Irony simply cannot be expressed in a better way: I was attempting to explain the concept of budget travelling to a PR guy representing Dubai Tourism.
In the previous week I was strolling through the aisles of stands at the World Travel Market, a prominent travel expo which annually lures advertisers and clients alike to The Docklands, when the stark contrast of grandeur smacked me in the gob.
Whereas its neighbouring exhibitors squatted in booths drowning in brochures and giveaways, the United Arab Emirates had installed a double-decker compound, an area dominating the space equivalent to twenty of its counterparts, completed with furnishings and artefacts and manned by cohorts of flamboyantly-dressed advertising experts.
And I shall not forget to mention Emirates, UAE’s national airline, whose presence at the expo consisted of a separate gigantic edifice.
Whilst ebbing closer to their star attraction – showcase of their latest onboard first-class seats – the glamour could only repeatedly prompt the same question in my mind: will I ever be able to afford this?
I backed off and swore the oath to never contemplate committing such financial atrocity little knowing that, in a week’s time, I would receive an invitation to lunch with representatives of Dubai Tourism.
Over mint tea, I steered the conversation towards a field I could self-proclaim to be a specialist of – student travelling.
Reassurance was made to me that a form of tourism merciful to the visitors’ wallet does exist in Dubai. Four-plus-starred hotels – mentions of three-stars or lesser rankers were virtually inexistent – designer-Barbie-doll shopping and snazzy wagons aside, there are apparently plenty of budget-friendly options and opportunities.
I had to remind him that he was, in a way, missing the point.
One dimensional as the etymology of the phrase ‘budget travelling’ may be, its notion and, indeed, its philosophy are a lot more complex than mere financial considerations.
Fundamentally it is a culture – one that bonds together budget travellers with the notion of maximising their travel experience through minimal spending.
Take the hostelling culture for instance. Hostels are sought after not solely for the cheap accommodation they provide; rather, their hosting of like-minded people, budget travellers and backpackers alike, and allowing them to congregate and mingle freely within their premises, appeals.
And whilst luxury-seeking holidaymakers have a great demand for seclusion, the budget travellers tends to have a more casual need for privacy – they compromise it by willingly stay in shared dormitories, for example. Many of them do not travel for the purpose of shunning companionship and social opportunities – they embrace them.
The sharing of local knowledge also brings together budget travellers with the veterans passing on recommendations to newcomers, who will in-turn transfer them to those who have more recently arrived at the scene.
Which makes hostels effective advertising mediums – a word-of-mouth promotion vehicle that propels itself.
The significance of travelling as a learning process, to many of its wandering advocates, brings about a whole new level of curiosity – where travellers lack the financial means they compensate with doubled eagerness to absorb knowledge on local cultures, customs, etc.
Especially in countries where the lucrative, legitimate scamming of tourists reigns supreme, locals are used to handling pseudo-fact finders and dismissing them with condescension. Travellers – and myself most certainly – find it frustrating to not be treated with respect and helpfulness when being genuinely inquisitive.
In a way I was glad to have come away from the event with better understanding of tourism in Dubai – for a country largely enshrouded by secrecy and negative press, the United Arab Emirates has been regarded by many budget travellers as unapproachable.
When the culture of budget travelling is firmly cemented to the UAE’s tourism industry, when its attention on money-splashing hoteliers and tight-pocketed traveller reaches equilibrium, when budget travellers begin to perceive it less as a millionaires’ playground and congregate, perhaps its appeal as a destination fit for mere mortals may seize our hearts and unleash hordes of backpackers onto the streets in a scale akin to that in Bangkok. But until then, despite its publicity efforts, reluctance is what it will receive from the budget traveller.