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When Tourism Goes Wrong

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Sunrise after a Full Moon Party, a monthly ritual and tourist draw on Haad Rin beach in southern Thailand (Photograph by Miguel Templon/Haytham Pictures)

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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