About a year and a half ago, we had the opportunity to screen a brilliant new documentary called Gringo Trails, which takes a good hard look at the tourism industry and the life-altering impacts it has on natural environments and local communities around the world. Now, the documentary is on its way to being released on Amazon and other platforms for general viewing. We love that this film is reaching new heights and we hope that fellow travelers out there will appreciate it just as much.
Pegi Vail, director of Gringo Trails, and Melvin Estrella, producer/ director of photography, spent years documenting footage of their travels. Looking back through the footage that had been taken over the years, Pegi saw a pattern that travelers couldn’t continue to ignore. Untouched white-sand beaches in the middle of nowhere became party destinations littered with trash, beer bottles, toxic waste, and even a few incapacitated individuals, too plastered to make their way back to a hotel. Between 1999 and 2002 and again in 2010-2012, Vail and Estrella filmed travelers of all calibers in prime locations; from the jungles and salt flats of Bolivia to the deserts of Mali to the beaches of Thailand. Vail and Estrella documented footage of entire landscapes overrun with travelers taking part in exploitative tours, mass beach parties, and other unethical activities.
“Are tourists destroying the world, or saving it?” That is the question Vail has been asking herself and it is the main question that her first feature-length documentary, Gringo Trails, tries to answer. Travelers leave impressions on the places they visit. Whether or not those impressions are harmful to the environment and local communities is completely up to each individual traveler and the travel companies that take their business. “The hope was that this film opened the conversation so that now we can start working on all these issues,” said Vail in an online discussion about the making of the documentary. “I wanted to show these different stages in tourism development from the intrepid traveler, through to mass backpacker tourism, and even the luxury traveler in Bhutan.” From falling for romanticized destinations that look nothing like their advertised images, to enjoying party-central destinations featuring littered beaches, bottomless beer steins and sexual promiscuity, to signing up for tours that specialize in manufactured authenticity, Gringo Trails illustrates actions tourists make every day that alter environmental, cultural and economic well-being.
However, Gringo Trails doesn’t just focus on the negative impacts that mass tourism has had on the world. It showcases advice and reflections from travelers around the globe including Yossi Ghinsberg, Costas Christ, Pico Iyer, and many others. It delves into alternative travel destinations that are devoted to sustaining local cultures and environments. And it challenges audience members to think critically about travel and make responsible decisions when booking trips.
Gringo Trails has its own style as far as documentaries go. While many documentaries are produced and filmed at one time, Gringo Trails was pieced together with footage taken by different cameras over the last 13 years. Scattered throughout the movie are interviews with travel experts and random stories about experiences tourists had on their trips. This switching between points of view adds to the authenticity of the film, but at the same time it is confusing.
Details aside, the main message of the film is solid: mass tourism has destroyed parts of the planet that were once pristine and if the tide can’t be stemmed, other destinations will crumble. The evidence of land degradation and cultural exploitation presented in the film is irrefutable and inspires action from viewers.
Travel to remote places like the ones featured in Gringo Trails used to be about discovery, adventure, connecting with people, sharing ideas, trying new things, learning about alternative lifestyles, and then sharing those experiences with friends and family back home. Gringo Trails sheds light on the fact that travel is no longer what it used to be. In many places it has developed into a twisted industry that values profit over well-being. However, the documentary has a second message: a message of hope. The hope that an increasing number of travelers will think critically about their next travel decisions, conduct research ahead of time and find ways to leave as little social and environmental impacts as possible.
“We didn’t have the hindsight then, back in the 1980s or even through much of the 1990s to look forward, but now we can see what has happened and can happen without proper management or tourist responsibility.” Pegi Vail. Director Gringo Trails.
Gringo Trails is currently only available to educational institutions, but keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals and travel forums. Below is a list of scheduled screenings. Also, look for it on Netflix in the near future. More information can be found on the Gringo Tails website.
- New Zealand Documentary Edge Film Festival, May 21-June 2/June 5-15, in Auckland/Wellington, New Zealand
- Moviemento Arts Cinema in Berlin on June 27th, with other dates to be confirmed
- Boom Music Festival in Portugal on August 6th
- And, the big one: the film’s theatrical opening at the Cinema Village theater in NYC — a one-week screening September 4-11.
All photos courtesy of Zebra Films and the Gringo Trails website.