Backpacker, backpacker, backpacker… There are many words to designate someone who travels backpacking, without a pre-established plan. Since January 15, 2006, when the first episode of the show’s first season Beijing Express was broadcast on M6, the candidates of the show slip into the skin of these travelers in different countries of the world. With only one euro per day and per person and most of their luggage contained in a red bag, they interfere in different cultures by relying on the solidarity of local populations.
Since the 2000s, going backpacking, without much resources to confront a reality off the beaten track has become an ideal. Inspired by Beijing Express or not, many travelers take off for other horizons with the hope of living a unique adventure while discovering new cultures. What role did the adventure program presented by Stéphane Rotenberg play in the rise of backpacking? 20 minutes conducted the investigation.
An average of 40,000 applications per season
“We had never done that, we were used to school trips, trips with friends with a suitcase,” explains Tanguy to 20 minutes. Eliminated with his cousin Florian during the third stage of Beijing Express: the secret choice. The 21-year-old student was able to “meet lots of extraordinary people, see that at the end of the world there is also a life with very warm people”. His cousin evokes a unique adventure because of the fifteen kilos to carry every day on his back.
If the Basque cousins had to apply twice before being selected to participate in the adventure, each year since the production receives applications by email, nearly 40,000 people try their luck. “For the seasons organized during and just after the Covid-19 pandemic, we exceeded all records with around 90,000 applications”, specifies Thierry Guillaume, the show’s producer.
According to production, Beijing Express has been surfing on the “old myth of the backpacker” since its inception. “It’s something that we didn’t invent but which is present in people’s imaginations”, emphasizes Thierry Guillaume.
2000s shows and road movies
It was in the 1970s that the figure of the backpacker is born for the first time. Many travellers, then considered hippies, stripped of everything to take the road from Europe to Asia and vice versa. Motivated by a desire to free themselves from a life that is too sedentary, they take the opportunity to discover Asian lifestyles and philosophies until they end up in extreme poverty. This type of travel will then extend to other destinations while remaining on the margins of mass tourism.
In the course of the 2000s, the media gave a boost to travel with only a backpack as luggage. ” In addition to Beijing Express in 2006, the movie into the wild was released in 2007. This film then served as a new model of travel. It’s a road movie very often cited as a reference by travel bloggers,” says Héloïse Van Appelghem, researcher in film and audiovisual studies. She also mentions other documentary series such as I will sleep at your house (2005) and Naked and cheeky (2012) where “we try to put human relations back at the center sometimes by stripping ourselves of everything”.
By working on the public of these programs, the doctor in information and communication at the University of Toulouse Nawel Chaouni, observed that they and they were already comfortable with the idea of going on an adventure. . “Initially we had travel diaries that influenced the motivation to go to such and such a destination. Now we have more and more content that influences destinations but also good plans, good practices, feedback,” she analyzes. Thus the broadcasts give ideas for itineraries or practices, just like the blogs or the influencers, who arrived later in the great field encouraging this type of travel.
” THE backpacker is no longer truly marginal”
In addition to the models flourishing on the big and small screen, the democratization of tourism also contributes to allowing a greater number of individuals to consider this type of trip. After Ryanair’s transformation in the 1990s towards cheaper flights, Europe saw the arrival of other airlines such as EasyJet, Virgin Express, Air One, Go… Traditional companies followed suit with their own low-cost offers. price. “More and more people are traveling without necessarily having the means that people able to travel without these low-cost flights had,” according to Nawel Chaouni.
These new travelers sometimes see in this type of trip the possibility of saving money once they arrive on site. Especially since the creation of a platform such as Couchsurfing in 2004, which offers tourists the possibility of staying with locals at a lower cost, also contributes to this ideal of an exotic and inexpensive trip.
“What is sought collectively is a symbolic return to the essentials, to the pleasure of the unexpected”, observes Héloïse Van Appelghem. She notes a distinction between the figure of the traveler, whose “romantic figure” is more valued, compared to that of the tourist. “There is a kind of desire for non-conformism even if paradoxically the figure of the backpacker has become rather conformist. This figure already existed but it has been updated and is no longer really a marginal figure. »
“We no longer travel with the same spirit”
Without having brought out the backpacker, Beijing Express directly inspires certain initiatives. Since 2017, Raphaël Pedrano and Jean-Marie Bernard have offered the general public the chance to embark on “On the road a game”, a trip to the limited budget and the unknown destination, which takes up the codes of the show. On their way, the participants take part in events and are encouraged to sleep with the locals. The objective is to “provide [aux participants] the most original and sincere encounter possible with the countries crossed”, insists Karim Binon, who became co-pilot of the project after being one of the first adventurers to test the expedition.
“We see each time the show is relaunched on M6 that people are really looking to make this kind of trip,” he says. With my wife, we have always been great travelers but we had never allowed ourselves this type of adventure. We liked doing it on a show, but we knew we wouldn’t be selected because my wife is in a wheelchair. “On the road a game” opened our eyes, we no longer travel with the same spirit. »
Because this way of traveling inspired by the M6 show is strictly framed, just like in the program. “I always tell the candidates that it is a risky program”, contradicts Thierry Guillaume despite everything. Because the candidates travel in the vehicles of drivers they do not know or sleep with hosts met the same day. “But the constraints of filming and acting still guarantee more security,” he admits.
On TV as in reality, a European traveling abroad may see himself as an adventurer, but that will never change his privileged condition. “We must not forget that travel remains a luxury practice even if it has become more democratic for Westerners”, concludes Héloïse Van Appelghem.