Backpacker, Go Home: How Tourism Is Ruining Everything

One billion tourists now roam the planet—and the world’s most pristine spots are showing the strain. In the new film ‘Gringo Trails,’ the consequences of unchecked global wanderlust.

11.15.15 6:00 AM ET

Twenty years ago, when I first visited the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, it was already one of Mexico’s most popular attractions. Though a fair amount of visitors roamed the grounds, the atmosphere was mellow, respectful of the site’s history, and vendors were at a minimum.

That was then. On a trip there this year, tour buses stretched almost a mile down the road, its big parking lot overflowing. The entrance had been turned into a kitschy Mayan shopping mall, full of cheap restaurants, jewelry stores, and T-shirts featuring drawings of bodacious—and totally mythical—Indian princesses prancing around in next to nothing.

The pyramids were still spectacular, but you can’t climb them—they’ve been closed since an Italian tourist fell off one and died. Vendors were everywhere selling sweatshop tchotchkes. And tourist hordes had trampled all the grass, so the huge area of loose dirt that was left became choking dust with even the slightest breeze.

Chichen Itza had become an ethnic Disneyland—a monument to the kind of touristic overdevelopment that is the subject of Gringo Trails, a new film out on DVD and VOD on Nov. 17. Although director Pegi Vail’s documentary concentrates on backpacker culture and how it has hurt pristine sites around the world, the stories it tells can also be applied to spots that have already fallen to the tourist industrial complex. Spanning from Bolivia and Mali to Bhutan, Vail shows how unplanned development can turn formerly exotic spots into developing-world dumps—the ultimate horror story being Ko Pha-Ngan, a once-unspoiled Thai beach that has become home to a yearly “full moon party” that attracts upward of 30,000 revelers who leave the place looking like a New Jersey landfill.

“We’re one billion on the road right now,” says Vail. “This industry is huge. It’s estimated one in 11 people in the world have jobs related to tourism. The idea now is the planning ahead. If there’s no plan anywhere, you’ll have a museumization, like Venice, or a Disneyfication.”

“In ‘undiscovered’ places, tourism is a huge lure, and so people see it as quick, easy money,” adds travel writer Anja Mutic. “So they go ahead and build, build, build. It often happens they don’t do so with a long-term vision, and that’s where the problem lies.”

Travel journalist Rolf Potts, author of the wanderlust how-to book Vagabonding, notes that destination tourism seems to progress in stages. It begins, he says, “with an ‘undiscovered’—to mainstream outsiders—place known to a handful of backpackers and expats, which then becomes a ‘scene’ for bigger numbers of independent travelers, and eventually becomes developed for a larger demographic of mass tourism. How exactly that economic development happens is what makes a difference.”

Whether or not the locals have a say in the process, and how much of a say, can go a long way toward determining whether the location will have a few cool eco-lodges, or the latest outlet of the Señor Frog’s restaurant chain.

Getting tourists—the vast majority of whom are middle- or upper-middle-class travelers—to care if the place they’re headed to will soon become another Margaritaville is, however, another matter. The problem is not one of first-world arrogance, but ignorance.

“There’s an ignorance in understanding our impact,” says sustainable-tourism advocate Costas Christ. “By and large, people are generally well intentioned and want to have a positive impact. But I think a lot of them are ignorant about how their behavior impacts places negatively.”

“Oftentimes people are less sensitive when they don’t have to be, when they’re not told they have to be,” says Vail. “Learning culturally what’s happening in a place, which is easy to do, I think that’s happening more and more. There are responsible and irresponsible [travelers] at every level.”

Vail’s film is particularly effective when it shows the yin and yang of the tourism process. Incahuasi, for example, an isolated Bolivian island situated in the middle of the world’s largest salt flat, was practically unknown to the outside world until the locals decided to promote tourism. Now it attracts 300 to 400 tourists a day, and the residents are regretting it. They’re disturbed by overbuilding, garbage disposal, how vehicles coming to the island have altered the landscape, and how some local animals have been scared away by the tourist boom. “We have deteriorated the natural look of the island,” says one local.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bhutan, a country which only opened up for tourism in 1974, and pursues what it calls a “high value, low impact” policy.

Concerned by travel overkill in nearby Nepal, the Himalayan kingdom offers all-inclusive, eco-friendly group packages ranging from $200 to $250 per day. The government approves all housing for tourists, and the day rate includes a “royalty” of $65, which goes toward free education, health care, poverty reduction, and new infrastructure. So far, it’s been attracting an older, richer, and more eco-conscious tourist trade.

There are plenty of other far-sighted places. Christ points to Plancencia, Belize, where locals and the government have partnered to protect the local barrier reef, the world’s third largest. And Tasmania, which has a master plan to protect the island’s largest rain forest (PDF).

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Potts says global tourism is not a “zero-sum choice that features economic growth and trashed beaches on one side, with pristine poverty on the other.” But he adds that planning will always be affected by a number of factors, including “competition, corruption, natural disasters, terrorism, and global economic fluctuations.”

Christ says individual travelers can make a difference by asking tour companies if they act in an environmentally friendly way, and if their company benefits local people. And, he adds, tourists should ask themselves “What about my behavior? Is it one of mutual respect? Or am I going there to do what I want?”

When it comes to the essential conflict between responsible tourism and overdevelopment, maybe Joni Mitchell had it right in “Big Yellow Taxi”:

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” she sings. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Or, as Pegi Vail puts it, “Once you sell out, it’s gone.”