If I close my eyes, I can still remember the first taste of that spoonful of freshly made dark chocolate. The subtle crunch of the sugar granules lending its sweetness, the slight bitter taste from the cocoa beans mixing with the smoothness of the whipped in milk. Moments ago I had seen all 3 ingredients come together like a choreographed dance–melting into each other while stirred by local Ngäbe women dressed in shades of vivid blue and pink. Our tour guide–a local cocoa farmer from the community–led us through the lush Panama jungle that surrounds the unassuming and humble Ngäbe village. Wearing a sunny, yellow t-shirt and broad smile, he lovingly pointed to overlooked plants, hard-to-spot toucans and medicinal herbs that his people have come to use in their daily lives. The Oreba chocolate tour, which is entirely run by the indigenous farmers, gives all proceeds back to the Ngäbe community to benefit their education and healthcare system. It is a prime example of sustainable tourism where visitors help support the locals and leave a positive foot print on the destination they are visiting.
The impact of tourism is an ongoing debate that is explored in the recent documentary, Gringo Trails, that begs the question if tourists are destroying the planet or saving it. From sustainable tourism, like that of the Ngäbe community, to destination destroying tourism, such as the impact of Eat Pray Love on Bali, the film follows travelers from South America to Asia to argue whether they can ever truly walk away with just memories and leave only footprints behind.
To answer the question, Gringo Trails opens with a story. In 1981, a young backpacker was traveling through Thailand and found himself growing tired of following the backpacking herd. Everywhere this young man traveled there seemed to be prearranged tours, throngs of travelers and hotels catering to foreigners and tourism standing in the way of an authentic cultural experience. In search of an unspoiled, untouched place this young backpacker convinced a local to take him along to a nearby island on his fishing route. At first the fisherman was reluctant and tried to explain that there was nothing for the young backpacker on the remote island he was headed to, but the backpacker simply smiled and replied “I am looking for nothing.” The backpacker arrived at the small, unassuming island that had been yet untouched by tourism; villagers stared in amazement at the sight of a tall, lanky American trudging down the sand solo. As the trees parted, a gorgeous beach came into view and the young backpacker realized he had found exactly what he wanted–a perfect slice of paradise left undisturbed by the modern world. The sand was like sugar, the water clean and clear and the only other person he spotted was a local fisherman who hosted the backpacker for the next month.
Young and naive, the backpacker shared the location of the untouched beach while picking up supplies on the mainland. His brief exchange with a traveling German couple seemed harmless enough as he insisted they keep the beach secret to preserve its beauty but word spread and the once idyllic beach slowly morphed into the raucous, assault on the senses it is today. Now known as the iconic Haad Rin Beach, tourism changed this paradise into the stomping grounds for the annual Full Moon Party, where drunken revelers lay passed out amidst piles of empty beer cans and plastic cups floating in the surf. The backpacker, whose story inspired the film The Beach, is Costas Christ who went on to become National Geographic Editor-at-Large, and the phenomenon of how tourism impacts destinations became a focal point of his writing.
While the example of Thailand’s Haad Rin Beach is both extreme and disheartening, Gringo Trails also argues the positive effects of tourism by showing villages that now thrive on sustainable tourism that is managed, contained and allows people to learn about local cultures and traditions. As a travel writer, this argument of how tourism affects destinations is a multi-layered one. Some may argue the fault rests with the writers and photographers who shine light on obscure corners of the world. Some may blame the backpackers and their tendency to focus more on how travel affects them rather than the footprint they leave behind. Whatever your stance, the film agrees that it is the responsibility of all travelers to realize it is a privilege to visit a new country and not a God-given right.
In the end, the question that Gringo Trails poses is a difficult one that varies on a case-by-case basis. While that fisherman in Thailand may look sadly upon today’s version of Haad Rin beach, the village in Panama may smile with the money earned to better their community and fuel their education and healthcare system. Suffice it to say, tourism will always exist so long as a desire to see the world does, therefore it is up to the traveler to think of the footprints they leave behind and impact their visit may have.
You can find out more about the film Gringo Trails and upcoming screenings on this website.Tweet