|Obligatory cheesy photos taken by our guide.|
|Ours was among four bikes tours using this roadside turnout.|
In one of the film’s most compelling stories, there once was a beach on an island near Thailand that was pristine; A paradise with a mile-long beach, a bay with sky blue water, lush vegetation and not a high rise in sight. Fisherman and their families lived here, just as they had for decades. Then in the late 1970s an American backpacker arrived and stayed for several weeks. He also took some photos. Then he told some other backpacking friends about this amazing beach. So those backpackers went to visit and they told some more backpackers who then told some more and so on. Then in 1984 the man who originally photographed this amazing beach was reading the New York Times and on the back page was photo of that very same beach. Only the photo wasn’t like the ones he took. This photo showed the beach packed with hundreds of people.Flash ahead another 30 years as backpackers arrive on this island in droves. Then mainland Thais arrived to sell things to the foreigners, things like hotel rooms, trinkets, alcohol, drugs and sex. On New Year’s Eve 2010 some 50,000 people packed its shores to party like it was 1999. The scene the next day was of plastic and glass bottles smothering the beach as the tide rolled in while people were passed out on the sand.
The back packer who “discovered” Haad Rin Beach on Koh Phangan island in Thailand was Costas Christ, now Editor at Large for National Geographic Traveler. It was not his intention to overrun that beach with drunk, littering backpackers on a hedonistic New Year’s Eve. Nor was it Yossi Ghinsberg’s intention to send hundreds, even thousands, of backpackers to the jungles of Bolivia when he wrote and published a book about his survival in the Amazon after being swept away from his friends by a flood in 1981. His book, Back from Tuichi, which is a tale of life and death, has since become a Bible for those who wish to follow in his footsteps.
The film looks at how backpackers travel, where they travel and what happens when so many show up in the same place. This look at the downside of backpacking culture is what makes this film especially intriguing. As a travel writer myself, I have read, seen and heard the arguments made by those who lament the luxury travel set as mega-hotels, destination restaurants and golf courses rise up in various unspoiled settings. Never had it occurred to me that those who travel with only a backpack would do so much damage to the places they visit. However, a Bolivian resident in the film makes the point that backpackers can be the worst kind of tourists when it comes to setting up infrastructure, mostly because they are the first to arrive in places that don’t have any tourism infrastructure to begin with. They don’t require luxuries or even everyday comforts which makes it easier to build places for them to stay and eat, infrastructure without codes, environmental standards or any control for growth.
The answer is no…and yes. My friend told me that the Park Service actually sections off areas of parks and declares them “sacrificial,” so people are allowed to camp in a specific area and the park service keeps people confined to that spot (through natural barriers, fences and signs), allowing campers to degrade that spot and then close it down for rebuilding the next season. In the film, there is the example of Bhutan. The country, famous for its “Gross National Happiness” measurement, imposes a charge to visitors of $200-250 a day per person (This fee does include accommodations and transfers, but can be complicated. Visit the Bhutan Tourism Council to learn more.). The policy is called “High Value, Low Impact.” This produces a different type of traveler, one who has to really want to be there because it takes extra money to do so. Is that fair? Or is that the price paid to keep us from destroying the places we love?
“No matter how small, every person leaves a footprint wherever they go,” my friend reminded me.
Those of us who travel, whether we backpack or not, need to remember that we are the visitors and that the places we visit do not belong to us. We are only there temporarily, whether it’s for three days or three months, whether it's 30 miles away or 3000. We need to remember that there are people who live there who will continue to need a place to live and work long after we’re gone. I encourage everyone who has the chance to see this film, which is currently being shown at universities around the world. Follow Gringo Trails on Facebook and Twitter to find cities where screenings will occur or find screenings online. General release will be later this year. My viewing of this film was made possible by Outbounding.org.