“Host communities will stage authenticity because it’s economically advantageous to them that.” Travel writer Rolf Potts has done some thinking about travel, tourism, and “host communities.” “For some reason,” he goes on, “Since modernity kicked in, that sort of dislocated middle class people have to look to poor people for manifestations of what one thinks authenticity is supposed to be.”
And so Potts lays out something of a trajectory for Gringo Trails, which considers the complicated business of tourism, in particular, backpacking. Travelers to Other Places affect the places they go, the film proposes, whether or not those travelers have any sense of a Star Trek-ian Prime Directive (which proscribes Starfleet personnel from interfering with the development of civilizations they visit). Just showing up makes a difference in the local environment, the ecology, and the populations animal and human. Typically and historically, travelers have been oblivious to their effects, however willfully. And those effects have been devastating.
The other factor in Potts’ observation, beyond such effects, has to do with cause. How is it that travelers desire to do what they do? Are they, as he suggests, in pursuit of an “authentic” experience that can only be elusive in their daily existence? How is it that “poor people” come to embody such an experience, or perhaps more precisely, come to reflect back to travelers their own desires—to see, to possess, to bring back, in the form of memories or photos, souvenirs or self-affirmations.
Gringo Trails doesn’t explore the construction of such desire, but instead focuses on its effects, namely, the global tourism industry. The documentary’s observations about the industry’s brutal economics (and melodrama) are not exactly new; see, for instance, Life and Debt, The Beach or The Goose With the Golden Eggs: Tourism on Costa Roca’s Pacific Coast). Gringo Trails features discussion of multiple effects, and a couple of cursory looks at causes.
One of these is the film’s first story, that of Yossi Ghinsberg, a story now notorious for its longstanding fallout. In 1981, the Israeli backpacker Yossi was lost in the Bolivian jungle; he initiated his adventure with the usual notions, he says now, which is to say he felt driven by “the remote and the tribal and romanticizing about it.” He survived a month’s worth of harrowing experiences, starving and afraid and at last, feeling “the lure of death,” until he was found by searchers. The publication of his book about his ordeal, published in 1985, helped to make the Bolivian Amazon a destination.
This took some time, as a local industry evolved in response to the many backpackers who arrived hoping to recreate Yossi’s experience. It’s crazy. “It’s crazy,” smiles a young woman, accompanied by a young man. “Everybody wants to experience the life of the jungle, see and eat and smell and maybe have a little touch like in the book.” (Here the film shows an excursion of young folks looking for anacondas, endangered and also, perhaps, dangerous.) To accommodate the influx, the local community adapted: there was money to be made from foreigners, after all. Up popped hotels and hostels, tour companies and laundry services, cafés and bars. Increasing numbers of tourists responded, to the point that even those backpackers looking to earn their hardcore credit might make use of local drinking facilities, vehicles, and assorted environmentally destructive activities.
Local economies don’t necessarily thrive during or due to such transitions, even if they make money initially. Gringo Trails illustrates, vividly and repeatedly, in Bolivia and in other locations, the havoc foreigners can wreak. While the film includes numerous images showing plastic detritus and tire tracks, it also offers several testimonies by travelers relating specific experiences. Catherine McCarthy, a white teacher working in Thailand, recalls her realization that she was representing all “farang” (Caucasian foreigners). Travel writer Costas Christ tells the story of his “discovery” of Haad Rin, a beach off Koh Phangan, which he then revealed to a couple of fellow tourists. Soon enough, the place became a resort, with multiple and seemingly ongoing festivals, lots of revelers, and a custom of selling buckets of booze. The beaches are polluted and chaotic, the local economy is hardy thriving.
This sort of unhappy outcome is common, according to Gringo Trails, which jumps about between places and times. But it’s not inevitable. Ghinsberg serves as something of an object lesson, having returned to the Bolivian Amazon years later. “I educated myself,” he says, raised over a million dollars, and set to work with the people whom he owed his life in order to support sustainable development and environmental preservation.
Ghinsberg’s story, including the invasion of backpackers, has also been a bit of a lesson for other nations. “We looked at other models,” says Sangay Wangchuk, a member of the royal family in Bhutan. “We looked at next door Nepal and Thailand, with the mass tourism, and we said no we don’t want that.” To resist, Bhutan regulates facilities and charges enough money to limit the interest of rowdy partiers. Instead, Bhutan welcomes retirees (“professors,” he lists, as well as “Hollywood”). Older visitors tend not to wreck their environment, they tend to listen quietly and seek education about the places they see. And so Bhutan is able to support environmental efforts, to preserve its culture, and also to share it—sparingly.