A few weeks ago at VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) Magellan and I saw the world premiere of “The Last Tourist,” a Canadian documentary produced by Poon Tip and directed by Tyson Sadler. Think you’re already pretty savvy on this topic? We did too. Until we watched this horror movie.
Let’s start with Animal Tourism, the first of three bad trips the film takes you on.
Be prepared to park your popcorn when you see what’s happening to some of the more than 500,000 animals enslaved worldwide to tourism .
African safari on your list? A large part of its cost, we know, goes to tour operators but here’s a shocker. In Kenya, only 14% of tourist spending stays in-country. In the documentary, Kenya-based founder of the Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda Judy Kepher-Gona says the most acclaimed destinations (worldwide, not just in Africa) often have the highest levels of poverty because they’ve never been integrated into the tourism value chain.
Ever ridden an elephant? No, us neither. No one would if they saw the torture, beating and Captain Hook weapon used to cajole baby elephants into submission and unnaturally force them to shoulder tourists for the rest of their miserable lives.
Watching monkeys wrestle, horses race, whales blow or tigers drugged for selfies; it’s all the same—animal entertainment is animal cruelty.
But like every good documentary, the film shows the good that’s being done—you’ll cheer up, maybe even want to cheer out loud when Sangduen Lek Chailert, who runs an orphanage for damaged and retired elephants, is on camera.
The Last Tourist showed us something else that’s truly emetic—Orphanage Tourism.
Who knew that 80% of the 8 million children in orphanages worldwide have families? Or that in Cambodia alone, the number of children in orphanages has doubled in the last ten years.
The industry capitalizes on poverty-stricken parents, urging them to sell their children into orphanages for a paltry sum. Profits come from well-meaning tourists who pay to visit these orphanages and young people who volunteer to work and teach there, often paying their own room and board. Operators send children out into the street to entice tourists to the orphanage for a little performance. After the song and dance, the sad-eyed children hold out their little hands for a donation. And/or the staff tug at guilty hearts with speeches requesting money to assist the orphanage in its benevolent kindness to impoverished young souls. The wiliest operators get themselves on the itineraries of unsuspecting/complicit tour companies and school-volunteer programs.
Many orphanages don’t have child-protection policies, such as checking the backgrounds of their short and long-term visitors, thereby leaving children open to mistreatment and abuse. A collective gasp echoed throughout the audience at the screening when we heard this: one-in-ten of these children commits suicide.
The documentary suggests we think of orphanage tourism as a human zoo and ask ourselves: would we allow this in our country? To improve the lives of orphaned children, we could direct our tourist dollars toward supporting vocational training and community-based initiatives through responsible organizations and tour operators that adhere to ChildSafe guidelines.
We’ve saved possibly the worst for the last. Cruise Tourism.
Cruise line corporations are making increasingly vile attempts to flow as many tourist dollars as possible into the deep pockets of their ships’ owners. Their goal is to keep us on the ship, have us shop at company-owned shops on board, and if we do leave the vessel go to their sanctioned shops and purchase their pricey excursions (for which they pocket about 50% of your payment, which is why our friends Pat and Dallas contact a couple other cruisers beforehand and arrange local tours for a better price and more authentic experience).
As a Norwegian from Lofoten told his country’s tourism board, cruise companies strain local infrastructure, “leaving nothing but shit and pollution.” An average cruise ship dumps around 750,000 litres of grey water a day—and maritime regulations allow most of this to be dumped at sea once the ship is twelve miles out. Below 60°N in Canada, ships need only treat grey water when dumping within three nautical miles of land—outside of that it’s legal to dump it untreated. WTF? Cruise vessels burn bunker fuel, a cheap carcinogenic diesel that belches pollutants. During a seven-day cruise, a passenger produces emissions equivalent to eighteen days on land. This is not insignificant in our youniverse. In 2019, nearly 30 million people took a cruise. Do the math—no don’t; it’s too depressing.
I don’t remember if the documentary (three years, fifteen countries, four-hundred hours of footage condensed to ninety minutes) showed specific cruise lines but The Guardian named the three worst. “The world’s dominant cruise companies—Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian—pay little towards the upkeep of the public goods they live off. By incorporating themselves in overseas tax havens with benign environmental and labour laws – respectively Panama, Liberia and Bermuda—cruising’s big three, which account for three-quarters of the industry, get to enjoy low taxes and avoid much irksome regulation, while polluting the air and sea, eroding coastlines and pouring tens of millions of people into picturesque ports of call that often cannot cope with them. What goes for cruises goes for most of the travel industry.”
Cruise ships have become humungous. Of the 270 operating around the world (mushrooming to 294 by year-end), the largest has a capacity of nearly 9,000 passengers and crew plus 23 swimming pools and 18 decks.
The on-board amenities of some cruise lines depicted in The Last Tourist are mind-boggling. Surf simulators. Sky-diving simulators. Bumper cars. Go-Kart racing. Roller Coasters. Suspended biking. Submersibles. And coming next year—The Drop, a 10-storey slide, and The Rush, a pair of twisting slides that will let friends race to the bottom.
Has tourism hit bottom? Is there a bottom?
Over the past few decades, the global middle class has grown, enabling tens of millions of people with the means to travel. In 2018 the number of airplane flights worldwide reached a record 38.9 million. More of us want to travel and as the documentary showed, more often and for less money.
Increasingly, social-media networks showcasing models and influencers paid to pose with products encourage me-too travel. The Last Tourist shared an unfortunate stat: 30% of millennials said they wouldn’t go on a trip that didn’t have social-media cachet. Bill Maher says fifty million people worldwide consider themselves influencers and 72% say they’d like to be online celebrities. In his words, the InstaFamous are their own paparazzi, having “figured out a way to monetize fucking off.”
Should we just stop travelling?
Maybe, maybe not.
“The truth is you don’t personally have to survey every square inch on earth, no matter what your so-called friends tell you or what you read in all that newspaper and magazine travel porn,” writes Lucy Ellmann in her essay The Lost Art of Staying Put. “After all, the only really interesting thing about travel is seeing new flora and fauna, and we’ve killed off most of that…Humankind should be your business, not this hypnotic holidaying.”
But, “Making up over 10 per cent of global GDP and contributing to almost 320 million jobs, tourism is a lifeline for many people and communities, and to stop travelling completely would have differently devastating effects the world over,” says Suitcase Magazine.
For me, the best story The Last Tourist shows is Francisca Qquerar Mayta founding the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Cooperative in Peru. Tourists on their way to Machu Picchu never stopped in her rundown village. That is until Francisca revived ancient weaving techniques and persuaded local women to get involved—now their profits have enabled the village to build a school! And If not for tourism, many private reserves around the world that provide vital space for animals would revert to being hunting grounds. (Since the advent of Covid-19, bushmeat and ivory poaching in Africa are on the rise.)
Travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain in his travelogue Innocents Abroad in 1869. Is this still true?
Paul Nussbaum, adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, says travel activates our brain to sprout new dendrites that pull in information from the outside world. The more dendrite branches we grow, the more resilient our brains become. “Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms,” says Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School and the author of numerous studies on the connection between creativity and international travel.
Travel is not a human right, but it should make us more aware of human rights.
Is it reasonable to build luxurious resorts in developing countries where a single guest daily consumes 600 litres of water while neighbouring villages don’t have a central water supply? And how is it that only two per cent of the people in low-income countries have received even a single dose of Covid vaccine? (Canada pledged 40 million doses; so far we’ve only made good on 2.7 million.)
Change is needed and it’s on the way.
As The Last Tourist suggests, we need to find ways to travel better.
Choose responsible operators. Travel to smaller cities. Go off-peak. Travel in small groups. Stay longer in one destination and live more like locals. Employ local guides. Make purchases where the cash stays local. Engage with people in places we visit.
We need to be prepared to pay more for travel—tourist taxes are the beginning of a trend toward paying for the pollution our travel entails.
Which means we may need to prepare to travel less.
“Part of why we feel the need for so many new experiences may simply be that we are so bad at absorbing the ones we have had,” writes Alain de Botton. “Huge chunks of experience are still there in our heads, intact, and vivid, just waiting for us …regular immersion in our travel memories could be a critical part of what can sustain and console us—and not least, is perhaps the cheapest and most flexible form of entertainment.”
Pico Iyer, my favourite travel writer, says travel is like falling in love. We’re in a heightened state of awareness, mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. “That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”
UPDATE: October 21, 2021. Winners of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021 Elephant in the room. Winner, Photojournalism. Adam Oswell draws attention to zoo visitors watching a young elephant perform underwater. Although this performance was promoted as educational and as exercise for the elephants, Adam was disturbed by this scene. Organizations concerned with the welfare of captive elephants view performances like these as exploitative because they encourage unnatural behavior. Elephant tourism has increased across Asia. In Thailand there are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild. The COVID-19 pandemic caused international tourism to collapse, leading to elephant sanctuaries becoming overwhelmed with animals that can no longer be looked after by their owners.
Crane, Brent. “For a More Creative Brian, Travel.” The Atlantic. March 31, 2015.
de Bellaigue, Christopher. “The end of tourism.” The Guardian. June 2020.
Ellmann, Lucy. “The Lost Art of Staying Put.” Things are Against Us. Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2021.
Kumar, Malavika. “Why cruises are actually terrible.” Travel Earth. February 13, 2019.
Lee, Giacomao. “Overtourism and sustainability in the post-Covid, COP26 era: Should travel be only for the rich?” Railway Technology. September 21, 2021.
Lowrey, Annie. “Too Many People Want to Travel.” The Atlantic. June 4, 2019.
Nikel, David. “Record Numbers Rescued From Iconic Norway Tourist Site.” Forbes. July 9, 2019.
Orton, Bi-Sunyer. “The Cultural Costs of Tourism.” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine. September 1982.
Francis, Justin. “Overtourism—what is it, and how can we avoid it?” Responsible Travel.
Tullis, Paul. “After a Year Without Rowdy Tourists, European Cities Want to Keep It That Way.” Bloomberg. August 16, 2021.
United Nations World Tourism Organization. “Global Code of Ethics for Tourism.”
“Grey water dumping threatens ocean health and people.” World Wildlife Fund. May 19, 2020.