You may have a niggling suspicion that the tourism industry is in bad shape. But until you watch “The Last Tourist,” a new documentary film, it may be difficult to pinpoint what exactly feels so uncomfortable about it.
The film, written and directed by Tyson Sadler and produced by Bruce Poon Tip (also the founder of G Adventures), is a feature-length production that dives deeply into the range of issues plaguing tourism today.
There’s overtourism, which refers to having too many people in too few places that are unable to sustain such crowds. Think of St. Mark’s Square in Venice on a summer day, the ruins of Machu Picchu, the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. These places are sometimes referred to as “honeypot destinations,” where people want to go just to say they’ve been there. (This is a real phenomenon, as the film says 29% of Millennial travelers have said they wouldn’t go to a destination if they couldn’t post about it on Instagram.)
Making matters worse is the hedonistic attitude that so many people take with them to their vacation destinations. They’re inclined to live more frivolously, to eat more, drink more, and shower longer, because they think the same rules don’t apply as at home. This comes at a cost to the host communities, which may already be strapped for resources and often miss out on the financial benefits of tourism.
These lost benefits are particularly egregious for cruise ship destinations, where locals rarely make money from passengers’ brief visits to shore—unless, as the film says, they’ve struck a deal with the cruise ship companies to be added to a recommended shopping map and pay out a commission.
It’s clear that producer Bruce Poon Tip has little patience for cruises, and it’s not hard to understand why after seeing the film footage of excessive consumption; one might even call it debauchery. “Maybe we should just think of another word for it, because it’s not travel any more. Because you’re being transplanted from one Western environment to another Western environment. So let’s just call it a transfer of environments,” he suggests on camera.
“The Last Tourist” takes a darker turn to reveal the cruelty against animals used for wildlife attractions, such as elephants, dolphins, tigers, and monkeys, in countries like Thailand. (National Geographic did a profound exposé on this in June 2019, called “The Hidden Cost of Wildlife Tourism.”) Many tourists pay to attend shows that anthropomorphize the animals, making them do tricks that amuse the naïve audience greatly, or setting them up for selfies. What many may not realize is how unnatural these behaviors are for the animals and what’s required to force them to do it.
A similarly disturbing trend in tourism is that of volunteering in orphanages. Apparently it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in tourism, with orphanages in Kenya, Cambodia, and elsewhere receiving a steady stream of volunteers who, despite their best intentions, show up for a few hours or days, get to know the kids, and then leave. This is a deeply troubling arrangement not least of all for the arrogance required to assume someone without education, training, linguistic ability, or even maturity has something to teach the kids, but also for the industry it perpetuates.
The film states that 80% of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent, and that the number of orphanages in developing countries is increasing drastically in response to tourists’ interest. Visitors show up by the busload, disturb classes, distribute candy, take selfies, and expect performances. It’s a kind of entertainment that would never be acceptable in their home countries, so why is it allowed elsewhere? Judy Kepher-Gona, the Kenyan founder of Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda, says, “It’s a mirror of what we do with animals in a zoo.”
A New Way Forward
The latter part of the film has a hopeful tone. It looks at the transformative power of tourism—how it can help lift local people out of poverty and to promote conservation—as long as travelers ask the right questions of the places they visit, take time to learn, and realize that they are guests in somebody else’s home and land.
As Poon Tip says, “The tourist has to understand the power they have. If people just took the time to do a bit of research on where their money’s going, you have this ability to suddenly make your holiday a transformative experience for so many people who would be impacted by your decision to just go on holiday.”
Jane Goodall, who appears throughout the film, agrees. “Responsible tourism can be really beneficial to the animals, to the environment, to the local people, to the government, and to the tourist.”
We need people not to stop traveling, but to change the way they approach it. They should strive to be mindful, respectful, and to do extensive research before visiting to ensure their visit can have a greatest positive impact.
As Poon Tip told Treehugger about email, the film couldn’t have been released at a more relevant time: “As the world opens up again more travelers are demonstrating a curiosity as to where their dollars are going. It only takes a small number of people to make the conscious decision to travel in a more responsible way to make a huge difference. Travel is a privilege not a right, and the feedback we are receiving following the film’s US release is very encouraging. dial towards travel being a two-way experience for more people.”
Some Parting Suggestions
- Tip generously. That’s one of the best person-to-person activities you can do in a foreign country.
- If you’re visiting a social project or orphanage, ask yourself if this would be appropriate in your own country. If not, you probably shouldn’t do it.
- When it comes to exotic animals, if you can ride it, hug it, or take a selfie with it, there’s a high likelihood it’s cruel, so don’t do it.
“The Last Tourist” is now available on demand in the US It launches in select theaters across Canada on April 1 and will be available for streaming there on April 5. See trailer below.