Dominican Filmmaker Documents Effects of Global Tourism


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You may be itching to travel to Machu Picchu, drink mojitos on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, or trek a remote mountain in Tibet. But a critically acclaimed new film raises difficult questions about the delicate balance between our love of seeing the world and its effect on our planet.
Cinematographer Melvin Estrella, who is from the Dominican Republic, traveled around the world for about ten years with his wife, renowned New York University anthropologist Pegi Vail. They co-produced and created the documentary Gringo Trails, featuring breathtaking footage of some of the world’s most remarkable places: Bolivia’s gorgeous salt flat Salar de Uyuni, Bhutan’s majestic mountains and Thailand’s stunning beaches, among others. However, this is no wistful travelogue but a reality check on the ramifications of mismanaged global tourism.
NBC News spoke to Estrella on the eve of the film’s theatrical run on Thursday, September 4th, and here is an edited version of the interview.
Is tourism “destroying” the planet?
It’s a two-part question–yes in some places, in other places, no. Tourism can be unforgiving. When it has gone bad, it goes really bad. There is a phrase that one of the people interviewed said, “Tourism is like a fire that will burn your house down. If you don’t control it will destroy everything it can or it can provide you with warmth. It all depends the way it’s handled.”
There are about one billion tourists traveling in the world. In the last ten years, international travel has exploded. It went from just about 600 million travelers in 2003 to a billion in less than a decade. By 2027, there will be two billion tourists traveling the globe. One of out twelve people in the world work in the tourism industry. As more middle class in countries like China, Brazil, India, South Africa and other emerging countries grow, so will tourism. There is potential for good if we can manage it.
On the plus side is that tourism can be of great benefit, it can provide jobs and help economies, but there must be education on the workers and tourists on how to do it sustainably.
What was the inspiration for this documentary?
My wife Pegi started traveling when she was eighteen. She went to China, Thailand, Myanmar and she decided to study her own “tribe” – white middle-class, college educated travelers. In the 80’s, that was the bulk of the tourists (94 percent of tourist travelers are middle class.) Now we have a mix of people traveling around the world. We went to make a movie about people traveling but as she began to see the effects of the places where she had been to and how they changed, our focus changed.
Can you travel and leave no footprint?
That is impossible. The minute you travel you leave behind a footprint–some leave wide footprints, others leave invisible footprints. When we travel we bring our awareness, our values, and education. If you think about recycling and the environment and are respectful of cultures and religions more than likely you will be a thoughtful visitor.
What are some of the things we have to think about when we travel?
It all has to do with the same thing. It’s not just sites or beaches you check off on a list of “must sees” but to become aware what is going on that country – reading about the culture, the religion of the place in addition to the tourist sites.
I want to be part of the movement to help change a place (positively.) Instead of giving money to a hotel where all the money goes out of the country, I like to help the local people and support local establishments so that the money stays with locals.
For instance, don’t buy bottles of water, use refillable ones. Find out if the country you are visiting buries or burns their garbage. Learn as much as you can.
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