Planet in Focus Review: Gringo Trails
Gringo Trails is a term used in South and Central America for the destinations where foreign tourists normally frequent. Travelers usually can be defined by three specific categories. The first are the drifters who stumble upon an area alone or possibly with one or two other people and stay for an extended period of time. Next are the backpackers who come in larger groups, but are frugal in their approach. The last category is reserved for tourists who are looking for familiar restaurants, bars, shops and services. Their expectation of the same standards of amenities in foreign countries as they get at home has led to the resurrection of many familiar franchises, which inevitably changes the authenticity of their location.
The story starts with the tale of Yossi Ghinsberg who heard about an uncharted stretch of the Amazon while in Bolivia in 1981. Ghinsberg was looking to experience the remote, tribal and unusual aspects of the jungle. He was swept away in one of the worst rainstorms in the history of the area, but managed to survive for 25 days alone in the jungle near Rurrenabaque before being rescued. He turned his experience into a 1985 book which started a trend of Israelis coming to the area to gain their own taste of the “Ghinsberg experience”.
The next point of interest is Incahuasi Island. Once a destination to gather cactus, the island began seeing tourists arrive in the early 80′s. By 2000 it became a steady destination for small groups of tourists after features on Fredo Lazaro Ticoma, the first inhabitant of the island, started appearing in many guidebooks. The influx of travelers led to picnic tables, restaurants, information spots, alcohol and garbage. By 2010 the numbers of visitors swelled to 300-400 tourists per day. The sad ramifications of the commercialization on the island can be seen in Ticoma himself. He went from freely interacting with both the land and early tourists to serving lunch to the tour guides on the government run island.
The worst example in the piece is Haad Rin beach on southern tip of Koh Pha Ngan, an island in Thailand. National Geographic staffer Costas Christ tells his story of first going to Koh Pha Ngan in 1979 and spending a month with a local family at the beach. 10 years later 150 people were on the beach with a small group of bungalows available for accommodation. By New Year’s Eve 1999 the beach saw 15,000 partiers to welcome in the millennium.
Director Pegi Vail presents the development of tourism in many hotspots into three stages: the initial sprinkling of travelers that discover a spot; the increased popularity amongst backpackers as a result; and finally total saturation. The narrative touches on the impact this has on the land and the local animals that inhabit it. The film also includes antidotal stories from travel book writers, TV hosts and bloggers. There is also a sly running gag involving backpackers standing around brushing their teeth in the morning sunlight.
The film also includes two examples of locations that followed the right approach. Bhutan opened up to tourism in 1974, but targeted a specific market. They looked for older tourists of a certain financial status such as retired University professors and Hollywood types. Done with their partying days, these individuals would be more likely to respect the Bhutan culture and traditions. Tourists are charged $250.00 per day and can be told to leave if they do not respect the country’s traditions and rules. The other place to adopt a similar mantra is the Chalalan Lagoon in Bolivia. The guides are well trained in explaining to tourists what the land, animals and nature means to them, their parent’s and grandparent’s generation. They engage in Eco-tourism. Yossi Ghinsberg returned to Bolivia in 1992 and is working with the group at Chalalan Ecolodge to help raise money for their eco-tourism efforts.
Gringo Trails is a fascinating look at modern tourism and the impact of the traveler on the destinations that they visit. It’s a unique take as they find as much fault with the locals for not educating the tourists and looking to make a quick buck as with the tourists for disrespecting local customs and traditions. A key rule for the host is to set the ground rules early, limit numbers, have a clear plan on what to do with waste and keep a close eye on the effect on wildlife and culture. A good tip for the traveler when they come across a supposed exotic local with volleyball courts, bars on the beach and restaurants serving western fare, is to ask a local what’s going on around the island or village next door. Gringo Trails is a documentary that I highly recommend.