Tourism changes everything it touches: the travelers, the natives, the planet. It’s also a way of life for millions of people around the globe. Backpacker-turned-anthropologist Pegi Vail examines the phenomenon of exotic travel at a series of breathtakingly beautiful sites, from the beach of Kho Pha Ngan in Thailand, ruined by tens of thousands of backpackers reveling not in its beauty but in tubs of alcohol at the “Full Moon Party,” to the Salt Desert of Bolivia, on the verge of losing the character that brought people there in the first place, from the Amazonian jungle, where Israeli adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg survived alone for a month after being separated from his backpacking friends, to the bone-dry desert of Timbuktu, where the native Tuareg conjure an “authentic” experience for a dreamy-eyed traveler. Part travelogue, part cautionary tale, part existential self-reflection, Gringo Trails is ultimately an ode to travel and how we as individuals can make it better. •Availability: On home video and VOD October 2015. •Thanks to Raúl Guzmán, Cinema Tropical, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Aside from being a fascinating look at tourism, the film’s also an amazing travelogue. How did you choose which sites to cover?
PV: I wanted to show places that were in different stages of the tourism process: places that had experienced tourism for many decades—in particular Koh Pha Ngan, in Thailand—that could show a cautionary tale if planning isn’t done right, and then places like Bolivia, where it’s still in the middle stage of the whole process of tourism.
Salt Desert, Bolivia, a popular destination for backpackers, now in danger of losing its pristine beauty. Courtesy Icarus Films.
Backpackers are usually independent travelers going in, opening up the doors to other backpackers, then mid-budget and upper-budget tourists, so it’s a whole cycle. These were possibilities to look at: if tourism’s in the middle stages, it could go in a number of different directions. And then there was Mali, which would be much more off the beaten path and where tourism was at the earlier stages. That’s why those places were chosen. And Bhutan, of course, because of the unique position it holds within the industry right now [i.e., “high-value, low impact,” requiring tourists to spend at least $250 a day].
DT: I was particularly struck by Rolf Potts’s comment that we look for authentic experiences from the poor.
PV: The majority of travelers, whether they’re traveling on a shoestring budget or not, are actually coming from middle-class to upper-middle-class backgrounds.Yet oftentimes, even when they’re traveling within developing nations, they’re going to the poorest areas. If you’re in your own home country, how often are you hanging out with the hot dog vendor on the street, for instance, as the only way to look at authenticity, or can you find it in other places? There’s a discrepancy between that and what you do in your own country. And why is somebody who’s doing something completely different from your experience more authentic than somebody who’s more in line with what you’re doing? I write about that more in-depth in my book, Right of Passage, which is going to come out soon—that middle-class and upper-middle-class travelers want a completely different experience from things they don’t do at home. That’s partially the idea that something is more authentic than something else. It’s like people framing a shot and not putting in the telephone poles in order to make it look like they’re really, really out there. We still have that draw, which hearkens back to explorers and discovery novelists and diaries and things like that.
Everybody talks about the authenticity issue within tourism, almost to the point where the role of authenticity gets overused. But I’ve been thinking recently about the notion of manufactured authenticity, like one of our interviewees talked about in Timbuktu. [At the woman’s request, her Tuareg guides took her for a long camel ride into the desert, where they spent the night under the stars. When they returned to Timbuktu the next morning, she realized they had gone the long way around the city and had camped only five miles from where they’d started out.] Even if you’re only five miles from Timbuktu, you’re still out in Timbuktu. But it’s like we’re looking to go even further than that, even though it’s already quite different from our own experience. It’s interesting what we strive to do to find those things our imagination gives us.
DT: Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, of the royal family of Bhutan, was talking about his country’s policy of forgoing GDP in favor of GNH—gross national happiness. It occurred to me that the same principle could be applied to traveling: You don’t need to go five thousand miles out in the desert and ruin the sand dunes. Maybe it’s enough to drive five miles out. Maybe tourists really need to adjust their sense of what will make them happy as tourists.
PV: Exactly. We romanticize, but the tourism industry plays into that as well. Look at advertisements of pristine beaches that deny the fact that maybe five miles from there, you have a shantytown where people are struggling to survive. It’s that framing reality out.
DT: I loved that the film presented different models of tourism, from the disastrous experience in Thailand, to the community-run ecolodge in Bolivia, to the high-value, low-impact policy in Bhutan. As an anthropologist, do you see these solutions emanating from the cultures themselves?
PV: In Bhutan they don’t rely on tourism, whereas in some low-income countries they do, so it’s a little hard to make those comparisons. I think it’s a combination of coming out culturally and economic realities. Bhutan has slowly, slowly been opening up over the years. They’ve actually never taken the cap off the bottle and let the genie come out. They’ve decided to have various influences enter very, very slowly, whether it was television or other forms of what some people might consider Westernized influences, so I think it’s a unique Bhutanese example. However, if you look at Myanmar—when I went it was Burma in 1986—you could only go in for a week. You weren’t allowed to go in for longer than that, so they kind of did the same thing. They didn’t want a lot of outside influence, and there have been other countries that have done something similar. I think everybody tries to work within their cultural norms, but it’s hard to make those comparisons because a lot depends on economics, too.
“Koh Pha Ngan Rin Beach 1979,” courtesy Costas Christ. The beach as it appeared before backpackers used it to stage their Full Moon Party.
DT: What led to such a disastrous result in Thailand?
The same beach thirty-one years later. By 2010, there were 50,000 partygoers on Koh Pha Ngan beach. Courtesy Icarus Films.
PV: I kind of compare it to gentrification in the urban context. I saw a similar thing happen in my own neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—now it’s all party people at nighttime. I’m looking to check people’s motivations. Why are you going to travel? Do you want to do the same thing you do at home, just have a different backdrop? Are you still hanging with the same people? The scene that went over to Koh Pha Ngan actually came from Goa in India. Goa was a big scene with backpackers—the big rave parties—and it moved from Goa to Koh Pha Ngan. Now Vang Vieng in Laos is a scene like that. It moves around globally. It’s not Thailand overall; there are a lot of places within Thailand that are doing amazing jobs with tourism. Koh Pha Ngan is just one example of what was happening on some of the beaches, because it’s happening on other beaches, on other islands, and in other countries, too. Thailand has experienced massive amounts of tourism; in terms of the tourist thing, it’s the gateway to Southeast Asia. But there are many good things happening, too, like a Thai woman who’s working with local communities to let them know what they can expect from tourism. They may want to embrace it, but she tries to help them plan better for how to do that. Thirty years ago we didn’t have the kind of hindsight we do now. Now we can start to think about planning. It got to that stage in Kho Pha Ngan because people didn’t know how fast it was going to happen. It just happened.
DT: You get a sense, especially toward the end of the film, that backpackers participate in a very tight-knit, albeit global, community that tends to follow each other around the world visiting the same places and doing the same things.
PV: That’s why I initially started making the film. I had been a backpacker, or independent traveler, myself for many, many years, so I knew this culture really well. I started making the film all the way back in 1999 because I wanted to show that it’s the same everywhere you go. People think they’re being adventurous and random when in fact they’re traveling almost the same routes as the guidebooks show. That’s actually why the title came about. Even though the trail is known as the Gringo Trail in Latin America, it’s called the Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia. It’s the same trail no matter where you go, so I just extended the Gringo Trail to the world. This happened a couple of times—we filmed this guy in Burkina Faso, lost track of him, then ran into him again in southern Bolivia in a very tiny, tiny town.
DT: Can you describe Yossi Ghinsberg’s impact on tourism? [Yossi Ghinsberg is the author of Jungle,the story of how he survived for a month alone in the Amazonian jungle in Bolivia after being separated from his fellow backpackers.]
PV: I wanted to show the role of storytelling and stories and how they bring people places. That’s why we had references to Richard Burton, and why I included a lot of travel writers in the film. Initially a lot of Israelis followed in Yossi’s footsteps after they read his book, but I also think he’s a great example of how you can become a responsible tourist and give back. He went back and worked with this community to help them, as well as other people, get funding [he raised $1 million in Washington] to have their vision of tourism come to fruition when they didn’t have the resources. I think we can do more of that.
DT: One of the most disturbing scenes was the guy in Bolivia who petted a wild anaconda even though he had toxic mosquito repellent all over his hands. When his guide asked, “Why did you touch the anaconda?” he responded, “Because I can.” Do you think that “Because I can” is a prevalent attitude?
PV: That’s the whole thing of us as privileged travelers. Because we can. I don’t think that instance with the animal is so prevalent, but I think it was an example of the idea that we can go and do wherever we want. That’s why it’s hard when Bhutan tells people no they can’t if they don’t have the money, because people want to just be able to do what they want to do, and they’ve been able to do. I thought that guy was so emblematic. In fact he came up to us later and said, “I’m sure I’ll be on the cutting room floor.” I said, “Oh, no. You will definitely not be on the cutting room floor.”
DT: Let’s talk about the woman who went to Timbuktu because she’d always dreamed of going there. She said that while she and her guide were driving, she commented that the land was very beautiful but the guide said, “It’s not beautiful, it’s arid, nothing can grow here.” I thought that perfectly illustrated the divide between the people who are living in a place and the people who are visiting it. Most travelers are not aware of that divide when they travel.
PV: Most people never think about it because you go on your journeys for yourself. It really is all about you when you’re traveling, in that sense. So that lack of awareness is something I wanted to bring to awareness so that we do start to think about the places we’re going a little more deeply than just landing somewhere and figuring it out, which is mostly what we do as young travelers. It doesn’t cost anything to find out about what’s going on in a country or learn more about the culture of the place you’re going to. And again, that represents class differences, too.
DT: It’s really the responsibility of governments and travelers to protect the sites they’re coming to see. Is there an organization dedicated to educating tourists?
PV: There are so many right now. We’re working on putting them in one place, a go-to resource list. It will probably be incorporated into a digital book we’re in the process of doing, so it’s going to be a little time before it’s all out there.
DT: What drew you to anthropology?
PV: I studied fine arts as an undergraduate and started out as a painter in New York. Then I worked in the education departments of museums, and I had an interest in how cultures are displayed publically. I also had an interest in doing some kind of artform, so I went into documentation, because I was really interested in history and documenting places and people. I started filming in my neighborhood, in Williamsburg, but I also wanted to go back to get my graduate degree and then my PhD in anthropology. I thought anthropology brought all my interests together, including the travel interest. I basically took to the road every moment I could in my twenties, and I still do. When I returned to graduate school, I looked at indigenous media, which I still work on as well, and then I thought I really wanted to look at my own tribe. Instead of looking at a rural tribe somewhere, I thought I’d look at my tribe of tourists. It was a topic I knew as a participant, and I wanted to look at it as an observer. For my PhD I focused specifically on backpackers and their stories and the role of stories within the process of tourism, so there I focused on Bolivia.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
PV: I hope that this film—and I’m seeing this happen—opens up the conversation on a topic that people didn’t think about. I love travel more than anything else. It’s my life. So I’m hoping the film is more like an ode to travel so we can all do it better.
DT: At the end of the film, my husband asked, “Does this make you want to travel?” I told him, “Absolutely not.”
PV: It’s the best thing in the world.
DT: Don’t get me wrong; I love traveling.
PV: Don’t feel guilty. People’s reactions are different in the different places we show the film. In Ireland, people are really into the stories, the idea of stories and storytelling. In New Zealand, because they’re big travelers, they want to think about the ways they can actively start doing something. In America, people say, “I feel guilty now.” Kind of interesting.
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