Recently we reported on the despicable scam practised by German Benjamin Holst, who, by exploiting his disability and spinning out sob stories, funds a luxury lifestyle by begging.
In a sense, if he was pulling the stunt at home, or in another wealthy country, I could almost tip my hat to him — he was obviously dealt a pretty bum hand with his grotesquely swollen leg, and we all have to play with whatever cards we get.
But what makes Holst’s begging scam so shameful is the fact that he does it in very poor countries where there are millions of people for whom a handful of small change could make the difference between life and death, not just cover the cost of a sushi meal or a night with a prostitute.
But he’s not alone in diverting cash from more worthy recipients, in recent years I’ve seen more and more young travellers indulging in what can best be described as ‘beg-packing’ around Southeast Asia.
If you go anywhere popular with backpackers you will see them, sitting cross-legged on the pavement, playing bongo drums, weaving bracelets, selling photographs or simply putting out their hands for help.
Meanwhile, genuinely needy people pass by, and shopkeepers who pay rent and taxes see their business stolen by these idiots in elephant-print harem pants and Chang beer vests.
Have they no shame? No doubt, if asked, they’d tell you they’re doing no harm, and just trying to prolong their travels until the next full moon party or the money transfer from mummy and daddy arrives. Do they not see how offensive it is for people from the first world to expect people from the third world to support their self-indulgent travels?
In a sense, it wouldn’t be so bad if they actually put the money back into the local economy, but they don’t — or at least not enough to make a difference.
Many of these travellers take great pride how little they spend as they move from one beach hut to another. I’ve seen a posh, braying English boy haggling over the cost of a tray of noodles, that only cost a few cents anyway. Eventually, the elderly Thai lady let him have a discount — she had other people to serve and was obviously sick of the sight of him — and so he swaggered off with a below-cost-price meal to boast to his friends.
I’ve even seen a backpacker haggling over a bus ticket, regardless of the fact he was surrounded by locals who had all happily paid the correct fare.
On top of this, they all travel with top-of-the-range phones or laptops and use their online savvy to score free accommodation and transport. In fact, there’s even a site now called Fund My Travel in which people can solicit for cash from strangers. Why would anyone want to fund Rupert to go and eat banana fritters while sleeping on somebody’s couch?
I’m sure many of us have travelled on a budget at one time or another, and everybody loves a bargain. But unless backpackers and other travellers start to put their hands in their pockets from time to time, the famously warm and welcoming people of Southeast Asia will lose patience. There’s only one reason why travellers and tourists are so widely tolerated in the region, and that’s because they spend money. If more and more of these people exploit every dodge and loophole to avoid paying for anything, the region will become a much less friendly place for all of us.