In the late 1970s, Costas Christ, now an editor at National Geographic Traveler, took a boat down the river in southern Thailand, disembarked, and, when he saw that the villagers were prepared for him, got right back on. Was there anywhere farther away, he asked the pilot? Anywhere more remote? The pilot told him tourists didn’t visit the next island because there was nothing to do.
Nothing, of course, was what Christ wanted; why Westerners seek it is the subject of American anthropologist Pegi Vail’s engaging documentary, Gringo Trails. Like a backpacker on a long trip, Vail hops across continents, stopping in Thailand, Bolivia, Peru, Mali, and elsewhere to interview travelers, experts, and locals on the impact of backpacker culture in fragile environments, both cultural and ecological.
The film suggests that these travelers, often characterized as young, un-wealthy, and adventurous, are more like traditional tourists than they’d care to admit. In 1981, Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg survived a month lost in the Amazon; after his memoir was published, hordes of young people arrived in Peru, seeking a similarly challenging, transcendent experience. Instead, they eroded the river banks.
Travel writer Rolf Potts argues that “since modernity kicked in, displaced middle class people have to look to poor people [for authenticity].” Some poor people have profited tremendously, such as the first inhabitant of an island in Bolivia’s salt flats, who owns his home and shares it with pride while trying to protect the fragile environment. But does he have real power? Is ethical travel possible? Why is it desirable?
Vail’s film earnestly interrogates authenticity even as her camera lingers on a beach without footprints, inviting the viewer to walk.