When Tourism Goes Wrong

In 1979, I was a 21-year-old backpacker who set out in search of paradise. I found it in southern Thailand.

Lost on Ko Phangan, I stumbled upon the brilliant sands of Haad Rin, a slice of tropical beauty beyond imagination. I stayed there a month, living off the land. I made a hand-drawn map of its location and vowed never to let the secret out.

But others discovered it, and my beach became the site of Thailand’s infamous and raucous Full Moon Party (above).

Today Haad Rin represents tourism gone wrong; its sad decline sent me on a lifelong mission to help make tourism right for local people and the planet.

Haad Rin is one of four places featured in the new documentary Gringo Trails, by filmmaker/anthropologist Pegi Vail. She depicts—in sometimes shocking images—the bad, the ugly, and, yes, the good sides of tourism.

The film has been rolling out at film festivals and on college campuses, sparking much needed discussions about what it means to be a traveler. It will begin its theatrical run on September 4 in New York City at Cinema Village.

Postscript: I never returned to that beach. But as Gringo Trails points out, its fate and the fate of all special destinations rest partly in our hands.

Nat Geo World Legacy Awards honor sustainable tourism in action.

Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.

What are some of your ideas for being a more responsible traveler? Share your thoughts with the Nat Geo Travel community by leaving a comment.

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  1. Lizzy
    Tirana, Albania
    December 21, 2014, 8:33 am

    I have this debate with myself all the time, as does anyone who witnessed the death of beauty. It has been difficult for me to acknowledge that what I value in a destination is not what everyone values – what I see as a positive, others see as a negative (and the other way around).

    What is important is that people have a say in the way tourism looks in their own community. So long as the community defines the industry (and not the other way around). Then I, as a visitor and guest in that community, should try to understand appreciate what they are trying to accomplish.

  2. Laura
    Long Beach CA soon to be world gypsy
    August 18, 2014, 11:56 pm

    Costas, Thank you for the post.
    I hope it brings awareness and more consideration to all travelers. We can only hope education will improve the situation, and it’s the “get used to it” attitude that creates the deterioration of beauty. The more people learn to respect others and their home, the better chance we have to preserve the beauty.

  3. spizliv
    August 17, 2014, 8:13 pm

    irresponsible tourismn is not good but it is not destroying the world

  4. John
    August 17, 2014, 2:43 pm

    It really won’t matter how responsible you are, more people on the planet equals more of this behavior not less, there will always be that percentage of people that are just trashy, regardless of class, it’ll never change, get used to it!

  5. Jeremy Garraway
    Waynesboro PAr
    August 17, 2014, 11:14 am

    “Now that I have discovered this wonderful place, people shouldn’t come and ruin it”

  6. Michael Lynch
    Okinawa, Japan
    August 15, 2014, 11:12 pm

    Irresponsible tourism may not be destroying the world but, it sure does ruin some pristine locations.