“Hey Mum, where did you take this one?”
Crouched over, knee resting against my cheek, I flick through page after page — faded smiles and laughs captured in motion, people leaping into the ocean and lapping up ice cream.
This is what I want, I think.
Soon enough, school is going to be over and it’ll be my turn to see the world.
Well, COVID happened.
For many Australians, spending time backpacking overseas is almost a rite of passage, an experience marking the transition into adulthood.
Of course, the pandemic mostly put an end to this.
But during 2020, I was lucky enough to escape.
I had just moved to Melbourne for university when COVID struck. I had two weeks of classes before my residential college recommended we go home — back to regional Victoria.
Moving back in with my family and barely able to leave the house left me craving travel more than ever.
So, on the night before NSW closed itself to Victoria, a couple of friends and I crossed the border in an old four-wheel drive.
We spent six weeks exploring the state; hiking through mountains and swimming in rivers, camping during thunderstorms and basking in sunshine.
The time away rejuvenated us, ready for another semester. But once again, by the time it was university holidays, the travel itch had returned and I was ready to escape once more.
Inspired by the backpackers we met on our journey, my friend and I thought we’d try our hand at agricultural work.
We made our way up to the NSW mid-north coast and spent six weeks picking blueberries, discovering the difficulties of working in such a temperamental industry, while becoming close friends with the international backpackers staying at our hostel.
We explored the national parks nearby, improved our surfing skills, and made the most of the local nightlife.
As the harvest season wound up, we couldn’t bring ourselves to head home right away. Instead, we headed even further north, up to an island off Queensland’s far north, where we lived the traditional backpacker lifestyle — working in hospitality, living in a beachside hostel, spending time snorkelling and chasing waterfalls.
It was an absolute dream.
While on the island, I met other young Australians who were also backpacking around their own country.
Crystal Shellshear, 22, and her friend Halili Halim, 22, left their lives in Brisbane to travel.
“We sold our car, sold our clothes, sold everything we owned and bought a backpack,” she says.
“If I could’ve gone overseas, I would have. Before COVID, I didn’t even consider travelling Australia. But now I’m so glad I did.”
Crystal spent the past year travelling around the country, working various ‘backpacker jobs’, from hospitality, to child-care, to agricultural work.
“I now know that I don’t need all these pointless items, I’ve learnt how to save and consider things, and I’ve really come out of my shell.”
She thinks that Australia is the perfect country to begin travelling adventures, as it is relatively safe.
Plus, family is close, a luxury many international backpackers have missed, especially over the past few years.
“It’s a special thing, being able to travel your own country. You really get a different view on it, you don’t take it for granted,” Crystal says.
The itch caught up with me
While Crystal spent her 2021 exploring Australia, I was back in Melbourne at university.
However, I did manage to duck off to Cairns for a month during the winter break. During this trip I met Zoe Parsons, 19, and we clicked immediately.
Zoe had also planned for 2020 to be a huge gap year filled with travel — from Europe, to Africa, to India.
When COVID washed up on Australian shores, all her international plans were quashed. Determined to still get that travel experience, she and her partner set up a bed in the back of a four-wheel drive and set out on a six-month long adventure around Australia.
“I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Australia is such a big, diverse country — not just geographically but also culturally. I don’t think I realised properly how many different people and views and cultures there can be in one country,” Zoe says.
Spending time exploring Australia became a pivotal experience in her life.
“I think to travel home first and learn a bit more about the country you come from is a really powerful position to be in when you go out and explore other parts of the world,” she says.
“I discovered many things I love about this country, but also so much room for growth and improvement.”
So, what does the future of travel look like?
The pandemic had dramatically impacted the Australian travel industry, but it’s also brought changes predicted to have positive flow-on effects for Australian backpackers.
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Alex Hill, President of Adventure Tourism Victoria, says the Australian travel industry is in good stead for when international travel resumes, especially with the changes to the working/work and holiday visa.
He predicts it to happen about June, 2022.
“We’ve made fundamental changes to backpacker legislation, which should change travelling for the better post-pandemic,” he says.
These changes largely surround visa requirements for backpackers.
The maximum age for working visas has been increased to 35 years old for more countries, travellers from the UK are no longer required to complete agricultural work to receive their second and third-year visas, and the infamous ‘backpacker tax’ has the potential to be abolished.
“There’s currently a critical lack of supply of workers. These changes will allow people to stay for longer, have a better time, and for the economy to bounce back more quickly,” he adds.
And for Australian travellers?
These changes are expected to have similarly positive repercussions, bringing the backpacker “vibe” back to Australia for those who are wanting to explore their own country first.
“I think the important thing is just to get out there,” Alex Hill says.
“Our Australian cities are crying out for tourism, and there’s a whole lot of money going into reinvigorating them at the moment.
Katrina Barry, the managing director of Contiki Tours, is also feeling excited for the future.
She says Contiki has used the pandemic to workshop and reinvigorate its tours, improving its ecological footprint and having a greater focus on COVID safety so it is well-suited to a post-pandemic world.
“In the past, it was all about borders, language and currency. Now it’s all about testing, making sure things are safe and easy,” she says.
Contiki has also adjusted its domestic tours to appeal to an Australian audience, creating new trips around Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory, which have been very popular over the last year and continue to be selling out into the new year.
However, from May 2022, there has been a strong sale pattern into Europe.
“Young people have had enough — they want to get out,” says Ms Barry.
She says there are three trends appearing amongst young people who are planning to travel in 2022.
Firstly, they are buying longer trips. Rather than an average length of three to four weeks, trips are often over a month.
Many young Australians are also buying consecutive trips, extending their experience again.
And finally, “they’re just going”.
“With our older audience, through the travel company Trafalgar, we’re seeing a lot of lookers and not many bookers. However, with young people, it’s been the complete opposite,” she says.
“It’s very exciting to see.”
When I asked all the people I interviewed if they had any advice for young Australians hoping to travel, there was one resounding answer.
“Just get out there”.
As the world opens up, I know I’m not alone when I say I can’t wait to explore it.
But if that doesn’t work out, I’m incredibly privileged I am to have a huge, beautiful country right at my fingertips.
And I now have my own photo album, too.