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Agnieszka Sobocinska - The Expedition’s Afterlives: Echoes of empire in Asian tourism

Frontispiece, in Tim Slessor, First OverlandAs a structured excursion of imperial discovery, the expedition all but withered away from the middle of the twentieth century. Yet it lives on in popular memory, informing fantasies of the kind of adventures that many fear have become impossible in the tourist age. The last corners of the earth have been charted, the highest peaks climbed, the mightiest rivers traced to their source, but the idea of an expedition continues to exert an imaginative pull.

This paper explores the expedition’s afterlives, examining how the expeditionary trope became subsumed into mainstream tourism, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. It will tease out the political meanings inherent in the recasting of tourist trips as ‘expeditions’, arguing that this model has translated the colonial meanings intrinsic to the expedition into vernacular tourist experience in the post-colonial era.

Fiat 600 Multipla on the overland hippie trail.My focus is on overland travel from Europe to Asia, as pioneered by the Oxford and Cambridge Far Eastern Expedition of 1955, popularised by the hippie trail and continued in contemporary backpacking routes. Carefully modelled on the imperial tradition, the 1955 journey was an ‘expedition’ with distinctly modern twists: relative comfort and corporate sponsorship. It received a great deal of publicity and inspired a number of otherwise ordinary Westerners to replicate the journey. By the 1970s, the Expedition’s path became a mainstream tourist route, institutionalised as the hippie trail. As it became more popular, the hippie trail spawned its own travel culture, propagated by instructional material including Across Asia on the Cheap, the guidebook that launched the tourist publishing behemoth Lonely Planet. Many of the travellers, and their guidebooks, followed the Oxford and Cambridge model by portraying the overland trail as a modern ‘expedition’. The travel culture spawned on the hippie trail continues in a modified form in today’s backpacking circuits.

The 1955 Cambridge and Oxford trip, the overland hippie trail and contemporary backpacking have facilitated the continuation of imperial references and attitudes by casting Asian travel as an ‘expedition’. As this paper will show, the expedition—and its colonial divisions of knowledge and power—continues to live a shadowy afterlife, subsumed into mainstream tourist cultures across Asia.


Agnieszka SobocinskaAgnieszka Sobocinska is a Lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. Her research interests lie in the intersection between popular discourses about racial and cultural ‘others’ and official policy. To date, she has focused on the cultural history of Australian relations with Asia. In particular, she has traced how travel and tourism have influenced popular attitudes towards the region and how these have gone on to influence Australian–Asian relations. This research has led to an ongoing interest in the continuing force of colonial and proto-colonial culture in the post-war, post-colonial context. She is currently researching vernacular conceptions of foreign aid and development discourses in a transnational context.

Agnieszka holds a PhD from the University of Sydney. Her doctoral thesis examined the history of Australian travel to Asia from the Pacific War to the present day, showing how travel experiences helped shape both public opinion and diplomacy towards the region. She is building a reputation as an historian of Australian relations to Asia and of travel and tourism. Her publications have received awards from the Australian Historical Association, the History Council of New South Wales, the International Australian Studies Association and the Asian Studies Association of Australia.

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