Are Backpackers Destroying the World?
An Interview With Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail
“Tourism is really about selling nature and cultural heritage,” says National Geographic Traveler editor Costas Christ during an interview near the beginning of the Gringo Trails documentary. The rest of the thought-provoking film explores the obvious follow-up question: At what cost?
The film was directed and co-produced by Pegi Vail, an American anthropologist and Associate Director of the Center for Media, Culture, and History at NYU. Once an avid backpacker herself, Vail began the project back in 1999 as a Fulbright scholar researching the impact of backpacking on the Salar de Uyuni region of Bolivia. Over time, the film’s focus morphed into more of a big picture examination of the impact mass tourism has on the culture and environment of a destination.
Through interviews with eco-lodge operators, members of Bhutan’s royal family, and travel experts such as Pico Iyer and Rolf Potts, the film culls stories from all along the historic “gringo trail.” The crux of the conversation is how we can reconcile the needs of tourists who want to travel off the beaten path in search of authentic experiences, and those of developing nations desperately in need of tourism revenue, without destroying the things that make these destinations uniquely beautiful.
While Gringo Trails offers no easy answers, it does ask poignant questions and offers some compelling examples of role models for sustainable ecotourism. We recently spoke with Vail (whose book based on her research, Right of Passage, is forthcoming) to discuss her thought-provoking film in depth.