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.

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2 Comments

  1. Right on! An insightful piece. Thanks! The litmus test used to be tourists versus travelers. But it’s not that black and white, as your piece exposes. I’ll look for the book.

  2. Thank you for for the great post! Certainly, a very important topic. It’s impossible to travel abroad – or even locally – without being faced by this issue. The first example that comes to my mind is right in Vancouver’s backyard. Joffre Lakes, a gorgeous gem of a hike that was once off the beaten path, now sees droves of visitors every weekend (see https://globalnews.ca/news/3525930/facebook-post-highlights-garbage-at-b-c-s-joffre-lakes-provincial-park/). I do think it’s important to consider the well-being of locals when deciding how to manage tourism, but I think there are other solutions beyond making special places financially inaccessible to the majority. For example, permitting systems, where there is money involved, but it goes back into maintaining special places in a structured way through conservation, restoration or supporting culture. Permits can be awarded via a lottery to limit numbers. But permits probably have their drawbacks too, and there’s definitely lots of room for innovation in this area. With so many people sharing the planet, it’s feeling smaller and smaller all the time. Great post!

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