The Last Tourist
(Canada, 97 min.)
Dir. Tyson Sadler
You couldn’t get me on an airplane for an all-expense paid trip to the poshest resort on earth right now. However, The Last Tourist offers an incisive reminder that even the most frequent flyers might need to change their ways. Featuring an international cast of experts, adventurers, and curious minds, The Last Tourist asks what it means to explore the world responsibly. It’s a provocative look at an industry that need major overhaul. Moreover, as COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions all but killed the tourism industry, the pandemic further exposed the inequalities widened by the trade of luxury travel. The days of bottomless mojitos and booze-fuelled hedonism may be over because the film makes clear that travel can’t “return to normal.”
Directed by Tyson Sadler, The Last Tourist favours a talking heads approach as experts like Dr. Jane Goodall unpack the dramatic changes in tourism. Their perspectives overlay cringe-worthy images that audiences have seen before. Young people guzzle beers and sugary cocktails in the pools and on the beaches. Debauchery runs wild as travellers streak naked through markets. Similarly gluttonous are the all-you-can-eat buffets in which tourists indulge by inhaling bacon by the plateful at breakfast while the servers can barely feed their families.
Too Much Excess
Excess is one of the doc’s chief considerations. Travel, the experts note, inspires people to let go of their inhibitions. Tourists do things they would never normally do at home when they’re in a foreign land. Binge-drinking daily, for example, or having the bedsheets washed daily are among the wasteful practises that the experts flag. These habits invite economic inequalities to widen as local economies bear the burden of managing so much excess.
Interviewee Costa Christ, for example, offers a startling story about the most devastating excess of travelling: mass tourism. He recalls his adventure exploring off the beaten path and arriving as the first tourist on a remote Thai island in 1979. Only he and a farming couple on the island enjoyed its beauty. However, Christ admits he shared intel about the oasis to one person, who told another, who told another, and so on. Ten years later, he saw pictures of the beach and it looked like Woodstock.
The film unpacks the especially challenging factors of hot spot tourism, as travellers flock to the same places. This practice simply amounts to instability en masse and ruins the very wonders that travellers crave. Over-population, over-consumption, and over-saturation leaves local communities feeling the pinch as little cash flows beyond the pockets of cruise ships, hotels, and western conveniences that set up shop. The people who live there can’t enjoy the local environment and they don’t benefit from touristic pillaging.
#Sunsets and Selfies
Instagram might be the biggest culprit in the doc’s survey. The film explains how borders opened and mobility increased with travel rates rising from 25 million people annually in 1950 to 1.6 billion in 2020. The experts situate the technological revolution within this shift as travel becomes a status symbol. Whereas Christ likens his trip to the Thai island as a way to reconnect with the world, the talking heads argue that contemporary travel is all about selfie status. People don’t connect or experience the foreign lands to which they travel because they’re seeing them through a filtered lens.
Moreover, selfie culture fuels the appetite for sameness, which, in turn, widens existing problems. Cue Dr. Goodall and participants like Lek Chailert, founder of Save the Elephant Foundation, talking about rampant animal abuse. Footage from hidden cameras and clandestine shoots provide shocking images of animals beaten into submission. More shocking, however, are the actions the cameras capture in plain sight. As Sadler’s crew observes tourists enjoying animals performing for their pleasure, a mere pan away from the mainstage reveals elephants chained to posts. Some tourists are content to snap selfies with the animals and avoid the horrors outside their iPhone frames, while others reel in disgust.
Changing the Mindset
The Last Tourist isn’t all finger wagging, though. The interviewees in the film, like the hedonistic binge-drinkers and selfie snappers spliced atop their talking points, are avid travellers. Sadler’s film builds a smart essay of problems and their solutions. Travel isn’t inherently wrong, the interviewees agree. It’s just that the current levels and practices of the tourism industry can sustain the human flow. With picturesque views of 30-odd locations around the world, The Last Tourist inspires a sense of wonder with one image, but provides a sense of what’s at stake with the jarring trash-filled and overpopulated snapshots in the next.
Similarly, participants like Judy Kepher Gona advocate for sustainable travel. She argues for a radical ideological shift when it comes to tourism. People need to get back to the idea that it’s about fostering an appreciation for a new environment and seeing oneself as part of a global community. The argument evokes Christ’s own reflection of his trip to Thailand, which frames the doc nicely.
Then COVID happens and the discussion either goes out the window or intensifies depending how one views it. Title cards note that many people in the film lost their livelihoods as the tourism industry collapsed. However, as travel reopens and companies double down on luxuries and deals to lure prospective tourists, the clock is ticking even faster. The film makes clear that there’s no escaping the need to reconsider our escapism. It’s a compelling case for change.
The Last Tourist opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on April 1.