There are more than a few disturbing images in Tyson Sadler’s lavish new documentary about the global tourism industry.
Elephants cavort for hordes of tourists in Thailand, but only after being tortured into submission by their trainers.
Monkeys are seen riding tricycles on zip lines. Hideously drugged tigers are backdrops for human selfies.
At times, The Last Tourist, which will have its world premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, is like the PETA chamber of horrors.
On other occasions, it demonstrates the crassness of the cruise-ship industry.
Corporations are documented doing virtually whatever they can to ensure that as many tourist dollars as possible flow into the pockets of the ship’s owner and remain out of impoverished local communities in the Caribbean and other parts of the world.
Then there are beaches overrun with bodies, turning what were once placid pieces of paradise into belching masses of humanity.
It doesn’t have to be this way, say more than a dozen tourism-industry experts and animal-welfare activists who speak on-screen in The Last Tourist.
“Travel can be the greatest form of wealth distribution,” G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip says.
But as the various speakers in the film emphasize, it will take a major change in travellers’ mindsets to get there.
Director advances a big vision
The film’s origins go back to 2018, when G Adventures invited directors to make proposals to do a short movie about the company.
Sadler, who was born and raised in Vancouver, had spent the last 20 years travelling to or working or living in more than 70 countries.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Sadler explained that he offered an alternative vision to Poon Tip, who is The Last Tourist’s executive producer.
“Why don’t we set out to make something much larger than this?” Sadler said he told the company. “Let’s go make An Inconvenient Truth for the travel industry. Not something that’s pitching any brands. Not a piece of advertisement. But just something that’s editorially independent where we can actually be the Food Inc. for the travel industry, An Inconvenient Truth for the travel industry, and we can have a global conversation about the issue.”
The idea struck a chord with Poon Tip, who chose Sadler, a veteran international journalist, to direct the film. Over the next two years, Sadler travelled to 15 countries to film images and conduct interviews. He told the Straight that more than 50 countries are represented in the film.
“I was able to create a large network of filmmakers from around the world that were able to contribute some footage,” he said.
As a result, there’s plenty of spectacular scenery, including masses of flamingoes in Africa and pristine waterfalls at the headwaters of the Amazon.
“Mass tourism has led to the destruction of the very things they’ve come to see,” famed primatologist Jane Goodall says in an interview filmed at the Sutton Place Hotel in Vancouver during the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Among the most articulate speakers in the film is Judy Kepher-Gona, the Kenya-based founder of the Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda. She points out that only 14 percent of tourist spending stays in Kenya; the rest flows out of the country.
“Tourism can perpetrate poverty by not integrating communities,” Kepher-Gona says. “And you find, unfortunately, for some destinations, the most acclaimed destinations have the highest levels of poverty. Why does it happen? Because they were never integrated into the tourism value chain.”
Experts advise doing your research
A central message driven home by Kepher-Gona, Poon Tip, and others is the importance of being a conscious traveller.
They explain that when travellers do their research, it becomes easier to take steps to ensure that all the revenue doesn’t wind up in corporate coffers.
“I think what the world needs now is for people to travel,” Poon Tip says.
G Adventures, for example, has steered travellers toward a Peruvian community near Machu Picchu, where guests stay inside residents’ homes rather than shacking up in foreign-owned hotels.
There's a particularly moving scene near the end of the film where Yachak Delfin Pauchi Yalishara, founder of Pimpilala Lodge in Ecuador, takes western tourists into the Amazon rain forest. There, he explains the spiritual significance of the plants and a waterfall, demonstrating why it's so important to preserve these natural treasures.
The Last Tourist does not broach the topic of whether it’s even ethical to fly to faraway destinations in the wake of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Nor does the film offer any advice to travellers about using carbon offsets to reduce the impact of air travel.
“It’s a conversation that we need to have,” Sadler acknowledged. “It’s also a conversation that I don’t have an answer to.”
Without dismissing environmental issues, he shifted gears to discuss some of the upsides of travel.
“I think the gateway toward being a more empathetic understanding person is by communicating and connecting with other cultures around the world,” Sadler said. “I think that when we connect with other cultures around the world, understanding increases, racism diminishes.”
After the pandemic struck, Sadler had to pivot and revisit the documentary, noting that many locally owned tourist businesses in the developing world didn’t survive the collapse in visits.
“It did delay the film about a year and a half,” Sadler said. “But it was a very necessary component because if we…did not address what the global pandemic has done to the travel industry, then we have an outdated film.”