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Filmmakers Explore Tourism's Toll On Our Planet

Cinematographer Melvin Estrella and his wife, anthropologist Pegi Vail traveled the world and made a powerful film on how we impact where we visit.
Image: Shooting on localtion in Chalalan Ecolodge, Bolivia
Husband and wife documentary filmmakers Pegi Vail and Melvin Estrella shooting on localtion in Chalalan Ecolodge, Bolivia. Icarus Films

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.

Image: Shooting on localtion in Chalalan Ecolodge, Bolivia
Documentary filmmakers Pegi Vail, an anthropologist, and her husband Melvin Estrella, a cinematographer, shooting on localtion in Chalalan Ecolodge, Bolivia for their documentary Gringo Trails.James Brunker / Icarus Films

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.

How do you balance the allure of travel with sustainability and preservation of cultures?

My wife’s goal is to travel. I am in love with the idea of travel. What I won’t do anymore is to look at the top twenty sites of a country and go. Now I ask myself questions that I didn’t before. I know that I have an effect and I care to have the least devastating effect as possible. I think if someone were visiting my house, how would they behave, would they go to my church in a bathing suit? It’s about asking questions and being an informed traveler.

What is the role of government in tourism?

Governments are responsible for regulating tourism. You set the rules of what you will allow in your house and it works like that in tourism to some degree....But in some countries governments are erratic, or change every four years and there isn’t stability.

The travel industry also has a responsibility, the guide books as well. Both have to be real about the places they promote and not just market the fantasy of the experience.

What countries are doing something right?

In some places like in Bolivia’s Amazon Forest--we show in the film a place called Chalalan Ecolodge--they are doing something different—they are educating guides, the community, and creating sustainable structures where tourists, the community and the environment benefit. They are educating themselves about the type of tourism they want.

In northern Thailand there is a woman named Pot Jana Suansri who is spending time educating communities on the cost of tourism, whether they want it, and how to grow it....there are many grassroots efforts.

Where are you seeing environmental damage due to tourism?

In Nicaragua and throughout Central America and Mexico along the coastal areas people are selling their beachfront properties to large hotels and foreigners. It’s certainly an attractive offer in the short run for locals. In the Dominican Republic, where I’m from, a lot of local people work for foreigners but don’t own a piece of property. Long term, it is not sustainable. They are priced out and can’t afford to live in their own homes.

Governments need to make sure that they educate their people that the idea of just selling property for making quick bucks will cost them. But they also need to offer incentives or fund those same locals to start their own businesses or help them find resources to do so.

We were heartbroken in Bolivia (the Salt Mines), and watching the changes happen killed us.

What responsibilities do tourists have to the places they visit?

It begins for each of us to ask ourselves how we play a part in it. The travel industry plays a part. The government plays a part. The guidebooks play a part. But no one is talking to each other. Locals are surviving based on things they hear about but they need real information and need to be part of the planning process.

What this film does is bring people together to talk about this issue. There is not one silver bullet. We need to spend time educating each other.

Sustainable travel is good. And it helps to stay at a sustainable place. In the end, it helps the environment and usually the local community.

Storytelling is essential for changing tourism. If we want to change tourism (in a positive way) we have to change the way we think and tell stories about places and instead see the reality of the place.