An uneven examination of paradise(s) lost, Pegi Vail’s Gringo Trails showcases the tourism industry’s encroachment on the natural beauty and modest livelihoods in undeveloped areas within countries such as Bolivia and Thailand. Luring worldwide backpackers with the promise of once-in-a-lifetime adventures, small and cash-strapped cultures see the vast financial benefits of hosting intrepid, low-maintenance travelers, which then slowly turn the indigenous societies into caricatures of their former selves in their drive to provide the “authentic experience.” Vail is restrained in critiquing tourism’s thriving and merciless business, relying on shrewdly spliced archive footage of once-stunning landscapes mutating into virtual theme parks (and doing so with minimal commentary), but this can only go so far before it seems like Vail is just scratching the surface on the issue, as she and her world-traveler/blogger talking heads only engage in mere theorizing rather than genuine inquiry.
The doc’s spotty episodic structure causes the film to repeatedly shift focus, and one of the more fascinating products of the backpacking phenomenon that Vail too briefly explores is how a country’s tourism industry sells natural danger as a harmless attraction. Using Yossi Ghinsberg’s remarkable 1981 survival in the Bolivian jungle after nearly a month as a launching pad, the Bolivian people in that area have turned Ghinsberg’s experience into guided tours for thrill-seeking backpackers, disregarding the fact that Ghinsberg was lost and facing death before being rescued. This is echoed later in a bizarre scene featuring a crowd of tourists surrounding an anaconda in a marsh, where everyone attempts to touch the fearsome predator; the creature’s notorious image is suddenly subverted when a tour guide subtly warns that the insect repellent on the tourists’ skin is toxic to the snake and may kill it if it’s touched.
Perhaps the most tragic story told in the film involves the transformation of Ko Pha Ngan’s Haad Rin, once a long stretch of virgin beach and now home to Full Moon Parties that suggest a frat boy’s Disneyland. Vail counters images of Haad Rin’s barely inhabited past with the present ebb and flow of the sea of beer bottles that litter the beach after a party, a juxtaposition that becomes an undeniably powerful indictment of how countries will brazenly sacrifice both heritage and pristine land to serve the touristic needs of the outsider. Though the tourists are presented as nothing more that single-minded party animals (which the film dubiously presents as an exclusively American and European phenomenon), and the native Ko Pha Nganians see this tourism as a financial opportunity, Vail never proposes a resolution or alternative to the issue, which suggests the director is content to rest on a moral high ground with her images. Haad Rin’s story encapsulates Vail’s increasingly unsatisfying reserve toward her subject matter, and this beautifully edited film somehow addresses a lot, but ultimately says little.