In the 1970s, Costas Christ was a keen backpacker.
Fresh-faced and ready to explore the world, he had little on him bar the clothes on his back and a keen sense of adventure.
Costas’ travels took him to Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand – then just a remote island untouched by tourists. It was home to one small fishing family, who took the young man in for three months.
During that time, he explored the island intensely, mapping his adventure for his then girlfriend. She then shared the map with friends, who in turn, spread the word about the idyllic Ko Pha Ngan.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Costas, now a travel journalist, opened the New York Times to find a feature about the island. However, the bountiful white sands and clear blue seas were gone – instead, rubbish lay strewn across the beach, having been trampled on by hedonists looking to seek a good time at one of Ko Pha Ngan’s infamous full moon parties.
Today, Thailand and its various island offshoots now attract on average 40million tourists a year.
Costas’ story, and many others like this, are described in new documentary, The Last Tourist. Touted as the equivalent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth for the travel industry, the film exposes the real impact of over tourism in an increasingly delicate ecosystem, and questions whether our wanderlust could be destroying the planet so many of us are desperate to explore.
It’s an innate part of human nature to travel, with the industry having been revolutionised in the 1980s; the growing number of the global middle class, paired with cheaper air travel and bargain package deals meant a holiday abroad was more easily available to greater numbers.
The internet further perpetuated this, with people looking to book a holiday being able to choose a location, flight and hotel in just a matter of clicks.
Social media has also made destinations that seemed unattainable easily accessible – we can replicate the exact holiday a travel influencer took, see the same sights and even take the same pictures thanks to geotagging and location services.
However, according to Tyson Sadler, the director of The Last Tourist, many of these tourist destinations are unprepared for such a steep increase in holidaymakers.
‘I don’t think we were adequately prepared for the impact of geotagging on delicate environments,’ he tells Metro.co.uk. ‘We are seeing the environmental degradation of tourism in fragile areas.’
Paired with the ongoing threat of climate change, Tyson explains that wildfires, like those which occurred in Greece last month, could become all the more damaging.
‘With increased human activity and overcrowded tourist destinations, they experience higher levels of foot traffic and human activity which can lead to fires – even negligent behaviours on behalf of the tourists,’ he explains.
’Some destinations lack the infrastructure to cater to large numbers of visitors which can hamper firefighting responsibilities and response times. Having over-tourism can add immense pressures on natural resources, which leads to things that impact the wildfires such as deforestation and water scarcity.’
But wildfires aren’t the only issue. With all-inclusive stays and resorts often bringing a slice of the western world to far flung countries, they also may prevent tourists from integrating and exploring the country they visit.
While it may sound harmless – and even desirable – to be able to order Italian cuisine while in Barbados, it can have a significant impact on local surroundings.
Local produce is overlooked for foreign imports, and small shops don’t benefit from the spending power of holidaymakers. Meanwhile, locals are paid poor wages to serve huge corporations.
‘Tourism could bring huge amounts of money to local areas,’ Bruce Poon Tip, founder of the G Adventures travel company explains to Metro.co.uk. ‘But so often, travel is a one-way conversation. The locals receive no custom or benefit of having holidaymakers there.
‘Money is often siphoned off to huge corporations based abroad.
It’s certainly the case in Kenya. While around 2million tourists visit the country to take in the breath-taking sights, it’s thought only 14% of every dollar spent there stays in the country – the rest goes to foreign investors based overseas.
Even travellers with only good intentions can leave disastrous impacts on the country they visit.
The Last Tourist observes the popularity of animal performances and elephant rides in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, which are hugely popular with holidaymakers.
However, the documentary highlights the unspeakably cruel conditions these animals are kept in, regularly beaten and drugged into submission in order to be sedated enough to accommodate the thousands of tourists keen to see them perform.
The sharp rise of ‘voluntourism’ is also a cause for concern. Recent figures suggest around 10million people a year travel to volunteer in orphanages in developing countries.
However, the revolving door of young people looking to do good abroad can leave deep psychological scars on particularly vulnerable children, many of whom have insecure attachment styles. Children are also often asked to perform, and are often used as props for Instagram photos.
In The Last Tourist, Clarissa Elakis, Project Co-ordinator at Child Safe International, compared the rise in voluntourism as being akin to ‘zoo tourism’, and believes in some ways it is a new form of neo-colonialism fuelled by a ‘white saviour mindset.’
The popularity of voluntourism has further fed the growing orphanage industrial complex. These facilities have proven to be a lucrative business, with many volunteers expected to pay for their own travel and accommodation.
Since 2005, Cambodia has seen a 75% rise in orphanages – a direct correlation to the amount of people looking to volunteer in the country. Meanwhile, it is thought 80% of children in these facilities have at least one living parent, and are taken to these facilities for financial gain.
With the numerous problems evident in the travel industry, tourism looks to be a worrying and terrifying state of affairs. But the makers of the Last Tourist are keen to stress that their film is intended to be ultimately an optimistic look at how travel can, and should, be done.
Bruce Poon Tip’s G Adventures company – which promises a cultural immersion in a country, working with locals for a sustainable experience that benefits all – has seen a significant rise in business over the last year.
‘People want something new,’ he explains. ‘We’re 30% up on 2019 numbers now. We are seeing people staying longer in destinations and deeper in their travels, with many taking one big holiday a year and really exploring their destination. We’re hoping that trend continues.’
‘I’m cautiously optimistic,’ documentary maker Tyson Sadler agrees. ‘We’re going in the right direction, but it’s about sharing this message of being conscious and responsible. Travel will always have an impact, we can’t change that, but it’s about what we can do to reduce that impact.’
With the coronavirus crisis and the subsequent lockdowns effectively closing down the world for two years, many sustainable tourism industries were hopeful that Covid could serve as a hard reset for the travel industry.
For Bruce, who worked with other larger corporations during the lockdown, he has started to see conversations being had in boardrooms that would have otherwise been unheard of 10 years ago.
‘The COP declaration, which lots of tour operators signed up for, means there’s a huge commitment for us to do better,’ he explains. ‘I know in every board meeting in tourism, sustainability is a conversation. Unfortunately, with the industry having lost so much money in the pandemic, we need to move faster. We could be doing a hell of a lot better. But we’re taking steps in the right direction.’
For Bruce and Tyson, the only way to accelerate these changes is for tourists to demand them. Every dollar, euro or pound spent abroad is a vote on how we want travel to change.
‘When it comes to business, people don’t do things because it’s the right thing to do,’ Bruce says. ‘People do it because the customer demands it. One of the main reasons we made this film is to confront customers with the realities of tourism and get them to make the change.’
Effectively, Bruce continues, travel is a privilege, and not a right – for tourists to appreciate the world we have, we have to change our entire attitude towards our holidays.
‘There are so few people in the world with the ability to say: “I can go on my holidays,’” he explains. ‘You look at the population and the amount of people who can travel. It’s an extreme privilege to be able to do it. But with privilege comes great responsibility.
‘We have the opportunity to transform lives by going on holiday if we do it right. We have to have the mindset that it’s a community experience.
‘People used to want these luxury holidays with the comforts of home, which means the destination is no longer important because you’re bogged down with conveniences. Travel should be so much more than that.’
The Last Tourist can be streamed on Sky and Apple TV in the UK. For more information and to watch the trailer click here.
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