The Last Tourist (Hulu) examines the effects of mass tourism on our planet, and an industry often unmoored from the land and local communities that it promotes as destinations. Written and directed by Tyson Sadler, the doc is truly global in scope, traveling to Kenya, Thailand, Peru, and the Caribbean to tell its story of an industry and its consumers facing a paradigmatic moment.
The Gist: According to one expert in The Last Tourist, eighty percent of the world’s countries consider tourism a top revenue generator. From Thailand (39.8 million tourists annually) and Cambodia (6.2 million), to the Bahamas (7.2 million) and Jamaica (4.3 million), to France, where over 90 million annual visitors take selfies at the Eiffel Tower and herd into the Louvre, tourism is a bomb that just keeps detonating. But while numbers at that scale mean money being spent, mass tourism also puts immense strain on environments, extracts resources from local communities, and even shuts them out completely. In Kenya, for example, only fourteen percent of every dollar spent stays within the country, with the rest siphoned off to travel companies and international interests, even though it’s a region’s most vulnerable people bearing the brunt of tourism’s effect. Locals, says sustainable travel advocate Judy Kepher-Gona, “are not integrated into the tourism value chain.”
The internet is a driver here. “The advent of social media has completely changed the way we travel,” says Dr. Rachel Dodds of Ryerson University. “We’re going after a photograph.” And Last Tourist is populated with reams of millennials articulating careful camera setups before the massive 12th century bulk of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or propping themselves up on the seamless flagstones of Machu Picchu. But beyond contemporary travel as a mechanism for Instagram posting, it’s also dominated by forces like cruise ship companies, who hawk boat-top go-kart tracks that overlook Alaskan glaciers, an intrusion only exacerbated by the companies keeping their consumers’ spending power captive aboard ship. There’s little to no connection with the local environment, and therefore a profound lack of local benefit. It’s not even travel, says Bruce Poon Tip, an adventure travel operator and a Last Tourist executive producer. “Let’s just call it a transfer of environments.”
As it transitions into its prospect for change, and profiles individuals and companies integrating the tenets of more responsible tourism into their business practices – a cab company in India that empowers women as independent drivers, or a sanctuary for elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand that powers local infrastructure with portions of its tour profits – Last Tourist also highlights some of the most tragic parts of this global conversation. In Thailand, elephants are held captive, cruelly trained, and utterly demanded as they become entertainment fodder for tourists. And in countries like Cambodia and Kenya, where orphanages have fueled the rise of a billion-dollar industry in “voluntourism,” local children are exploited in the service of foreign visitors’ savior complexes. It amounts to neocolonialism for the sake of a selfie.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? The 2013 documentary Vendemmia explored the ecological, cultural, and political effects of tourists in the millions descending on a small community of ancient villages in Italy, and Bye Bye Barcelona (2014) searched for coexistence between the Spanish city’s residents and its status as a destination site for tourism on a massive scale.
Performance Worth Watching: Michelle Oliel isn’t afraid to implicate herself in the exploitative nature of “voluntourism.” She explains how her experience traveling to Africa and making fleeting visits to orphanages there revealed the instability within that system, and inspired her to become an international human rights lawyer and advocate for children’s rights.
Memorable Dialog: Arnie Weissman, Editor-in-Chief of Travel Weekly, highlights Asia, Africa, South America as destinations that represent “the critical crossroads of poverty, indigenous culture, and biodiversity” being found in one place. “And this is where tourism is going right now.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: As a consciousness-raising tool, The Last Tourist is sharp and revealing. The average person, listlessly trolling Expedia or Kayak for hot deals on an all-inclusive in Mexico, might not pause to consider how such a resort completely walls off the local population, and prevents their economic participation. Similarly, the visitor to Thailand who buys an elephant ride down the Kawai River becomes party to the cruelty that led the animal there. Last Tourist is most crusading when it prods individual travelers to consider how and where they’re spending their money, and “leakage,” or the dissipation of tourism dollars from a local economy. “The idea we’ve had of a tourist has to end,” Bruce Poon Tip says. “We need a new tourist, a new traveler.”
It does take some time for the doc to get there. Last Tourist features some incredible scenery, from aerials of snow-covered mountains and drone cameras drifting across crimson red crags, to the slow pad through a rainforest to an ancient waterfall in the Ecuadorian Amazon. There are scenes of our built environment, too, as a woman darts her cab through the clog and tumult of New Delhi, and African grasslands give way to poor villages. But wherever on Earth it goes, the film aligns its vistas and hideaways against the inevitability of tourists. A string of figures traipsing through the foreground with backpacks and hiking boots, or a glut of camera-wielding bus trippers descending on a village. It’s a little bewildering, traveling to so many places on the scale of a nature documentary while being told how contemporary travel disconnects visitors from the place to which they’re traveling.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Last Tourist highlights a lot of the most glaring issues plaguing global travel today, but it also illustrates the physical wonder and sense of community that still thrives in our world.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges