Who ruins the world? Travelers? Part 1 of 2

The morning after a full moon party in Thailand, photo courtesy of Pegi Vail
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Above: The morning after a full moon party in Thailand. Photo provided by Pegi Vail.

Gringo Trails is anthropologist Pegi Vail’s over ten-year effort to document the effects of travel on formerly “undiscovered” landscapes, namely in Thailand and Bolivia. Through compelling imagery and interviews with travelers, local residents, travel writers and guides, the documentary demonstrates how these locales have changed over time. I asked her a few questions about the film’s findings, her thoughts on tourism’s impact, and what we as travelers can do about it.

AA: One of the perspectives the documentary offers is the role of guidebooks is creating the “gringo trail.” How can guidebooks be changed to avoid tourist pressure on the same locations?

PV: The guidebooks make you feel random enough for most people to feel they are making the decisions themselves on where they are going. Yet [guidebooks] are the glue– the structure that holds together the subculture. The fact that people started referring to guidebooks as “bibles” or Lonely Planet as “Holy Planet” needs no further explanation into the role they’ve played in the rise of independent (or maybe we should say dependent independent?) travel since the 1970s.

Perhaps the time has come that guidebooks highlight newer destinations in favor of one that’s overrun to allow them some breathing space. The locations that have experienced years of tourism influx won’t be in need of the tourist dollars the same way as newer destinations, particularly those that are more community-based initiatives. More importantly, why not include even more local voices, guides, and writers from the host countries and communities as collaborators in how their locale is represented? I recall one funny take on the authority of guidebooks by a Malian guide named Grand Père based in Dogon country. He told one traveler “don’t go there, it’s a sacred place”. She wouldn’t listen. She responded, “but it’s in my guidebook, they say that I can visit”.

AA: Since my first trip in 2006, there has been an exponential increase in travel blogs and mobile apps.  What role can blogs or mobile travel apps play in stemming the problem your film discusses?

PV: The blogs are more malleable, fluid, and instantaneous in that they can be changed at any moment to accommodate new thoughts, whereas guidebooks, once published are set. Updates take much longer to incorporate. With such rapid changes these days, that makes blogs a plus! But in general, some of the same issues may arise in the blogs that are present in the guidebooks because the writers tend to come from the same pool of people: economically, culturally or nationally, and are often foreign to the country they are writing about. While this has changed a lot in the past few years, increasing numbers of voices from a myriad of perspectives provide a richer, varied outlook and cultural lens on places.

The issue may be more about changing our habits overall and creating tools (like new apps!) and increasing travelers’ ability to access and use them.

“Gringo Trails” filmmaker Pegi Vail

AA: I myself am guilty of searching for “authenticity” as your film calls it. I failed in Inner Mongolia (yurt tour) and in Dubai (desert safari, okay I knew that wasn’t authentic) but I have been successful elsewhere, namely in Beijing, Addis Ababa, and Mombasa. Most of this success was with CouchSurfing or with the ability to blend in. Can sites like CouchSurfing mitigate the problem your film speaks to?

PV: Haven’t we all been guilty of searching for authenticity or the idea of what we think authenticity is? As American traveler writer Rolf Potts put it in the film, “it’s often a National Geographic cover shot.” At this age, those of us traveling have mostly grown up with similar imagery presented in Hollywood or popular novels, another point made in the film by one traveler we filmed who honestly admitted her ideas of West Africa came from totally unrelated films set elsewhere, such as Out of Africa or Lawrence of Arabia, both of which also feature foreign protagonists as the cultural interpreter or guide to places. Perhaps we are looking as much for ‘sincerity’ in the tourism encounter as ‘authenticity’, which [New Zealand anthropologist] John Taylor wrote about some time ago.

I have yet to try CouchSurfing although in theory I love it and friends who have done so have expressed their love for it in practice, as well.  I certainly think Couch Surfing facilitates easier ‘ins’ to spending time with people in the cultures one visits versus staying in hostels or budget hotels where you will most likely be around other travelers. For example, during our filming and in my ethnographic research on backpackers in Bolivia, travelers told me they spent approximately 85% of their time with other travelers.

Bhutan, Advice for first-time travelers, and the Tough Questions

AA: Your film cites Bhutan as a country that has prioritized sustainability and tourism development. The country charges travelers $250 per day, which most backpackers cannot afford. There are many ways to impact the environment and the local culture while still paying a hefty sum (poverty, danger, and sex tourism activities), and not all budget travelers are destructive. Is there a way to be both inclusive to budget travelers and protective of the environment?

PV: I definitely don’t think all budget travelers are destructive, I actually believe the opposite.  However, Bhutan doesn’t rely on tourism, a point made by the National Museum of Bhutan director Khenpo Tashi in the documentary. On the other hand, not all countries have the luxury to claim this and as a result, independent budget travelers are the key to the industry in so many places. They open the door to the industry. So this non-reliance on tourism in Bhutan factors into Bhutan’s policies, as did witnessing what happened to neighboring areas within Nepal and Thailand in terms of unanticipated mismanaged tourism as it grew. By charging more they immediately are able to limit the number of people entering the country as tourists: a “high value, low impact” policy.

So I guess my question in response is: what is our right to visit any place we want anyway? In fact, most of the world can’t travel or leave their own countries. Travel is a privilege.

Haad Rin Beach, Thailand circa 1979 (photo courtesy of Pegi Vail)

AA: The film for the most part focuses on the traveler’s role in impacting the environment; however, local people also promote and benefit from the “gringo trail.” One example that stood out was the Thai woman selling buckets of some alcoholic concoction during a Full Moon party. It could be considered another form of privilege to tell hosts how to properly conserve and preserve their country (for whose benefit?). How can one encourage better practices while still recognizing the right for local people to freely participate in the market economy? Is it up to tourists to boycott certain vendors?

PV: Agreed about outsiders [not] telling countries what they should and shouldn’t do—that is paternalistic for sure! The example you cite also brings up the role of budget travelers and backpackers in supporting local business – they actually spend more money locally than the upper budget travelers. At this point, perhaps it’s more about how best for hosts to be able to manage tourism in the manner they want, how to facilitate that? For low-income countries and communities, pairing organizations that might fund those with the vision but without the resources is one answer, as we illustrated with Chalalan Ecolodge, featured in the film. Getting everyone “at the table” so to speak.

And for travelers, I would just ask what are your motivations for traveling somewhere? Is going for an enormous party on the beach that you could do at ‘home’ where the country forms more of a backdrop- not to say partying and having fun shouldn’t happen while you’re on the road, just BE in consideration of what’s around you. Boycotting that activity (especially after seeing the aftermath in our film) might not be a bad idea if the consequences, even though unintended, are now known to leave such a negative impact on the environment. The full moon party is now sometimes treated like the ‘big five’ safari check-off list as a must see! So leave the checklist behind.

AA: What advice would you offer to the first-time traveler who has just finished watching your film?

PV: Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding is newly re-released and a great place to start for the first time traveler. There are plenty of great tips on how to be a better traveler who can have a great experience, a fun time, and be an aware, responsible traveler in the process.

I also think just learning the cultural norms in places ahead of time may seem to be an obvious suggestion. And again, no matter what budget you are on it doesn’t cost anything to research ahead. Even if you’re on the road already, the Internet is everywhere. Read more from writers in the country one will visit or see films by filmmakers from those places. Lastly, research the places that are experiencing a negative tourism influx and avoid them. Look to more community-based initiatives, as mentioned previously. Even if you’re a backpacker on a budget traveling up to a year, you might just take one week out of that time to pay a little more for that special place that is both sustaining the community and protecting their natural and cultural heritage.


Continue on to Part 2 here.

Have a thought or comment in the meantime? Share below!

Gringo Trails is screening Washington, D.C.’s Landmark E Street Cinema on Wednesday, March 19 at 7pm. For tickets ($10), click here.

4 Comments on “Who ruins the world? Travelers? Part 1 of 2

  1. You inspire me to get back to my journalistic roots…Thanks, Addy!

  2. I was recently brought to a Full Moon party here in Nicaragua and I was completely appalled. May I link to this post on my blog? I was gonna write about the weirdness of visiting San Juan del Sur as a non-tourist gringa.

  3. There are full moon parties in Nicaragua now? Wow. Was this in San Juan del Sur? Interesting because SDSS is the “eco-tourism” hub of Nicaragua.
    Yes, you are more than welcome to link to this post. Thanks for sharing! Part 2 will be posted later today. Keep an eye out!

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