Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel

In 1981, I attended the fourth Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was amazing. It was fun. It was (relatively) small and manageable. Everyone sat close enough to the main stage that we could all see the performers without a telescope. You could buy a snack without spending the entire evening concert standing in food booth lineups. You could actually get to use a PortaPotty before Daylight Savings Time ran out. It was a lovely festival.

Then it got Known. More and more people poured into Jericho Park each year. The daytime stage audiences got to be as big as the main concerts used to be. Finding space to park or sit down, getting food, going to the loo, moving between stages, all became huge efforts. The fences got higher. The crowds outside the fences got bigger. The lovely festival became a hassle. I stopped going.

This sense of being in “at the beginning” and then seeing something valuable and beautiful crushed under the weight of its own success is what fuels Gringo Trails, a 2012 documentary film.

I stumbled across it at the Vancouver Library (I love their documentary collection!) and found it riveting. It contrasts archival footage of popular tourist destinations from the 80s, 90s, etc. against recently shot footage of the same places, while discussing why and how these “hidden” gems became overrun with (mostly) young (mostly) low-budget travellers.

There’s the corner of the Amazon that became a backpacker’s Mecca after the publication of a popular book about a young man’s survival and rescue set in that area. And there’s the tragic tale of how a picture-perfect, pristine beach in Thailand evolved into a massive party site where tens of thousands of drunken, drug-sodden good-timers congregate regularly, leaving heaps of garbage on the shore and permanently displacing the original residents.

The solution to these destination disasters, the film argues, is locally based, “managed” tourism, where residents plan out how they want to control the onslaught of outsiders and receive the financial benefits. For some places, like Bhutan (profiled in the film) and Botswana (not mentioned), this leads to something called “high-value, low-impact” (read: “high-cost, low-volume”) tourism,” a strategy of deliberately keeping prices for travellers high.

In Bhutan, for example, visitors must spend a minimum of $250 per day, according to the film. High prices mean that fewer tourists can afford to come, but those few bring in the same amount of cash as a horde of backpacker types, who typically take pride in having the lowest-cost vacation possible. Smaller numbers of tourists are more easily controlled and their impact will be much less.

“We don’t really allow the backpacker here coming independent,” says the director of the National Museum of Bhutan during an interview for the film. “We get only multi-millionaires, retired professors, Hollywood, [which I take to mean “celebrities”], and those…who can afford to come.”

Keeping out the riff-raff, which is what this amounts to, may work, but raises its own set of moral issues. If only a certain number of people will be allowed to enjoy a beautiful place in order to prevent damage to it, why should it be only the rich who gain this privilege? The wealthy have no monopoly on respecting cultures or the environment; in fact, some would argue that they are more likely to feel “entitled” and act irresponsibly. Why not establish a test of cultural and environmental sensitivity to determine who gets in?

Well, because money is so much easier to weigh—and so much more fun to rake in.

Countries like Bhutan and Botswana want tourist dollars to preserve unique places, and to prop up the local economy. And that’s perfectly reasonable. But then don’t try to pretend you are on some moral high ground when you are really pandering to the world’s wealthy few.

Gringo Trails is a film for anyone who travels. It’s shocking, disturbing, and thought-provoking. In the course of my own years of being a tourist, I have seen deterioration in some of the places I’ve revisited, and I’ve known that my actions 30 years ago almost certainly contributed to that downslide. It’s a sobering realization.

Have you seen places or events that you loved go downhill as they became more popular? I’d love to read your story in a comment.

Knot Spots: Stairway to Heaven

Spotted: German railway station

Gotta love those crafty Germans! They have their priorities right: celebrate the many colours and varieties of Ritter Sport chocolate bars on a stairway trod by tens of thousands daily. How could one climb this stairway to Heaven without coming away with a sinful craving for chocolate? I had to run right out and find my favourite flavour (hazelnut rum raisin). And no, I’m not getting a lucrative endorsement from Ritter Sport. (If someone from the company reads this and wants to offer me one, please do!)

Having the ad painted on stairs in a railway station fits perfectly into the Ritter Sport’s branding as a yummy snack “on the go.” Why not grab one before you’re stuck on the train for an hour? It will make the trip more pleasant!

In researching this in-depth article, I discovered that Ritter was founded in 1912 and has 33 regular varieties of the Sport bar, 5 organic varieties, and a few “limited edition” flavours that come and go.

The brand eschews the usual rectangular chocolate bar shape for a distinctive, solid-feeling square, leading to their motto: “Qualität im Quadrat” (Quality in a Square). They have their own museum, the Sammlung Marli Hoppe-Ritter, described as an “homage to the square,” which consists of nearly 600 square paintings, objects, sculptures and graphic works, all housed in a square, blocky building. Naturally.

Have you smiled at some very clever, nonintrusive advertising that still gets its point across? Share in a comment.

 

 

 

The Romantic Road Bus Part 2: Escaping the Castle

Ancient painting of Harburg area. Photo of painting (and additions) by Marian Buechert.

 

When the Romantic Road bus finally dropped us off in Harburg, we discovered that their bus stop is nowhere near the town and a looong way from the castle. We were left standing with our luggage outside a boarded-up guesthouse on the edge of a semi-rural area, with no way to get to the town or up the mountain to our castle. There were no taxis and no commercial buildings other than one small grocery store across the street. Now, this isn’t the fault of the driver, but the company should warn customers about this situation and not just strand people who probably don’t speak the local tongue and may not have a phone (we didn’t).

I walked over to the store to see if I could get any information from the staff or maybe find a phone. All the staff were very busy, so no one to talk to. I wandered back out and spotted a man climbing onto a bicycle. Aha, thinks I, obviously a local. I will attempt to extract useful info from him in my rudimentary German.

It was our lucky break. This kind man not only answered my questions (Yes, a looong hike up a steep path. With luggage, not possible.), but once he understood our dilemma, he immediately said he would get us a ride. He looked around the parking lot and, spotting someone he knew, asked if the guy could take us to the castle. No problem, we would just have to wait until he did his shopping and he would drop us right at the door.

And so it was, with the generosity of two gentlemen of Harburg, we finally arrived at the castle gate.

Happily ensconced in our castle turret room, we nonetheless still faced two major challenges on the morrow.

Number 1: How to get back to the lonely bus stop. If we had to walk, we would at least be going downhill, but it was still a long hike. Number 2: If we could get there, would the bus driver even stop? If he didn’t know to stop there with us on the bus shouting at him to stop, what were the chances he would merrily whiz by on the freeway without a glance at Harburg?

Once again, we were lucky enough to encounter a kind soul; in this case, the gentleman who ran the hotel (he may also have been the owner; if so, I apologize for calling him the manager). Despite being extremely busy with a large party of guests, Herr Marzahn took the trouble to phone the drivers to ensure that one of them would indeed stop in Harburg. He then drove us to the bus stop.

The rest of this part of our journey was smooth: the bus picked us up and the driver was prepared with our train tickets for the onward leg from Augsburg to Munich.

Although we enjoyed the scenic route the Romantic Road bus took through the countryside and we did, eventually, reach our destinations—which were lovely—I must warn travelers away from this company. They are still having major issues with reliability and service and don’t seem to have any concern for their customers’ safety or peace of mind. Do the Romantic Road, but do it by car.

As for us, we’ve chalked this up as another travel adventure: stressful at the time, but kind of a funny story in retrospect. I realize that it’s getting harder and harder to travel without a phone, simply because everyone is expected to have one. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get by, but then there’s that one situation where it’s vital.

The best part of this experience, however, is that it has reminded us how wonderful people can be in reaching out to help inept travelers. Many thanks to our three white knights who rescued us from our castle plight.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire    

Have you escaped from a travel dilemma through the “kindness of strangers”? Tell me about it in a comment!