TourMatters was honored to host the Boston-area premiere of Pegi Vail’s film, Gringo Trails, last week. As a traveler’s guide to researching and selecting a tour, TourMatters is also responsible for promoting the health of the tourism industry. Bringing together a mix of travelers, operators, and educators was one way to start the conversation locally.
As a phrase, “gringo trails” (and its Asian cousin, the “banana pancake circuit”) refers to the common routes and must-see destinations backpackers and more adventurous Westerners trek and travel to. Vail follows travelers through some popular destinations – the Bolivian Amazon and salt flats, Timbuktu, and the southern islands of Thailand. Not only does Vail show us the 2010 state of affairs, but her footage and interviews go back nearly 30 years. The juxtaposition is unnerving, but accurate.
Over 20 international tour operators have their headquarters or an office in the Boston area. These businesses are responsible for finding new destinations, designing tours, marketing and selling them to travelers, hiring guides, and delivering unique but replicable experiences.
“After screening Gringo Trails, we decided that bringing the film to Boston would be great for the thriving travel community here,” TourMatters founder Jeremy Loeckler said. “We recognize the importance and necessity of responsible tourism. Hosting a local screening was a way for TourMatters to encourage a discussion among the many Boston-based travel companies and travelers who visit these countries.”
Guests from EF and Go Ahead, Tom Harper, Overseas Adventure Travel, Viking River Cruises, Emerald Waterways, DuVine Cycling attended the screening. Emerson College, Boston University, and the Harvard Extension School were represented as well.
Industry guests shared their perspectives in response to the film. Words like “must see” and “required viewing” highlight the importance of education and awareness when it comes to traveling to less developed destinations.
Ken Lovering, owner of KL Marketing Communications, has worked with several operators that use catalogs and websites to sell their tours. Lovering understands the role creative marketing plays in setting the stage and the standard for what travelers should expect when visiting preserved or fragile sites.
“We need to be vigilant in reminding travelers that they are privileged guests when they step into an indigenous village, explore an archaeological site, or enjoy pristine settings.” Lovering said of tour marketers. “It's okay to leverage such experiences as selling points, but guides on the ground must deliver them with sensitivity.”
Joe Luchison, Vice President of Marketing at Tom Harper River Cruises, indicated the film is especially helpful for anyone who hasn’t traveled to an “under-the-radar” destination before.
“This film takes everyone's natural approach and thinking about and preparing for upcoming travels and turns it on its head,” Luchison said. “All travelers, regardless of their destination, should think first about how they will impact their destination; then, they just might get more out of how the destination will impact them.”
Michelle Duffy, Director of Marketing for DuVine Cycling + Adventure shared a similar opinion. “[Gringo Trails] forces you to reflect upon the ethical nature of what we do,” she said. “It is essential that we ensure there is a symbiotic relationship between our guests and local friends.”
In addition to shining a light on some of the damage tourism has left in its wake, Gringo Trails offers hope and alternative solutions. Bolivia and Bhutan are just two examples in the film where education and control have allowed tourism to support the social and natural environments, not destroy them.
Megan Epler Wood, Director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, attended the screening with several of her students. “I have visited many locations around the world that have been completely transformed by tourism and it can be very difficult to help local communities to plan for the effects.” Epler Wood said. “The film shows how the community of Chalalan, Bolivia prospers when they take control of their own future and allow tourists to visit only on their own terms.”
Jules Metcalf is a Program Marketing Manager for Go Ahead Tours, an EF company, which specializes in immersive tours for adults. She agreed that tourism can have a negative impact, but believes in the upside. “[Tourism can] be a powerful source for good when approached with thoughtfulness, planning and an eye for sustainability, as seen in places like Bhutan.
“Being thoughtful about engaging with native cultures and injecting your money back into the local economies is one way we can all have a more positive impact on the places we visit,” Metcalf said. “The film illustrates how important it is that we pay attention now, learn from past experiences and work to preserve these cultures and natural habitats for future generations – especially as more and more people look to travel.”
Education and lack of other options will force more responsible tourism on the part of operators and local organizations. Certainly travelers can do their part. Loeckler equated the shifting attitudes of tourism to the public’s increased awareness of natural and organic foods in the agricultural supply chain. “The truth is, it’s expensive to be thoughtful,” he said, “so this race to the bottom on price leads to a live-for-today philosophy.”
As destinations and operators make changes in what they allow and what they offer, travelers will continue to see the best of an area while having the opportunity to bring out the best of themselves in the process.