Off the beaten path travel is increasingly difficult to find as time marches on. Mass tourism is impacting everything from our favorite cities to the seas that surround them. All the while locals and the environment are often an afterthought. This series, Trailblazers, checks in with writers, photographers, filmmakers, activists and environmentalists who are passionate about off the beaten path travel.
Chris Backe: One Weird Globe
Chris Backe bounced around from job to job for years until he found an English teaching job in South Korea. That job in Seoul in 2008 started a new chapter in his life and coincided with the launch of his blog, Chris in South Korea. At first, it was just to keep friends and family informed on his travels. He’d travel someplace new every weekend he wasn’t teaching and update his blog.
Some years later, he felt like he was running out of places to see and started looking for lesser-traveled sights. This led to his guidebook, Offbeat Korea.
After meeting and marrying a Canadian in South Korea, the pair moved to Thailand where he started a new blog, Chris in Thailand. Before long he realized he couldn’t start a new blog everytime he changed countries, so he re-branded to today’s One Weird Globe and focuses on the weird, the bizarre, the unique, and some of the craziest places in the world you’ve probably never heard of. Besides sharing his experiences, he comments on life as an expat/digital nomad and has written dozens of itineraries and guidebooks for people who want to see the weirder side of the world for themselves.
Without A Path Off the beaten path travel seems to be increasingly popular. What are your impressions?
Chris Backe When hasn’t it been increasingly popular? Travelers today want something different, something unique. Some can put their finger on it, while others just don’t want to feel like they’re going to the same places as everyone else. No one wants to feel like they’re going on just another cookie-cutter tour.
The good news: Because it’s increasingly popular, tours and offerings are springing up all over the place. I had a fantastic experience with the Tour of Communism in Bucharest, for example. It’s a small group tour with a local guide that walks you through the history — and legacy — of Communism in Bucharest.
WAP What inspired you to start talking about off the beaten path travel?
CB As has often happened, I began to get bored. South Korea is a wonderful country, but it’s only about the size of Portugal or Indiana. Traveling somewhere new almost every weekend for years meant I was running out of known, interesting places. That’s when the search for the offbeat began. This would have been around 2011. I’m three years into an awesome life in Korea, and I’ve begun to scour everything I can get my hands on. Korea was at a crossroads when it came to tourism, still trying to figure out the best way to market themselves and their destinations. (I’d argue they still are now, but that’s a different story.) The nation, the province, the city, and the national levels of government were all producing brochures and content, and the lack of coordination was obvious. That actually works to your advantage, though, since each level of government ended up talking about different places instead of the same ones. Read all the levels and you’ll discover a lot of interesting places along the way.
WAP What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced since you’ve started traveling off the beaten path?
CB On some level, it’s been surprising how many (or how few) people we’ve seen while traveling. In some cases, a place I thought was ‘offbeat’ was actually a common stop for a tour group. A great example of that is the medical museum at a Bangkok hospital (NSFW) — very weird, very well known, and very much worth the visit.
WAP Do you have a favorite off the beaten path travel destination?
CB How about the umbilical cord shrine for King Sejong’s children? It’s in the middle of nowhere South Korea and is the sort of place that’s difficult to reach by public transportation. Once you’ve arrived, however, the setting may not be entirely what’s expected. You have to scratch the surface to gain a fuller appreciation for the place. If you don’t, you’ll feel like you spent two hours to reach a place you could see in five minutes. There’s plenty going on, however, and I’ll let my post speak for itself.
WAP How can the travel industry both preserve off the beaten path travel destinations and help those areas that have been negatively impacted by mass tourism?
CB On some level, it’s all the balance. The industry and the various governments of the world have a responsibility to preserve their heritage, and unfortunately, that sometimes means limiting access or numbers. That’s fine by me, especially when there’s so much more to see. The travel industry can do more to shape a traveler’s path. Instead of going to Big, Well-Known Place, they could easily be showing people a better, cheaper, lesser-known place with more history or significance. People think they want to go to Big Well-Known Place, but why?
Let’s take Machu Picchu as an example. It’s an expensive ticket, expensive train ride, and because it’s Peru’s golden egg, they’re milking everything they can out of it. I pass. While in Cusco, we did what I dubbed the one-day Cusco Archeological Tour. This isn’t my invention, by the way. Cusco sells a one-day ticket to four wonderful historic stops that are all along the same rural highway. You can walk from one place to another if you don’t mind a few kilometers of downhill walking, or jump on the next passing bus to save some time. Take the bus to the first destination (Tambomachay), then enjoy and walk your way down.
WAP Could you offer a tip for readers who want to find off the beaten path travel destinations and travel responsibly?
CB I’d argue these are two different things for the most part.
‘Travel responsibly’, personally, means ‘do your homework’ and emulate the locals, for the most part. Research ahead of time so you know how to get there, and do some reading so you can appreciate the place more. Offbeat and lesser-traveled places don’t always have the budget to create the sort of explanations (or translations) you might find at bigger museums.
Do you want to find off-the-beaten-path destinations? Start by asking yourself what’s weird and offbeat to you. This is different for everyone, and that’s OK. Since I’ve often been asked ‘what is weird,’ I wrote a page to answer that common question.
WAP On a happier note, what’re you most looking forward to in your work and travels?
CB Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time designing tabletop board games (the industry uses ‘tabletop games’ because a lot of games in this space have no board). It’s something I’ve gotten really excited about, and I see myself designing games as I travel — and perhaps designing games about travel.
We’ve spent most of 2017 in Europe, and we will spend the first part of 2018 here as well. Beyond that? Western Asia is gradually opening its doors to tourism, and we still need to take in the insanity that is China at some point.
I’m also working on a book currently entitled Becoming a Digital Nomad, which will give the reader a step-by-step guide to test (and transition into) the digital nomad lifestyle. You don’t need a $2,000 program in some exotic-sounding location, and you don’t need to ‘apply’ or get some sort of ‘degree’ or ‘certification.’ You just do it. I’m hoping to release it around March 2018, which will be the 10-year anniversary of when I left the U.S. and started this whole journey.