• The fourth episode of Beijing Express: the secret choice is broadcast this Thursday, March 9, 2023 on M6.
  • As every year since its launch in 2006, the show puts in competition pairs of candidates traveling thanks to the solidarity of locals in different places of the globe, carrying their luggage in a red bag of fifteen kilos screwed on the back.
  • Travelling light to get off the beaten track is "something that [Beijing Express] did not invent but is present in people's imagination," says Thierry Guillaume, the producer of the program. The show contributes to an economic and media ecosystem where "we seek to put human relationships back at the center, sometimes without everything," says Héloïse Van Appelghem, a researcher in film and audiovisual studies.

Backpacker, backpacker, backpacker... There are many words to designate the one who travels backpack, without a pre-established plan. Since January 15, 2006, when the first episode of the first season of the show 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 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, backpacking, without much resources to confront a reality off the beaten track has become an ideal. Inspired by Beijing Express or not, many travelers fly to 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," Tanguy told 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 many 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, every year since the production receives the 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 about 90,000 applications," says Thierry Guillaume, the show's producer.

According to the production, Beijing Express has been surfing on the "old myth of the backpacker" since its inception. "It's something we didn't invent but it's present in people's imagination," says Thierry Guillaume.

2000s shows and road movies

It was in the 1970s that the figure of the backpacker was born for the first time. Many travelers, then considered hippies, destitute themselves to take the road from Europe to Asia and vice versa. Motivated by a desire to free themselves from a too sedentary life, they take the opportunity to discover Asian lifestyles and philosophies until ending up in extreme poverty. This type of trip will then spread to other destinations while remaining on the margins of mass tourism.

In the course of the 2000s, the media gave a boost to the trip with only his backpack as luggage. "In addition to Beijing Express in 2006, the film Into the wild was released in 2007. This film then serves as a new model of travel. It's a road movie that is often cited as a reference by travel bloggers," says Héloïse Van Appelghem, a researcher in film and audiovisual studies. She also evokes other documentary series such as J'irai dormir chez vous (2005) and Nus et culottés (2012) where "we try to put back at the center human relationships sometimes without everything".

While working on the audience of these programs, the doctor in information and communication at the University of Toulouse Nawel Chaouni, observed that they were already comfortable with the idea of going on an adventure. "Initially, we had travel diaries that influenced the motivation to go to this or that destination. Now we have more and more content that influences destinations but also good deals, good practices, feedback," she analyzes. Thus the shows give ideas for itineraries or practices, just like blogs or influencers, who arrived later in the large field encouraging this type of trip.

"The backpacker is no longer really 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 shift in the 1990s towards cheaper flights, Europe saw the arrival of other airlines such as EasyJet, Virgin Express, Air One, Go... Traditional airlines will follow suit with their own low-cost offers. "More and more people are travelling without necessarily having the means that people who could travel without these low-cost flights had to do," Chaouni said.

These new travelers sometimes see in this type of trip the opportunity to save money once they arrive there. Especially since the creation of platforms such as Couchsurfing in 2004, which offers tourists the opportunity to be hosted by 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 essential, 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 nonconformism 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 backpackers, Beijing Express directly inspires certain initiatives. Since 2017, Raphaël Pedrano and Jean-Marie Bernard have been offering the general public the opportunity to embark on "On the road a game", a journey with a limited budget and an unknown destination, which takes up the codes of the show. On their way, participants participate in events and are encouraged to sleep in the locals' homes. The objective is to "offer [participants] the most original and sincere meeting 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 at each relaunch of the show 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 as part of a show but we knew we would not 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 candidates that this is a risky program," contradicts Thierry Guillaume. 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 travelling abroad may see himself as an adventurer but this will never change his privileged condition. "We must not forget that travel remains a luxury practice even if it has become democratized for Westerners," concludes Héloïse Van Appelghem.

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