In the travel industry, we often extoll its value and virtues. But as valid as these are, there is also a need to expose and talk about its dark side.
The Last Tourist documentary invites and encourages that conversation. Produced by G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip, The Last Tourist showed at a special screening in Toronto on 07APR as part of the city's Hot Docs festival. The auditorium was filled with G Adventures' VIP clients, travel industry professionals, media, travel partners, and many of the documentary's production team, including Poon Tip and director Tyson Sadler.
An inconvenient truth
"Tourism can kill a place."
That's one of the opening lines of the documentary, which sweeps from Cambodia to Peru and other honeypot destinations around the world that have been significantly impacted by the swell of tourism. Compelling speakers—from Poon Tip to conservation icon Dr. Jane Goodall and Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of the Kenya-based Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda—expose the rapid rise of mass travel post-WWII and the effects activities like cruising, voluntourism, and animal circuses and zoos have on communities, wildlife, and the environment.
In Thailand, viewers learn about the cruel, heartbreaking conditions of elephants being beaten into submission to be used for riding and entertainment. In Jamaica, local artisans deplore tourism revenue "leakage", as cruise lines act as gatekeepers for tourist dollars by holding a tight reign over where their cruisers visit during a stop in port. In Kenya, we learn about the emotional toll voluntourism takes on children in orphanages as a revolving door of tourists come and go from their lives. We hear an astonishing statistic that only 14% of tourism dollars spent in Kenya actually stay in the country.
These and other topics depicted in the documentary are tough to face in any industry, but are a stark contrast to what we all know and love about travel.
Your wallet is your vote
Despite shining a light on the darker side of travel, The Last Tourist's goal isn't to halt travel in its tracks. In fact, the documentary does a striking job of showing both the ugly and beautiful side of travel, with scenic drone footage inspiring wanderlust. Rather, its purpose is to inspire travellers and travel industry professionals to think how we can get travel right. By highlighting the ugly truth, it strives to drive home a single overarching point: a traveller's wallet is a vote.
The various experts in the film emphasize that by making more conscious travel choices, travellers can make informed decisions about where they choose to spend their money and the types of activities they support.
"To create real change, we have to educate the consumer," Poon Tip said in the Q&A.
“Travel can be the greatest form of wealth distribution,” he noted—but only if we make conscious choices with our wallets. "We can't do anything unless consumers change their buying patterns."
Speaking directly to the travel industry, he said: "You get into travel because you love travel, and when you start selling capacity and amenities as opposed to experiences, the destination is no longer relevant. When the thread count on sheets becomes more important than the destination, we're in trouble."
An opportunity to reset
The COVID-19 pandemic has, at least temporarily, somewhat re-written the travel playbook. On the down side, struggling tourist-dependent nations were hit hard by massive losses in international revenues.
But there are some positives. For one, as planes were grounded, international travel collapsed, and news outlets around the world documented the Earth's welcome reprieve from travellers, people seemed to become more conscious of their jetsetting impacts. For another, perhaps this is an opportunity to rethink travel.
"We have the opportunity right now to reset. We're fighting so hard to get travel back to where it was and I don't think it's worth the fight," Poon Tip says. "Travel wasn't in a good place."
Here and now, we can get back to enjoying travel for the destinations, the communities, the learning, and not the thread count on sheets. The documentary has some suggestions on how we can start shifting our mindset around travel: Ask hotels and tour operators how they give back to local communities. If they aren't able to answer your question right away, chances are their sustainability practices aren't very well developed, or don't exist altogether. Tip generously. Do your research. And remember that wildlife isn't entertainment (As Poon Tip noted, "If you can ride it and hug it, it's probably cruel.")