Tourism is a massive, booming, heavily flawed industry and its impacts on local communities, wildlife, and the environment are severe

A new documentary entitled The Last Tourist shines a light on the perils of tourism and issues the urgent need for a shift in how we proceed when exploring this big beautiful planet we are lucky to live on.

The Last Tourist is a film that every single tourist—this applies to travellers, vacationers, holiday-goers, volunteers, explorers, the list goes on—should watch. Why? Because awareness and education are critical to a more sustainable way forward in the tourism industry. If we do not do our part, the world as we know it will no longer be there for us to explore.

The dark side of tourism

The tourism industry is riddled with issues, ignorance and unintended consequences as a result of where we spend our time, attention and money. As the film shares, “tourists are unconscious consumers.” We often neglect to do our research or turn a blind eye to what is truly going on behind the beautiful scenes and fascinating experiences.

The Last Tourist showcases many of these problems in eye-opening ways that cannot be ignored. Animal cruelty via wildlife tourism is a heartbreaking tourist draw, as the film reveals scenes of elephants being hooked and beaten into submission in order to perform circus tricks or rides for tourists.

The documentary shares that there are more than 3,000 elephants suffering across Southeast Asia. Tigers are drugged for selfies, while chimpanzees, lions and other animals are kept in inhumane conditions simply for the entertainment of tourists. What’s left, as the documentary shows, are very sad, distorted versions of these animals, which are displaying abnormal behaviours or signs of PTSD from abusive training. There is work being done to redeem these practices, but as long as tourists continue to pay for these experiences, businesses will continue to provide these types of entertainment.

A naive assumption is that if we are travelling to a place, we are automatically helping the local community, which couldn’t be further from the truth. “Tourism can perpetuate poverty by not integrating into communities,” states Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda in The Last Tourist. The documentary calls out cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts, which are cash cows for tourist dollars but deny the local communities the revenue that is being spent in their backyard. Tourists’ money is funnelled into big-box companies, while the locals continue making minimal wages and living in poverty.

Kenya is used as another example, a hot spot for tourism with its Masai Mara safari destination, but here only 14 percent of tourism dollars stay within the country with the remaining 86 percent going to foreign-owned tour operators, airlines, lodge owners, transportation and food that needs to be brought in. The most acclaimed tourist destinations also have the highest levels of poverty.

But the problems with irresponsible tourism don’t stop there. The film shows that "voluntourism" perpetuates a saviour complex, bringing unqualified visitors into positions of power: teaching local kids, or fleeting visits with orphanages, creating a rotating door of superficial connections and leaving the children with attachment disorders and in worse positions than where they started. The Last Tourist shares that many of them still have families and even a living parent in the local community, but voluntourism fuels the demand for children to be separated from their family and live in these orphanages.

Many tourists are only travelling for the sake of social media, with no regard for deeper meaningful experiences, understanding of the culture, or respectful interactions with the locals. Visitors are behaving irresponsibly and disrespectfully, leaving trash, destroying the landscape or artifacts, even vandalising spaces. We are exploiting these places for a photo opportunity, and overtourism is proving to be too much for the environment, causing gorgeous destinations such as Thailand’s Maya Bay to have to shut down. As renowned primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall says in The Last Tourist, “tourism can kill a place.”

So where do we go from here?

The fact is, travel is not going away. As the documentary shares, 80 percent of countries count tourism in their top five foreign exchange revenues. One in 10 jobs on the planet is connected to the travel and tourism industry. In addition, we have an innate human desire to explore, discover and see new things, which will never go away.

So we will continue to travel, but a shift is needed.

We are now at a tipping point where a fundamental change is needed in the way we think about and take on travel. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, when 80 percent of tourism came to a halt, the need for a positive and more sustainable approach is more critical than ever. Tourism-dependent countries have been suffering, and the way we spend our money while visiting must be funnelled towards local, sustainable ways that will leave a positive footprint.

A more sustainable way forward

We have a responsibility to change tourism now, and it starts with our mindsets. We must become more conscious and aware. We must seek deeper, more meaningful experiences, ones that connect with the community and respect the local cultures and people. We need to understand our privilege as visitors and think about how we can give back to the places we are fortunate to visit. We need to ask more questions about the businesses we are supporting: what are they doing for the local community? What is their environmental policy? We need to spend our tourism dollars in ways that will make a positive impact.

One of the biggest challenges with becoming a conscious, responsible, sustainable tourist is not knowing how or where to start. Just before the credits begin to roll, The Last Tourist leaves us with a list of tangible calls-to-action so that we can travel more sustainably. Here are some commitments we should all strive to achieve.

  • Make travel decisions that align with our personal values
  • Have a mindset of supporting the locals
  • Recognize that small changes can go a long way
  • Never use plastic bags, utensils, coffee cups and shampoo and conditioner bottles
  • Be mindful towards the local community
  • Refuse housekeeping (we don’t need our bedsheets and towels washed every few days)
  • Choose hotels and accommodations that have sustainable practices
  • Use only reef-friendly sunscreen to ensure the chemicals aren’t leeching into the oceans
  • Never participate in cruel animal tourist attractions
  • Support women-led businesses and organizations
  • Shop fair trade whenever possible
  • Travel solo or in small groups—if we do travel in a group tour, choose one that works with locals
  • Always do research before signing up to volunteer with any organization
  • Make sure our impact is sustainable in the long term
  • Go to a local fresh market or farmers' market so money goes right back into the economy
  • Decide where we want to put our money and what businesses we choose to support
  • Think about how our travel choices can have an impact (both positively and negatively)
  • Search out opportunities that benefit communities
  • Be aware and think of sustainable, responsible, ethical travel