observed the animosity from both sides. Both expats and backpackers usually have genuinely solid reasons for any ill feelings that may exist between the two.

That said, many backpackers and expats get along just fine. Indeed, as one expat put it: “backpackers seem mostly like nice kids. I give ’em lift when I’m going their way.” And many backpackers see expats not as a source of abhoration, but as a source of infinite knowledge about the town or city they’re in.

But one cannot ignore the snide comments, the malevolent looks, the crude jokes, and the general hostility that are often hit back and forth in touristy towns between those foreigners who are visiting, and those foreigners who are staying. Despite the fact that many expats may claim everlasting love for backpackers, the t-shirts hanging in the windows of many shops in backpacker towns proclaiming, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” would have many believe otherwise.

So, let’s give each side their fair say.

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Hey guys, why all the hate?

First, let’s start by defining, just so that there can be no misinterpretations, just what exactly is a backpacker, and what is an expat.

Expat is short for expatriate, which is defined by the Oxford dictionary as a person who lives outside their native country.

The Oxford dictionary doesn’t carry the term ‘backpacker’, but the Macmillan dictionary defines a backpacker as someone, especially a young person without much money, who travels around an area on foot or public transport, often carrying a backpack.

Backpackers Weigh In

kaila_expatwithflagsThe differences may lie in the very different situations that people from each side find themselves in, explains Digby Smith, an Australian who backpacked around Southeast Asia. “Expats can be on a different wavelength due to being familiar with their surroundings and often have other priorities.” Smith also acknowledges that his kind may be to blame: “In party towns and cities, I think backpackers can annoy some expats.” However, he points out that expats are not totally innocent: “I have noticed them to be rude and sometimes a bit arrogant towards local staff,” says Smith.

Backpacker Scott Gibson, originally from Canada, is a little more blunt when it comes to his feelings about expats. When asked how he feels about them, he replies simply, “not a huge fan.” He explains why: “they tend to want to share their infinite wisdom of a place with you in a very condescending way. As far as males go, I think it’s pretty pathetic to move somewhere so you can be with a woman normally out of your league because of your money.”

Johan Falk, who hails from Sweden, has been backpacking for over a year. “I feel sorry for most of the ones I’ve met in Southeast Asia. It seems like most of them are here for one reason: boom boom, except for the ones that work with dive shops or running a serious guesthouse.” Falk says he feels that most expats tend to have an I-was-here-first attitude, making other travelers feel unwelcome. All this being said, Falk qualifies that often these expats are the exception to the rule: “I’ve met so many nice expats willing to offer their time and help.”

>> Read about backpacker stereotypes you’ll meet on the road

Expats Get Their Say

kaila_backpackersgetdrunkdresslikepiratesExpats, of course, have their own take on the situation.

Anne-Marie Drozdz, an expat living in Vietnam, had one particularly off-putting experience with backpackers when she was living in Turkey, and went on a cruise: “There were 19 ’round the clock drunken backpackers,” she explains. “They were loud and disrespectful towards the Turks. They created havoc on this four-day trip.” Drozdz also explains that she felt animosity from those same backpackers when they discovered she was an expat, living in Turkey at the time.

Drozdz gives her take on the possible reason for expat animosity towards backpackers: “Expats have a deeper knowledge and understanding of the culture, language and customs of the host country and when they see backpackers barreling in for a few hours and being disrespectful or whatever, then maybe that causes resentment.”

Nicole Hill, who lived as an expat in Central America, says that expats have every right to make a stand when backpackers cross the line: “We’re the ones who have to deal with the lasting impression it creates of foreigners, Brits, Americans, whatever. Even if you’re not one of the ‘bad’ tourists, by virtue of the fact that you’re going to be moving on soon, you’ll behave differently to those of us who live and work in places.”

Manis Ender, originally from Germany and living in Thailand, acknowledges that there may be subconscious animosity towards backpackers from expats. “I have no honest interest in them, their stories, or countries they have traveled,” says Ender. “Often they just bore me on the first sight.” Ender goes further to explains that backpackers often give off a bad image, which makes him prefer to avoid them: their dress code, their pack-like behaviour, as well as their ignorant and arrogant behaviour are all things that Ender finds off-putting.

>> Read the 7 signs you’re ready to go from tourist to resident

Can’t We All Get Along?

kaila_gettingalongDigby Smith thinks so. He suggests that expats be more mindful of backpackers’ predicaments: “I think that expats can forget they were once new to the area and forget that they may have been in the same position.”

Anne-Marie Drozdz thinks that backpackers should also be mindful of their surroundings, saying that they might take care to “behave reasonably towards the local community and respect the culture.” Drozdz says that everyone – expats and backpackers, should try accepting people “for what they are and respect their decisions to either travel short-term or stay in a country.” (Unless they are pedophiles, she qualifies.)

At the end of the day, it seems that each side has its valid points. The positive side is that both backpackers and expats are able to acknowledge the others’ strengths, and their own weaknesses, which is the first step towards building a strong relationship.

We certainly won’t be seeing expats and backpackers singing kumbayah on Khao San Road any time soon, but if each side is ready to make some concessions, there might be the possibility for a little more love in the world abroad.

>> Read about the stupid travel arguments we wish we’d stop having

Further reading:

photos supplied by Kaila Krayewski & may not be used without permission


Leave a Comment

Older comments on Expats vs. Backpackers: Why All the Hate?

01 February 2010

I’ve never felt bad with any expat in the countries I’ve been, in fact, we went al together and had a good time.

Ahi Kerp
01 February 2010

This is well written, but I have to agree that I have never seen this animosity. Most places I go the foreigners are happy to group together regardless of how long they’ve been in the country.

01 February 2010

I too have been on both sides of the spectrum as a backpacker and expat and have not noticed this supposed animosity. In fact, I was able to become a CouchSurfing host as an expat by virtue of having a place of my own to live in and hosted many backpackers, all of whom appreciated the insight I was able to give them. And quite frankly, whenever I took backpackers out for a night on the town, they behaved much more respectfully towards locals and their cultures than my jaded expat friends because they weren’t as comfortable with pushing limits. On the other hand, either as a backpacker or an expat, I saw that expats were often very involved in their local communities. Mind you, backpackers who integrate volunteer work into their travels also fall into this category (regardless of the amount of time they spend doing this, the intent is still there). How someone acts abroad really depends on each individual. You can’t just stereotype travelers and create a divide between them. We all play a role in how we are perceived abroad, no matter how we choose to travel.

Pam Mandel
01 February 2010

Pshaw. I’ve never encountered this unavoidable divide, so I suppose it is, in reality, escapeable. Plus, for the life of me, the only reason I can see for us dividing travelers in to groups is that we want to think ourselves better than those we are not.

This is just another echo of the oh so tired tourist/traveler debate. Walk away. And thank your fellow humans for traveling at ALL, no matter how they do it, because travel helps us see the world in more than simple binary categories.

Or I like to think it does. I do get proven wrong from time to time.

Ryukyu Mike
02 February 2010

I’m both, a transplant living in Okinawa, Japan and a backpacker. Right-off the get go, your survey seems to be begging for “animosity” between backpackers and expats. Why not beer drinkers vs whiskey drinkers?


Leigh Shulman
02 February 2010

The outsider (for lack of a better term)culture of where I lived in Panama had a healthy mix of both groups. They partied together, ate together, went to the beach together. And if you didn’t want to be part of it, no one seemed to mind. Of course, trying avoid either group probably meant you spent most of your time alone.

There was more of a tension between traveler’s and locals, though. Not always, but it existed mainly when travelers and expats showed a lack of respect. That and just general cultural misunderstanding.

I wrote a post touching on this last year detailing my thoughts a bit more clearly.


Edward Hasbrouck
02 February 2010

I don’t think the real division is between backpackers and expats. There are both expats and backpackers who confine themseleves to tourst ghettoes or expat neighborhoods or compounds; there are both expats and backpackers who flout local customs without realizing and/or without caring; there are both expats and backpackers whose primary interest in local people is sex and/or other exploitation; and there both expats and backpackers who do none of these things. Expats are as diverse as tourists: oil workers, business executives, diplomats, missionaries, English teachers, people working remotely for businesses back “home”, spouses and partners of local people. Travellers and expats alike, at leats if they get out of their respective ghettoes, tend to associate with people who share their various values, whatever those are.

02 February 2010

I too have been both an expat and a backpacker, and have not seen this animosity. As an expat, I was working and not able to travel as much as I wanted to. So I was glad to meet backpackers and hear their stories and suggestions about places that were a little too far away to get to “over the weekend.”

03 February 2010

I don’t think it’s an Expat vs. Backpacker problem, I think it has to do with your level of maturity. Many Backpackers are young and inexperienced in the world, which can often lead to ignorance. But Expats can be the same way, even if they’re older. Older, supposedly “wiser” Expats are completely capable of being immature and closed minded too…

Nancie M
12 February 2010

We all need to remember that we are guests in the countries we are visiting. Show some respect. Is it okay to get drunk on the street at home? If the answer is NO, then don’t do it when you are off traveling or living in another country. I have no issue with backpackers or expats (I;m one), but too often the behaviors from both groups are very questionable.

16 February 2010

As yet another poster who has been both a backpacker and an expat, I have yet to actually encounter this supposed divide. If there is a divide in the foreign community it is more so between those who try to respect local culture and are open minded and those who don’t / aren’t.

16 February 2010

Not sure where everyone here typically travels, but there certainly is a divide in parts of Southeast Asia.

Don’t know if I would call it “animosity” but the two don’t always mix….depends on the age group I think.

As a backpacker, it took me weeks in the same place to finally make friends with local expats. While hanging out with them I regularly heard complaints about “tourists” doing this or that. The expats had their own spots to “avoid the backpackers” or when I suggested we go to a particular bar, I got “no way – its full of tourists!” with a negative connotation.

Once an expat, I could see their point based on the way a particular group of backpackers represented themselves and treated the locals. It does indeed work both ways.

17 February 2010

This hasn’t been an issue for me in South America. I am a Spanish and Portuguese speaker. I typically travel for a month each year. I research my trip, usually travel by myself and go with the flow. Where I go, I usually don’t see many expats or backpackers.

Joshua Green
17 February 2010

I’ve been living in Thailand two years now and I concider myself both an ex-pat and a backpacker. Even though Thailand is my home, I still travel thoughout southeast-asia extensivly and obviously on my journies I wear a backpack while doing so. My general preference is to think of myself as an ex-pat, only because the idea that I have some sort of inside knowledge of an exotic culture and the surrounding areas gives a sense of superority over the throngs of the wandering masses staring vacantly at their commericalized, tourist-centric overly globalized surroundings, egotistical as that may sound. That being said, backpackers are just ex-pats in transit and they consist of some of the best friends I’ve made on my time abroad. Not to comment politically, but I am an American and to my chagrin sometimes travelers, whether ex-patriated or not seem to have a problem based not on my character, but the politics of a govermental machine out of my control. But these instigators of international ignorance are thankfully few are far between. The greatest pleasure I have from living abroad is the meeting of people from all over the globe and realazing an inherent connectedness we share through our experience of humanity. In closing, I still don’t want to see a ping pong show, or ride in a tuk tuk, and if you can’t drive a moped, stay the fuck off the road. Jah love, see you guys on the other side of the planet.

13 April 2010

I’ve never heard of this animosity (I have not travelled internationally), but the attitudes expressed by some of the expats in this article were pretty snobby. For starters, ‘tourist’ or ‘visitor’ does not = ‘backpacker’; secondly, ‘backpacker’ does not = ‘drunk’, ‘partier’, or ‘pack traveller’.

And then, what about backpackers who backpack around *their own* country?