Couchfish: The Best Of Intentions

Couchfish: The Best Of Intentions

A review of The Last Tourist.

Midway through The Last Tourist, an orphanage tourist thinks back to her time with the kids:

“I had all the best of intentions, but in hindsight I didn’t do my homework. ... and when I got there I really learnt the horrible truth—they were there because I wanted to be there, not because they needed to be there. And because of people like me, they were separated from their families.”

The Last Tourist aims to take a critical look at where tourism came from, is, and is headed. Born out of a 2018 request by G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip for a film on responsible travel, the result is mixed. Released in 2021 to the North American film circuit, it’s been on a pay-per-view release over there since. For those not in North America or mad enough to be doing a Masters (how I viewed it on Kanopy), the film is now seeing a wider release. [Update: A reader has let me know Kanopy is available through many libraries—no need to sign up for a Masters!]

Wasn’t the point of travel to get lost? Screenshot via Kanopy.

Dropping in on at least ten countries, it leaps from pristine jungle to cruise ship mayhem. The latter is a stereotypical glad bag of the horrors of tourism. Maya Bay has a slot, as does Ko Pha Ngan’s Haad Rin, tiger patting, elephants, orangutans boxing, dumb tourists and so on. Selfie sticks, smart phones and Insta-posing feature over and over. With an inference destinations are little more than dumb pipes, Elizabeth Becker asks “are we just travelling for the iconic photo?” In the background, Jane Goodall hauntingly declares that tourism can kill a place. Melodramatic? Yup. Accurate? Also yes. Is any of this new? No.

Costas Christ, editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveller has some words. He reminisces on his early backpacking days in the 1970s:

“When I travelled to Asia late seventies I was already starting to see negative impacts of tourism, so it set me off looking for the unspoilt, the uncharted, and that eventually led me to a place called Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand. When I arrived in Ko Pha Ngan in 1979, I was the first tourist to have arrived on that beach.”

The beach he is referring to? Haad Rin. At this point, I turn The Last Tourist off.

My pushing the off button may seem petty, but his words are indicative of the first of two issues with the film. As Tom Vater wrote in our long read on Ko Pha Ngan, by the time Christ arrived, tourists had been in the area for years. Indeed a ferry service ran from both the mainland and Ko Samui to Ko Pha Ngan from 1976. Looking further back, King Rama V first visited in 1888—one of five visits to the island. A local tourist for sure—but local tourists are the industry’s mainstay in most countries—yet the film ignores them.

Ko Pha Ngan’s Haad Rin in not 1979. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Returning to it a few weeks later, I persevere. The first third of the film is heavy on talking heads—almost all from the West—discussing what ails tourism. They’re experts in their fields for sure, and do a good job iterating through the flaws, but something is missing. Where are the voices from China—the world’s second largest outbound market in 2019? Unless I missed it, in the entire film, China gets a single mention. Likewise there isn’t one governmental speaker. This lack of vital voices is the second problem. Another missing aspect is discussions around slow tourism, though to be fair there is only so much one can cram into a 90 minute film—or a 19-day tour itinerary.

These issues baffle and underline the film’s West-centric view. Then, everything improved. The founder of Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda, Judy Kepher-Gona, started speaking. And she knocks it out of the park.

An eloquent and passionate speaker, she’s also one who comes across as a no-bullshit operator. Early on, while a bit wonkish, she summarises the whole mess in a few sentences:

“Tourism has created consumption patterns in the minds of the traveller that need to be deconstructed a little bit. We have to change our mindsets about travel. The leakage is huge. Tourism can perpetuate poverty by not integrating communities and you find, ... the most acclaimed tourism destinations also have the highest levels of poverty, but why does it happen? Because they were never integrated into the tourism value chain.”

This in essence, is a large part of the problem with tourism. Locals don’t get a say—indeed, more often than not, they’re never even asked. As the film progresses—and improves—it is these local voices that add an essential layer of magnitude to its message.

The film covers a few scenarios in some depth. Peruvian weaving, orphanage tourism in Kenya and Cambodia, taxi driving in India, and elephants in Thailand all feature. Together these represent sustainable tourism’s three pillars—economy, society and environment.

At the summit of Indonesia’s Gunung Tambora with some trekking friends. They’re local—and yet again, seem not to count. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The orphanage tourism coverage is problematic. The film never flat-out states all orphanages are scams, but there is scope for far more nuance. There are real orphanages in Cambodia (and, I assume, Kenya) doing good, important work. It is funding—not white bodies—they need, and it would be a shame if this film makes their fundraising harder still. On volunteering though, there’s no need for nuance, and Clarissa Elakis of Childsafe International pulls no punches:

“Would this happen in your own country, probably not, so why do tourists think it is ok to do it in developing countries?”

I’ve written before on elephant riding and the role Intrepid Travel played in moving it to the industry’s shit list. This is a good example of tour companies working as agents for change, yet their work isn’t mentioned. Instead we’re given a segment on phajaan and a mix of semi- to clueless tourists at elephant shows. One aghast European says the elephants are “forced to do things they would not normally do.” Pray tell, what did you expect?

I don’t want to get tangled in the weeds of a multi-million dollar industry as controversial as it is lucrative. Elephant Nature Park and its cofounder have long been a travel blogger and media favourite. The Last Tourist is no exception to this, and the centre gets one of the longest segments in the entire film. Here again I’d loop back to Christ’s words about seeking the uncharted—something The Last Tourist does not do. In lambasting the tendency of tourists to gravitate to the known—they make the same mistake.

For decades destinations built their tourism propaganda around exactly activities like this. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Tying in with sustainable tourism’s social and economic pillars, Meenu Vadera, the founder of Sakha Cabs For Women is persuasive. Her India-based business runs a fleet of some 40 cabs with around 100 women drivers. In describing how a small change in tourist behaviour can make a big difference, Vadera says:

“A majority of Sakha clients are foreign tourists, tourism has played a significant role in helping women drivers, those who are in more vulnerable positions get opportunities for a livelihood, for dignity.”

This matters.

As with the European at the elephant camp, tourists need to educate themselves on small changes like these. Kepher-Gona talks about deconstructing tourists’ minds. Start by spending as long researching responsible behaviour as hotel choices. Saying “I didn’t know,” is not a viable excuse anymore.

Indeed, hotels, their construction, labour policies, and environmental impact, see the briefest of coverage. Bemoaning a wage of $50 a month strikes a chord, but where is the context? The minimum wage here in Bali is around US$150 a month, and some in the tourism pay far less. This doesn’t mean much though without talking about what alternative jobs might pay.

There’s a few lines about companies altering product, but the emphasis is on tourist-driven change. This is a mistake. It’s like the oil industry telling us all to carbon count while they continue business as usual. For fifty years, academic research has pushed sustainable tourism, yet, little has changed. No doubt in part due to the academic double-speak papers feature, but hell, if I can wade through them, so can others.

Talking about elephants… Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The cruise industry gets a well-deserved slagging off and leakages get a mention. Later, in an African context, Kepher-Gona notes that 14% of a safari spend stays in Kenya. I’ve written before on this, and specifically on G Adventures’ approach to it. If the companies are not going to improve their act, governments should force the issue. Hard calls to action like these are rare in the film, but Inca Trail tour guide, and founder of Evolution Treks Peru, Miguel Angel Gongora is emphatic:

“Making sure the travel companies are being held accountable, this is what you are saying, and this is what you are selling, so now I’m going to take the tour and I want to make sure that this is what you are delivering—not only to me as a traveller but to the workers too.”

Global warming, how tourism is hastening it, and the implication for locals, is barely mentioned. Where flying is discussed it is around its vast growth and the tourists that came with it—not the environmental impact. You’re better off settling in with Before The Flood, as you’ll get no answers from this film. Tourism to Antarctica is the obvious flogging horse, but it isn’t mentioned. As G Adventures runs Antartica trips for up to almost $17,000 a head, it would have been good to hear Poon Tip’s thoughts.

Three viewings in, my take on the film has softened. If you’re in the industry and any of this is still news to you, what are you doing in a sustainable facet of tourism? For the greater travelling public, yes the film contains a useful surfacing of issues, even if not new. I worry though that much of tourism remains stubbornly resistant to change. We’ve had 30+ years of educating tourists to varying degrees yet the needle has barely budged.

Will The Last Tourist budge it some more? Give it a watch and see what you think.

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