Sunday, November 24, 2013

Planet In Focus 2013 Film Review - Gringo Trails

Gringo Trails is a term used in South and Central America for the destinations where foreign tourist normally frequent. Travelers come in three categories, drifters who stumble upon an area alone or possibly with one or two other people and stay for an extended period of time. Backpackers who come in larger groups but are still frugal in their approach and tourists who expect the same standards in foreign countries as at home. The last group are looking for familiar restaurant, bars, shops and services causing construction of these establishments thus changing the authenticity of the location.

The story starts with the tale of Yossi Ghinsberg who heard about a stretch of uncharted Amazon while in Bolivia in 1981 Ghinsberg was looking for the remote, tribal and unusual headed out to explore getting lost in the jungle. He was swept away in one of the worst rainstorm in the history of the area but manage to survive 25 days alone in the jungle near Rurrenabaque before rescue.  He turned his experience into a 1985 book which started a trend of Israelis coming to the area to see if the story was true and try to gain their own taste of the Ghinsberg experience.

Director Pegi Vail presents the development of tourism in many hotspots normally plot into three stages: the initial sprinkling of travellers that discover a spot, which leads to increased popularity amongst backpackers then total saturation.  The narrative touches on the effect on the land, the habitat of the local animals inhabitants. The film also includes antidotal stories from travel book writers, TV hosts and bloggers. Be sure to catch the running gag of backpackers standing around brushing their teeth in the morning sunlight to start their day.

The next point of interest is Salar de Uyuni also in Bolivia, the largest salt desert in the world measuring at 4086 square miles. Inchausai Island first a destination to gather cactus began to see early tourists arrive in the 80's. By 2000 it became a steady destination for small groups of tourist having seen features on Fredo Lazaro Ticoma the first inhabitant in their guidebooks soon after scores of SUV's began to arrived full of travellers creating the usual scene of picnic tables full of visitors, restaurants, information spots, alcohol and garbage. By 2010 the numbers had swelled to 300-400 tourist per day.  Ticoma who used to interact with the early tourist now only serves lunch to the guides as the government runs the island.

The worst example in the piece is Haad Rin Beach on Koh Phangan Island in Thailand. National Geographic staffer Costas Christ tells his story of first going to Koh Phangan Island in 1979 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 1994 it's a regular traveling stop with tourist from more popular islands coming by for Full Moon parties. New Years eve 1999 saw 15,000 partiers on the beach to welcome in the millennium, a decade later tourists came by express boat and 50,000 revellers were present to mark the start of 2010.

The film includes two examples of locations that followed the right approach. Bhutan opened up to tourism in 1974 but they targeted a specific market.  They looked for older tourist mainly the well to do, retired University professors and Hollywood types who had means had done the party thing in the past therefore more likely to respect their culture and traditions. Tourist 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 is Chalalan Lagoon in Bolivia. The guides are well trained explain to tourist what the land, animals and nature means to them, their parents and grandparents generation. They engage in Eco-tourism, Yossi Ghinsberg retuned to Bolivia in 1992 and is working with the group at Chalalan Ecolodge alongside some of the people that were in the search party to save him. He raised money from the U.S. to support their project of community based tourism.

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 but instead looking to make a quick buck as with the tourist 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 traveller when they come across a supposed exotic local with volleyball courts, bars on the beach and restaurant serving western fare is to ask a local what's going on at the island or village next door. Gringo trails is a documentary that I highly recommend.

**** out of 4.

Gringo Trails | Pegi Vail | U.S.A. | Bhutan | Bolivia | Mali | Thailand | 2013| 80 Minutes.

Tags:Yossi Ghinsberg Drifters, Backpackers, Institutionalized Tourist, Eco-Footprints, Eco-tourism, Sustainable development, biodiversity, Bolivia, Bhutan, Thailand.

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