A location, often in a large city, but it also can be a small town or village which has taken on this role. It is usually only a small area, bounded by a few blocks only, but with a very high percentage of cheap hotels/ backpacker hostels and small restaurants, cafes and bars. And lots of tourist agencies selling bus and train tickets, local tours and more.
Within said location the population is almost exclusively foreign, except for those working in the businesses which flourish on the trade. The customers can be easily identified by their frequently revealing clothing, or lack thereof, their dreadlocks and fisherman's trousers, their tattoos and hair braids. The cafes and bars seem to be overly inspired by rastafarian themes, with reggae music blaring out into the street from midmorning till the wee hours. There are five or six tattoo parlours, knockoff CD and DVDs for sale on every corner, and there's usually a yoga studio or two. The breakfast menu always includes banana pancakes and a selection of smoothies, and the day menu offers pizzas and hamburgers for those times when the local cuisine becomes all too much. There's usually a few local dishes on the menu, but they've been modified greatly to suit the tastes of a much less sophisticated clientele. And there is always beer, unless it's run out. Of course there are other, unmentioned, substances for sale, it is merely a matter of asking and a young man will be sent off on a motorbike to source you a supply.
It's heaven on earth. A place where you can be surrounded by your own kind, eat food you understand, spend your time in an altered mind state, and not have a care in the world. All around you are cute young things who are only too happy to let it all hang out, have a wonderful time, sex, drugs and rock and roll. Bliss!
These places exist all over the world but my experience is primarily Australasian: Khao San Rd (Bangkok), Kuta Beach (Bali), Koh Phangan/Samui/Tao (Thailand), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Gili islands (Lombok Indonesia), Vang Vieng (Laos), Cairns Esplanade (Australia), Goa (India), Airlie Beach (Australia) and Yangshuo (China) just to name a few. Some come and go, like Tuk Tuk on Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia) which is a mere ghost of it's past glory in the 90's, and Dahab (Egypt) which has succumbed to high rise and the middle class tourism of divers and windsurfers. But others go from strength to strength, becoming bigger and bolder and more foreign with the years. Thailand, the most visited SE Asian country in the world probably has the monopoly on the backpacker ghetto, although I suspect Mexico and Central America have their fair share as well. And then there's Vang Vieng….
I am not a fan of backpacker ghettoes, but I can see their usefulness. Foreigners arriving in a new locale like to know where they can go to find reasonably priced accommodation, food they can eat without burning their insides, and people who speak their language who can help them with travel plans. And most importantly, where they can meet like minded fellow travellers to have fun with! These ghettos bear no resemblance to the people or culture of the country or city in which they are located. In fact their resemblance to each other is almost uncanny. A piece of familiarity the world over.
A backpacker ghetto's usefulness is in its familiarity. It isn't home, but it's a place where you don't have to feel pressured by the local social norms to cover up from head to toe in blistering heat, where you can relax and not attempt to speak a foreign language all day, where you know the bar will have beer and your favourite banana and mango smoothie, and you'll have an endless supply of new friends to party with. You never feel lonely in a backpacker ghetto, you're amongst your own kind.
The spread of these places across the planet means it is almost possible to travel from one ghetto to another without stepping outside into the actual culture of the country you may be travelling in. Thailand in particular has almost made this seamless, with private minibus services between tourist hot spots that make taking government buses quite redundant. So much easier than schlepping out to a bus station and trying to understand all that squiggly script. East Coast Australia from Sydney to Cape Tribulation - a breeze!
I am not immune to the advantages of the ghetto, but for me it's a chance to relax, recharge batteries (literally and metaphorically), and contemplate my next adventure. I'm also not a fan of the western food on offer, as it isn't food I'd eat at home anyway, so I'll usually venture out a few blocks back into the real world, find a street stall frequented by lots of locals and tuck into whatever the popular cuisine is. I really do miss noodle soup for breakfast...
The problem with the ghetto, is that some people feel so at home in it, they manage to travel the whole world without often leaving it. No real fault of the ghetto after all. It's really just a place that employs a lot of locals to look after poor bastards who are far too scared to get out there and really see the real world. Without the coterie of their own crowd. Without a common language. Or the benign palate of banana pancakes and gado gado.
You know the best bit about the ghetto? It's become a tourist attraction. Seriously. Khao San Road for instance is a very popular place for young Thais to go and have a laugh at the dreadlocked westerners trying to be hippies and buddhists for a gap year. Yep, we've become such an entrenched part of that city that the locals want to see what it's all about. Perhaps it's cross cultural exchange, but I don't think so, not from what I've heard. It's pure voyeurism.
Fancy that, go travel the world and become a tourist attraction. A cliched one at that. No thanks.