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Anthropologist Pegi Vail uses her academic background to excellent effect in her feature-film debut, Gringo Trails. Her documentary about the effects of global tourism, particularly from the seemingly innocuous backpacker subculture, should be mandatory viewing for anyone who’s ever thumbed through a Lonely Planet guidebook with an eye toward visiting an exotic destination. The film is currently receiving its theatrical debut at New York City’s Cinema Village.
Loosely structured and focusing on such worldwide locations as the Bolivian Amazon, the deserts of Timbuktu, a remote beach in Thailand and the South Asian country of Bhutan, the film takes an anecdotal approach to its increasingly relevant subject matter. It begins with an account by Israeli Yossi Ghinsberg of his 1981 experience of getting lost in the Bolivian jungle for nearly a month before being rescued. His subsequent book documenting his travails became not so much a cautionary tale as an inducement for a steady stream of adventurous travelers wanting to follow in his footsteps.
And so it goes, as Vail delivers such evocative scenes as a group of backpackers surrounding a fearsome anaconda, clamoring to touch it before being warned by a guide that the insect repellant on their hands could prove fatal to the snake. An editor at National Geographic Traveler describes his rapturous month spent years ago with villagers on Thailand’s Haad Rin virgin beach, only to see it later become developed to such a point that its annual New Year’s Eve parties attract tens of thousands of revelers.
This is contrasted with the wise approach taken by the tourism authorities in Bhutan, the country that famously adopted “gross national happiness” rather than GDP as its goal. Opening to tourists in 1974, it adopted a “high value, low impact” policy geared to affluent travelers paying $250 a day and threatened with expulsion if they don’t adhere to the country’s traditions.
Featuring interviews with several young backpackers who pride themselves on seeking out adventurous, low-cost travel, the film also takes aim at their subtle snobbery, such as one who points out a preference for banana pancakes over fancy pasta with shrimp. Also included are comments by numerous native guides, many of whom point out that travelers need more education about the places they visit.
The film suffers from its choppy, episodic structure and could have benefited from a more expansive approach and a greater use of statistics to back up its themes. But there’s no denying the importance of its message about an increasingly bland and homogenized world threatened to be damaged by the very people who want to experience it in a more pristine form.
Director: Pegi Vail
Producers: Pegi Vail, Melvin Estrella
Executive producer: Karen Wright
Director of photography: Melvin Estrella
Editor: Heidi Schlatter
Composer: Laura Ortman
No rating, 79 minutes