Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail & Co-Producer Melvin Estrella in Bolivia

Pegi Vail & Co-Producer Melvin Estrella in Bolivia

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.

 

Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail in Albania

Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail in Albania

 

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.

 

Salari de Uyuni, Bolivia in Gringo Trails

Salari de Uyuni, Bolivia

 

What inspired you to make Gringo Trails?

I originally started making the film in 1999. Prior to that I’d been a backpacker in my 20s and early 30s, and I felt like it was a culture that should be looked at. I was hired to do my own research as an anthropologist on my own tribe– travelers. I wanted to come to the film through two different perspectives, as both a participant and observer. I put the film aside and came back to it in 2009-2010. By then it had changed based on my own research in Bolivia, and seeing what I thought had become the more important story, which were these gradual changes that we could see through filming these different time periods. The environmental and cultural impact became the more important story to tell, because the travel industry had become so huge around the world.

 

Thailand's Haad Rin Beach in 1979, from Gringo Trails

Thailand’s Pristine Haad Rin Beach in 1979

 

What was the most surprising thing you learned over the course of making the film?

We, as travelers– and I include myself in that– aren’t aware of how privileged we are to be able to travel the world and experience all of these different cultures and places. If we recognize that privilege, then we will become more responsible travelers.

 

Can you talk about why you chose to focus on backpackers instead of, say, luxury travelers, and the types of damage backpackers are doing when they travel to these previously unspoiled places?

There are obviously some people who are doing things more responsibly than others. Now that we have more people traveling– more backpackers as well as mid-budget and upper-budget traveling– you’re going to see more damage in all these arenas. But backpackers tend to spend more time in a place, and will potentially become part of communities and spend money locally. So they have the potential to make more of a positive impact with responsible travel choices.

 

Thailand's Haad Rin Beach in 2005, photo via Gringo Trails

Haad Rin Beach in 2005, photo copyright The New York Times Courtesy Icarus Films

 

Budget travelers trying to get the most out of every penny in developing nations will haggle to get the lowest price. Some consider that a selfish thing: They’re getting to explore the local community at rock-bottom prices, when the impoverished community desperately needs more revenue.

I totally agree. There are definitely negotiations involved, learning what things are worth. But, knowing that you, the traveler, make more money, of course you’re going to be looked at as having a bigger wallet. Even if you’re traveling on a shoestring budget, you’re still likely coming from a middle-class to upper-middle class background.

 

Paro Taktsang, a.k.a. Tiger's Nest Monastery, in Bhutan

Paro Taktsang, a.k.a. Tiger’s Nest Monastery, in Bhutan

 

It bothers me when I hear travelers complaining that it costs $30 for tourists to see a UNESCO World Heritage Site like Angkor Wat, while locals only pay $6 for admission. To me it shows a serious lack of perspective regarding the wealth disparity in the world.

Yes, because the locals don’t have that money. But those travelers will spend that same money on beer in a second!

In terms of my research, I did a large survey of how much time backpackers spend on the ground. On average, they spend at least 85% of their time with other travelers [rather than locals], which is pretty high. Sometimes travelers don’t know how to get to know local communities, so their main interactions tend to be in the marketplace.

We had a scene in the film that got cut, where there were four travelers– a Dutch, American, Peruvian and Australian– all traveling together. We were at a Bolivian market, and the American got to haggling over 10-15 cents for breakfast. It got ridiculous, and the Peruvian and Australian travelers were getting really embarrassed and uncomfortable. But the Dutch traveler says, “No, it’s the principle!” To me, it was very telling of this idea that it makes us feel more authentic somehow to pay exactly what local people do.

 

Aftermath of a Full Moon Party of Haad Rin Beach, Thailand via Gringo Trails

Aftermath of a Full Moon Party of Haad Rin Beach

 

One of the most interesting things you talk about in Gringo Trails is the backpackers’ herd mentality. There’s a line that struck me: “Don’t tell anyone about Haad Rin Beach, because backpackers will end up going there.” How does that herd mentality lead to negative consequences?

People think that guidebooks aren’t “institutionalized tourism.” But backpacker tourism is, in some ways. It begins through word-of-mouth about an off-the-beaten-path place. Then more people come, and of course it ends up in a guidebook. It’s very similar to the gentrification process. I look at my own neighborhood, where artists moved into a working-class neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Backpackers and artists pave the way for these places, but then they tell other people, and more people come. I think it’s time to let some places breathe. If you hear that too many people are going somewhere, go someplace else.

 

Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail in Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats

Pegi Vail in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats

 

But whose responsibility is it to limit the impact tourism can have on a place? The government regulatory commissions? The tour operators? The tourists? Where does the responsibility for making conscious, sustainable decisions lie?

It’s all of the above. Travelers need to be more responsible and recognize that they can’t have everything and do everything they want. Tour operators need to say, “We don’t offer this sort of [irresponsible] travel experience.” There’s a good example in the film: In the salt flats of Bolivia, the guides used to bring snakes and put them around people’s necks, and the tourists would touch them. Some travelers would say, “I paid all this money; I deserve to do this!” But there was an awareness campaign mounted that educated people about how damaging bug repellent, which can be toxic to the snake, has been to the local anaconda population. There’s been a change with the number of tourists coming in and handling animals.

 

What choices do you see that travelers can make to positively impact destinations they travel to?

Do your research ahead of time. It costs nothing to go online and read about the cultural norms of a place. Most places in the world have Internet access now, so try to read about cultures through the perspectives of indigenous writers. Learn about the best sustainable tourism initiatives that you can support, and know that you’re going to find them more culturally and environmentally true to these places.

 

The Gringo Trails Movie Poster

The Gringo Trails Movie Poster

 

Blogs seem to be the travel guidebooks of the 21st century. What role do you see bloggers playing in the problems outlined in Gringo Trails?

News travels so much faster these days. A place that’s talked about online can go viral quickly. That’s created a huge change in what I call “tourism globalization.” I think it goes back to people realizing the privilege that we have as travelers. I look back to my travels as a young person, and I didn’t even know that genocide was happening against the indigenous community in a neighboring village in Guatemala while I was there. It’s important to become more aware before you go into a culture, and understand the do’s and don’ts of a community. I think bloggers can really help with spreading that information.  –by Bret Love; all photos courtesy Icarus Films & Pegi Vail

 

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49 Responses to Are Backpackers Destroying the World? Q&A With Gringo Trails Director Pegi Vail

  • Such a timely post. I just returned from Myanmar and my head is still spinning from all I saw. While I was inspired in many ways, the trip put my in a gloomy funk because I worry about what will happen to the country and it’s people. I’m still working hard to process it all. There were foreign businessmen in every hotel looking for opportunity, and I had many conversations with locals about the fights taking place for natural resources. In Inle Lake, a beautiful rapidly growing spot, there are 20 new hotels being built at the edge of the lake. I can’t imagine the environmental impact has been examined too thoroughly. I do indeed feel privileged that I had the opportunity to travel there, and only hope the country will be able to handle their new found fame.
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  • Such an interesting interview and I agree with a lot of the points. I love a good deal, but I get very annoyed when I see other tourists over-haggling or getting angry if they have to pay more than the locals. I think that it’s our responsibility to give back to the local economy wherever we can, and to be conscious of the fact that we do have much, much more than many of the host countries we are visiting. I think when a lot of people hear ‘responsible tourism’ the first thing they think about is eco-travel or the environment, but how we interact with the local culture is also so important.
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  • I love that term “tourism globalization.” We definitely are living in a tell-all day and age. “Most of us can read the writing on the wall; we just assume it’s addressed to someone else. ~Ivern Ball
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  • Grant says:

    Really interesting read. I’m currently backpacking (at 40) and can a see a lot of this herd mentality – case in point with the Salar de Uyuni, one of the 20 something backpackers was telling us how his time in La Paz was one long drunken binge and he saw nothing of the city. I’m in Laos now and the gringo trail / banana pancake trail is still in force and while they may have stopped the carnage in Vang Vieng it’s still mostly 20somethings partying (but only until 11:30pm)
    That said, we went out to watch Alms Giving in Luang Prabang this morning and it certainly wasn’t the backpackers disrupting things – bang on sunrise scores of minivans descended with mid to high end package tourists who all took up designated spots with their designated sashes to wear and their dedicated bowls of rice to hand out, in between dashing out into the road to take photos of each other. Backpackers who had got up were all the other side of the road out of the way (and most of my photos this morning are of the package tourists).
    I hate the haggling for every last kip as well – there is always one person quibbling over the equivalent of 40p. It helps to think of it as being discounted for locals rather than inflated for tourists.. (As much of continental Europe does with its attractions)

  • Jaryd says:

    Wow such a great interview! I strongly agree that when people don’t realise how privileged they are to travel they don’t show places, people and the cultures respect. Which such behaviour can radiate from one tourist to the next causing a great destination to become destroyed by a high influx of obnoxious tourists. Unfortunately I see this behaviour on my travels from a lot of Aussies (I’m not bagging all Australians as I am one) and its earning us a bad reputation globally, which saddens me.
    Jaryd recently posted..A golden ticket for unlimited travel . . . forever!My Profile

    • It’s a tough one, responsibility comes from empathy and connection. Some people, exposed to all the news and information possible might still not care for their fellow man or nature. Exposure and firsthand experience is the best you can hope for as far as reaching out to people. Greed and self interest play a part too.
      I don’t really know how you can teach people values and humility, travel and seeing how other people live is a start. You might begin as a thoughtless, party animal at the start and you might remain so when its all said and done but at least you’ve been exposed to the humanity of others.
      Governments and operators need to play a part in fostering a sustainable culture but that tends to develop over time as its hard to see past the influx $$$ at the start.
      Great post, a lot to chew on.
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  • Frank says:

    It’s a tough balance … it starts by being a hospitable traveler that makes responsible decisions, environmentally or otherwise…
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  • Tamara says:

    This is such an important topic, and one that isn’t in the forefront of the minds of most travelers, regardless of whether they’re backpackers, flashpackers, package tourists or luxury travelers. Anyone who has visited the same popular place twice, with a couple of years between visits, soon sees the impact of mass tourism. At the same time it’s important to distinguish between natural progress and over-development to satisfy the needs of tourists. I totally agree that as generally slower travelers who spend more time in each place, we have true potential to make some difference with the choices we make.

    There’s not much more irritating than seeing travelers getting all worked up over a few cents difference haggling over a purchase at the market, then seeing them blow more than they’ll pay for a night’s lodging on beer. Regardless of how tight we feel our travel budget is, being there in the first place puts us in a privileged position. Locals should pay less (or nothing) to enjoy, appreciate and learn from the treasures the rest of us come to see. (Another pet peeve is some wealthy tourists who find it ever so amusing to “pass” as local and get in at a locals rate–we had a long conversation about this at the Taj Mahal.)

    We try to do as much research as possible before visiting a destination. There’s plenty of information out there (sometimes too much). We as bloggers can help by sharing the tour operators, vendors and owners who are operating responsibly as well as pointing out those who are not. We can choose to avoid activities that are harming the environment or culture of a place, and we should do so even if it means missing some classic must-do’s. We shouldn’t remain quiet, but rather speak up and initiate discussion. We can strive to educate ourselves and always work toward making a positive impact. The more you give, the more you get. Take time to refocus the purpose of travel from all about “me” to figuring out how to leave a place even just a little bit better than you found it.
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  • She comes across as being slightly less pompous in this interview, but I still think it’s pretty presumptuous of her to whitewash her own impacts, positive and negative, on the communities she has visited. Just because she wears Doc Martens and doesn’t attend Full Moon parties doesn’t mean she’s Erin Brockovich!

  • Interesting article, and it brings up a number of points. I live in Spain, a country that was governed by a despot and did’t achieve independence until nearly 1980. A country that Franco saw suffer greatly, until he opened the country up to tourists in the 1960s. From my first visit 10 years ago until now, I’ve watched the country change drastically as it struggles to maintain its heritage while modernizing and catering to tourists, which is its national project. There’s a fine balance between the two, I think.
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  • Michael says:

    Yes, it is true that many of us do not realize the privilege we have of traveling. Especially when you compare with other nations who have strict travel regulations in force. For the bargaining yes, it is embarrassing to hear people, quiver over a couple of cents but then they tend to be like that in every area of their life or come from a country, where bartering and bargaining is no longer an accepted practice.
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  • Carrie says:

    This is a great article and one that I think all travelers should read.

    My husband and I have been traveling for well over a decade, and we have had the opportunity to return to several countries or areas that were brand-new 10 years ago. Visit them now and they’ve changed so much, they’re practically unrecognizable. When I first saw your post title here, I immediately thought of Haad Rin Beach. It was a stunningly simple and beautiful place the first time I visited in 2003. There were just a few shops and restaurants in the main town back then; the beaches were clean, the people were friendly, and we were happy to spend our hard-earned dollars there. Back then, everyone was turning their nose up at Ko Samui for being touristy and overrated, and the new place to go was Haad Rin. Now look at what it has turned into. It’s a crying shame. It really, really is.
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  • Great interview guys. I think there is many of us who understand and appreciate how lucky and privileged we are that we get to travel, to explore, learn and understand or try to understand other nations, cultures and religions. Maybe simply not enough of us yet, but slowly more and more people get to understand all this thing about travelling.
    All this discussion about budget travel and complaining about different prices for locals and tourists being different…. I’m actually surprised it still takes place! I though it is obvious, that locals have a full right of seeing their own heritage at lower price. It is the same back at home, things are cheaper for me there than tourists so lets get over ourselves on that by now please 🙂
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  • Some great points here. It drives me nuts when I see travelers beating up a local for a “locals price”. Don’t get me wrong, I negotiate everywhere I go (USA Included) but I still expect to always pay more than a local would for the same goods or services especially when I know that it is contributing to the maintenance and upkeep of a historical site.
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  • Ruth says:

    I would definetly like to watch this documentary. I have friends who are trying to push sustainable tourism in third world countries. From time to time, we discuss ideas on the best ways to do this.

    The first line of the post quotes Costas Christ saying: ‘Tourism is really about selling nature and cultural heritage.’ But, to whom are these precious treasures sold? It seems like a lot of coasts, mountains and other resources go to big companies owned by people who have nothing to do with local communities. I recently read about the huge amounts of money that are being poured into tourist related projects in Central America. How are those projects going to benefit the locals? How much of that money is going to be invested in the community? There are numbers that state how some industries (for example, cruises) do not benefit locals at all. Of course, some jobs are (or may be) created. But, is that enough when you consider that you are taking an entire area and making it off limits to locals or mid budget travelers (look at Labadee, Roatan or Cancun)?

    Another thing is that some travelers (I am tempted to say most travelers) or tourists are not interested in culture, traditions or nature. This interview says backpackers spend 85% percentage of their time with other travelers not with locals (and that kinds of reaffirms my point). I wonder what the numbers are for other type of travelers. People travel for a lot of reasons (escape, partying, relaxation, beaches) and visit certain places because it is ‘the’ place to go or because everybody goes there. So, there are big companies fullfilling those needs (and not caring a lot about locals or communities). I am not sure how this mentality can be changed (or if it can be changed). On that sense, it is only backpackers who contribute to the destruction of certain places.

    On a final note, I believe some bloggers (I am not generalizing) are more into locations, sighseeing, accomodations, food and tips. There is nothing wrong with that. But, you stated bloggers are influencing more and more how people travel. Because of that, I think we should concentrate more on the human side of travel. We should care more about how people live on other countries. The world deserves to know the beauty inside the people we met on our travels.
    Ruth recently posted..Sunset Cliffs in San DiegoMy Profile

  • Stephen says:

    Interesting, and a great interview. As a blogger I like to think that we can help reduce some of the impact by making people aware of what is going. As Pegi says information travels more quickly, and we can have an impact on the pressing issues to the places we visit.
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  • While I am not a backpacker I am an expat who moved to Costa Rica in my early 40’s to retire early. Many of these points can be made of expats as well. Prices are generally higher for gringos than ticos: at the market, store at the national parks and elsewhere. I think this is entirely fair.

    I often think of the impact we (gringos) are having on the economy and culture and I am pretty sure it is not all positive. In fact I would venture to say that it leans towards mostly negative impact.
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  • Leigh says:

    I was a backpacker for 5 months before it was so popular. I mainly hitchhiked around Australia and New Zealand so I had tremendous interaction with the locals. I like to think I had a mostly positive aspect on the countries I visited.

    Now I like to backpack into pristine wilderness where I am unlikely to see anyone. But I worry about some of our National Parks getting loved to death.

    What’s the answer? Education and more education I think. Last week I spoke with a ranger in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario and he says over the 30+ years he’s been working there, that people have become hugely MORE responsible about leaving no trace. I like to think positively and hope we can deliver that attitude to other parks and countries.
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  • This is such a thought-provoking post.

    I don’t usually write about specific destinations in my website. But going forward, it’s something I might do in other projects.

    I’ve been thinking about how publicity will affect “off-the-beaten-track” destinations and what kind of responsibility we as online publishers have. We can promote responsible travel all we want, but once a previously untouched place becomes a tourist destination, things are going to take a life of their own.

    And the impact on the local community is too complex to sum up; it could affect not only their finances, but also their way of life. And if the community is not prepared for an influx of travelers, it could very easily lead to a destruction of the beautiful nature that made the place so special in the first place.
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  • Mette says:

    Interesting discussion – But I guess we are all partly responsible. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • James Paulson says:

      I think that people always need to be careful about the direct or indirect impact that they are having the local ecosystem that they’re impacting.

  • Really great interview – you’ve made me stop and think. It’s often difficult to believe that your individual footprint can have such a catastrophic effect, but we do need to start thinking about the bigger picture, and start realizing that each individual is part of the bigger picture.

    Really thought provoking – thankyou for making me stop and re-evaluate. Will be watching for the documentary 🙂
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  • Although I find the whole premise a little bit pretentious (“Here’s how YOU should travel”), the title a little bit offensive (specially since most irresponsible backpackers come from Germany/Israel/Australia but I guess the “Jewish Trails” wasn’t racist enough) and some of the suggestions extremely wrong (as someone who belongs to a third-world country, I know for sure that overpaying and over-tipping HURTS the local economy), I will definitely watch the documentary. It would be very interesting to see the interviews with the Royal Buthan family, that’s for sure! 😀
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  • Kate says:

    This was a great, thought-provoking interview. I’m a backpacker and have travelled to places like the salt flats in Bolivia. It is experiences around the world meeting local people and seeing unique places that I really love. Understanding my impact and also how to reduce any negative impact is incredibly important. Its sad to see the aftermath of a full moon party in such a naturally beautiful place.
    I’ll look out for this documentary and think more about sustainable tourism 🙂
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  • Beth says:

    Really interesting read, and a hard question to answer. I do agree though, tourists should be expected to pay more than locals when visiting attractions.
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  • Jenna says:

    Super interesting article–sounds like a great film. Being responsible and respectful when you travel is so important, and we all need to remember that!
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  • Franca says:

    This is one of the most interesting interview I’ve read recently. I agree with most of what is said here. I don’t personally like bargaining myself and I know sometimes local people take advantage of tourists with prices way to high, on the other hand I don’t like to pay a ridiculous low price either only because at times they would take any amount, it’s not fair!
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  • yet again, another fascinating interview about an issue that deserves to be examined. and while i’m looking at missionaries and sex, you are healing the world in another profound way. yes, our footsteps always, always, always do leave an impact. thank you for highlighting what inspirational gringo steps we can take to be more conscious. thank you, gabi
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  • Victor says:

    If you are a gringo traveler you are rich. I can prove it. And that’s why you should pay more for stuff than the locals.

    A fellow traveler once told me that when I travel to developing countries I am rich – in the eyes of the locals. Because of this locals think I should pay more for stuff.

    I responded, “but I’m not rich. I do ok but I’m not rich. Zuckerberg is rich. Branson is rich. But I am not rich!”

    His reasoning was that when we gringos travel to the developing world the locals perceive us as being rich because we can afford to go to them but they could never afford to come to us. He was right. Most locals in the developing world could never afford to visit us. So using his straight line logic we gringo travelers are in fact, RICH.

    That doesn’t, however, mean we should allow ourselves to get ripped off at every transaction. So this is how I haggle prices when I travel. I ask for the price. Whatever it is I ask if they can do better. They always make a better offer. If I can afford it I buy it. A win-win. That way we both feel good about the transaction.

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  • People really do need to recognize exactly how privilege they are to be able to travel, and travel responsibly that is. Couldn’t have put it in better words myself. Great interview!
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  • Jill says:

    Great article! I love the idea of backpacking, but the herd mentality is exactly why I have no urge to actual backpack unless it involves back-country camping. When our travels start we definitely want to take the time to get to know the local cultures and have no plans of hanging out with only expats. If we wanted to hang around North Americans all day…we’d always call Canada home. There are so many interesting people and cultures out there, we can’t wait to explore them (in a sustainable ecotourism type way of course!). I can’t figure out how to see the documentary though, can I buy it? Download it?
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  • Abby says:

    Fantastic interview. What a well-spoken director… Insightful questions, too. It makes my blood boil when I see someone haggling over 15 cents/complaining about how cheap a local discount might be. It is NOT “more authentic” to act this way. So happy to read Pegi and Bret’s thoughts on this.
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    • Thanks for the props, Abby. We’ve taken some flack from the backpacker/budget travel community over this one, but were to incredulous to learn that most of the people arguing with us about the film hadn’t even seen it yet. It’s definitely one I’d recommend for any traveler to watch.

  • Fantastic! Travelers do have the responsibility to keep the positive attitude and be responsible for what they do while at other people’s place. Yes, it is right, most tourist places run on tourist money and most locals do not have the money to spend same as the tourist himself, however, I am not of the view that backpackers are destroying the world. It’s true they travel on a shoestring but they destroy the environment far less than the luxury travelers. There should be emphasis on how much impact a luxury resort makes on the environment rather than backpacker hostels. However, I haven’t seen the documentary yet, maybe I am taking it all wrong.
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  • Brigid says:

    I love this: “If we recognize that privilege, then we will become more responsible travelers”.

    I was fortunate enough to live in Bolivia for 5 months and got to experience a culture completely different to the one I grew up in Oz. One thing I could never bring myself to do was to haggle at the markets. I completely understand that it’s part of the travel experience and sometimes even expected, but I just couldn’t justify not giving the ‘asked for’ amount when to me it didn’t hurt in the slightest, however made e a world of difference to the seller.

    I also remember experiencing shock and shame after learning about the genocide in Guatemala. After living on Lake Atitlan for 3 months I finally got round to reading the book, “I, Rigoberta Menchu” and couldn’t believe I’d been completely ignorant about the terrible atrocities that most likely affected many of the locals in the community I was living in.

    Knowledge is power. I think by educating yourself about the culture and traditions of a community, not only will you help to preserve the integrity of the place you travel to, but you will have a more fulfilling travel experience.

    Great interview and look forward to watching the movie!
    Brigid recently posted..May 25th Celebrations – The First Cry for FreedomMy Profile

  • John says:

    Like someone has mentioned, haggling for the last cent trying to squeeze every last dollar of ‘value’ should not be confused with trying not to be ripped off. Some touts at markets will flat out try to rip you off, charging say $20 for a shirt or something that another seller will sell to you for $5. In such cases it’s good to get a good idea of the general price and not buy from the first place you see. Nonetheless, one can’t be a tight-arse, and it’s inevitable one will pay a bit more than things are really worth. There has to be a reasonable balance here. Staving off aggressive sellers is something many a tourist to developing countries will have to learn.

  • Salim says:

    Backpackers are destroying the world? Actually, it’s money and power that’s destroying the world, the hunger to make more money by any means necessary, our governments, our leaders, the banks and corporations, Capitalism is ruining the world, over-consumption etc. Backpackers are usually poor and don’t have much money or power. What a title!!! Get to the foundations of the problem, instead of nit-picking, get to the cause, rather than the effect, Jesus Flopping Christ!! Crazy. What a title!

  • Reno says:

    Personally, I think this article and the people commenting confuse tourists and travelers – these are completely different people, where one goes to an exotic place for a couple weeks to see more of the same, while the other wanders for months or years at a time, merging with the locals and their culture. As far as I’ve seen, the latter ones generally are more impact-conscious than the former.

    • Appreciate your input, Reno. But I think the whole “Travelers vs. tourists” debate is more about semantics, and kind of beside the point here. The issue is really about responsible travelers vs. irresponsible travelers. Some backpackers are environmentally and socially conscious, but many are not. And unfortunately, while the trailblazers who uncover unspoiled, pristine travel destinations may be conscious about the impact their travels have on said destinations, all too often the herds of people who follow them there are not. It’s our position that local governments and tour operators should limit the number of people who have access to pristine environments, but that’s tough when the local economies are so desperately in need of tourism revenue. Managing sustainable tourism is a quandary that even the most avid environmentalists are still debating about how to do effectively.

  • Backpackers are NOT destroying the world more or less than the luxurious travelers are. BAD travelers and tourists are destroying the world independently of their budget.

    As far as bargaining, I refuse to pay ridiculous inflated prices just because of my skin color. Here in Europe we don’t force foreigners to pay 10x more just because of their nationality. But when I travel, I eat and sleep at local family business only. All my money is directed to the local community, never to international businesses.

    I believe certain natural areas have to be regulated and only a certain number of tourists should be allowed at a time, just like the Andaman Islands in India or the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha in Brazil.

    Stations to refill water bottles should be available everywhere , so tourists are not contributing for the drama of the plastic consumption. During my 9 months across Asia, i made sure I refilled my bottles, but most people didn’t know about it, for example.

    My biggest concern has actually to do with the high end tourism which is pushing gentrification to certain parts of town, forcing the locals to abandon their homes and communities because of the rent prices.
    yara coelho recently posted..Snorkeling at the Andaman Islands – Havelock and Neil guideMy Profile

  • Brooke says:

    What a great post about traveling responsibly! I want to travel more, but I’m also become more aware of the effect it has on the environment and the local people. I think it’s so important to interact with locals and not just the traveler community. I’m no longer interested in just “seeing stuff,” I want to take on opportunities where I can talk to and support locals and improve the local community. This post had some great insights about what to be aware of how I can be more conscious of my decisions when I travel.
    Brooke recently posted..Plenty In PortlandMy Profile

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