More than just fun: Value of backpacking put to the test

Can hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru be a valuable exercise in personal development?Supplied: Bec Brewin

Is taking time off to travel a self-indulgent waste of time and money, or is it a valuable investment in personal development?

Sam Huang, a professor of tourism at Perth's Edith Cowan University, set out to research the effects of backpacking on individuals and to see whether the preconceptions actually hold true.

What he found was the idea that backpacking was just about dropping out of the workforce and taking it easy was far from true.

"If we didn't study this group, people then would just say they go for fun, for pleasure," Professor Huang said.

"But backpacking may not be so."

Photo Professor Sam Huang and his colleagues set out to find out how backpacking influences personal development.

Professor Sam Huang May 30, 2018 ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne

Along with academic colleagues in China, Professor Huang surveyed 472 Australian, American, European and Chinese backpackers about how backpacking changed their self-esteem and capacity to solve problems.

Their results have indicated that taking time off work to travel could be a valuable exercise in personal development.

"It's not really so pleasure-driven; if you go, you need to face all the difficulties of being in a different country," Professor Huang said.

"It's not so easy. It's physically and emotionally challenging."

'It's not a waste of time'

Of the 242 Westerners who participated in the study, 91 per cent believed their ability to identify and solve problems had improved through backpacking, 80 per cent said the experience had raised their confidence, and just over 60 per cent reported it had improved their ability to manage time and money.

"We believe that when people travel to different parts of the world, especially when they travel outside their cultural comfort zone, they will see something different and that will give them a different perspective," Professor Huang said.

"It's not a waste of time, it's not a waste of money, it's a worthwhile investment ... because you can grow your self-confidence and you increase your self-efficacy, which is important in your workplace.

"And you increase your self-esteem which is quite important to maintain your mental health."

Photo Bec Brewin on Bolivia's famous salt flats.

Bec Brewin at the Bolivia salt flats Supplied: Bec Brewin

In May 2015, after 12 months of saving as much as she could, Rebecca Brewin resigned her secure job in regional Australia, sold all her possessions and embarked on 16-month backpacking trip around the Americas and Europe.

"I certainly feel like travelling helps me with being in a tough situation and getting yourself out of it," she said of the experience.

"When you are in another country and you don't speak the language and the bus that you are relying on doesn't turn up, you have to figure it out, otherwise you are literally stuck in that place.

"It helps you with being confident to make decisions on the fly, for sure."

Better than the average wedding

Ms Brewin certainly agrees that travelling helped her manage money carefully and made her more self-reliant.

"Making around $35,000 last 16 months was challenging but absolutely doable," she said.

"We really weren't extravagant, there was a lot of camping and staying in hostel dorm rooms, but I didn't feel like I missed an experience anywhere.

"I still snorkelled with turtles in Belize and went to shows in New York.

"Now when I see or hear that someone spends $35,000 on a wedding day, I think, I made that last for 16 months — to me that is far greater benefit to my life overall."

Photo Rebecca and her partner snorkelling in Albania during their 16-month trip.

Snorkelling in Albania Supplied: Bec Brewin

While a violent mugging one evening while walking alone in Colombia and a terrifying ride on a piece of wood down the side of a dormant volcano in Nicaragua were far from fun experiences, they did provide a lot of perspective.

"Now when I'm doing administrative tasks, nothing seems quite as challenging as when I was trying to translate a Spanish police report," Ms Brewin said.

Returning to live in Melbourne without a job, possessions and little in the way of savings was daunting, and the thought of having such a long career break was something she worried about.

"I definitely did worry about getting a job again when I got back, but then I decided maybe the first job I get will not be the dream job but I'm willing to work somewhere to get that experience again," she said.

"It wasn't until shortly after I got back and I started working again and I realised — I guess I chose travelling over a house deposit.

"At the time it didn't feel like I was choosing one thing over another, but I'm definitely not where I would be in my savings if I hadn't gone."

Travel can have lifelong benefits

Professor Huang thinks employers should see people who have taken time out to travel positively.

"If you gain those kinds of life skills, that would definitely benefit the workplace if people have such skills.

"If you can manage yourself you can definitely manage in the workplace."

He is planning to do further research on backpacking and thinks the benefits may well be lifelong.

"If people become more confident and they can enjoy their life, then they have all the required life skills to live a happy life, so we may save our social cost later on.

"It's a personal gain and it's also a societal gain."

For Ms Brewin, the trip was life changing and she has no regrets, especially now she is back to spending her days in an office.

"I miss it, I really do. Working nine to five is definitely not the same, but I'm really grateful for that experience.

"I know I'll continue to look back on that trip for the rest of my life."

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