Elizabeth Becker Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Elizabeth Becker
Photo: William Nash

Elizabeth Becker

An interview with Elizabeth Becker

Elizabeth Becker discusses her recent book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism and the research she did for five years about the alarming explosion of tourism around the world.

How is the tourism industry "exploding"?

While no one was looking, tourism has become one of the leading businesses in the world (nearly $7 trillion a year) and the world's biggest employer (one out of 12 people). In just 25 years, thanks to cutting edge technologies and open borders following the end of the Cold War, the number of international tourists has exploded to over one billion. In 1995 it was half of that. Rich and poor countries are relying on tourism to build their economies. It's becoming as important in many ways as the finance or energy industries.

What are those one billion tourists doing?

I spent five years traveling to research this book. And I tell the stories of those global adventures to show the industry inside out. What surprised me was how everything has been fashioned into a tourist opportunity: medical tourism is especially popular with Americans who can't afford insurance. In Malaysia the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Tourism made a package for an operation and then recuperation on a beach; all for a fraction of what it would cost in the U.S. There's also "dark tourism" where you visit genocide sites in Europe, Rwanda and Cambodia. There's culinary tourism, tourism to discover family roots (big with Americans), and religious tourism. The list is endless, and many come as packaged tours.

Why does it matter if the tourism industry makes a lot of money?

It matters because tourism is still considered a wonderful past time and not a colossal enterprise with profound impacts on countries, cultures and the environment. Unchecked tourism can over run a city, a beach, a monument. Look at Venice, a city of 60,000 people that is visited by 20 million tourists each year. The locals can't afford the rent to live there anymore. In Cambodia, the government and police have destroyed picturesque fishing villages so the land can be turned into beach resorts. Cruise ships are notorious polluters once they get out to sea. One industry leader estimates that if tourism were a country, it would be the fifth biggest polluter in the world.

So who's actually in charge and responsible for controlling these excesses of tourism?

Ultimately, governments are in charge. Tourism is a rare business with government at its center. The product in tourism is the country, so governments decide who gets a tourist visa, which airplanes can land, who can develop a public beach or build a resort, and how to enforce environmental regulations. Of course, the government also sells the country through advertising campaigns like "Incredible India" or "Visit Greece – Welcome Home." In many countries the Minister of Tourism is a top cabinet position.

Does the United States have a Minister of Tourism?

No. Tourism got caught in the 'small government' debate and the U.S. shut down its major tourism office within the Commerce Department in 1996 – just before the Atlanta Summer Olympics. The U.S. also dropped out of the U.N. tourism organization. Foreign tourists can't get help planning trips through U.S. embassies. Congress only recently approved a national website to help foreign tourists visit. And the Obama Administration has kick-started some tourism projects to help stimulate the economy – like giving out more visas for tourists from China and Brazil.

What are some of the worst examples of tourism?

On the human level, it's probably the explosion of sex tourism. Young girls and some young boys are sold to brothels serving foreign men. The children's lives are ruined while tourists go home thinking they've had a good time and helped some poor kids make some money. As in most cases where tourism goes wrong, corrupt officials promise to crack down but turn a blind eye and pocket the bribe money.

On the global side, I was disappointed by the monotony of new hotels, spas, and centers that look the same no matter where you go. That's why cities like Rome are so popular – nothing else resembles the Italian capital. Beijing is the opposite. Much of the ancient city has been torn down and replaced with modern architecture that looks like it could be anywhere.

But overall, doesn't tourism help? Isn't it important to improve understanding among people and open people's eyes to new cultures?

Yes. That's why we love to travel so much, from young people on their first overseas study trip to retirees who spend all their extra cash on travel. That's the ideal, and some countries do a great job. France is number one – the most visited country beating out the US and China – because it works hard at using tourism to support its culture – whether that's museums, small farms, the countryside, or Parisian bistros. Some African countries have used tourism to save their wildlife in parks. I saw this on a magical trip in Zambia. And in the U.S., tourism is one of the reasons our National Parks have thrived and become a model around the world. But a lot of tourism is what's called "fly and flop" where they go to a beach and vegetate or "drive-by tourism" where tourists travel by group to see a monument or church, spend a few hours shopping, go back to the hotel, dine and then head off to another city never meeting a local, never having an unscripted moment.

Travel magazines are filled with stories about "eco-tourism" that respects the environment, the local people and culture. Hasn't that improved things?

Many of the tourist spots that advertise themselves as "green" are barely doing the minimum of cutting back on air conditioning or the number of times the towels are washed. True green tourism makes up less than ten percent of the market. The U.N. is cooperating on a system to grade green tourism called Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria or GSTC, with a footprint for its logo. Some of the most popular places are the worst offenders. The U.A.E. with Dubai and Abu Dhabi is now the biggest tourist spot in the Middle East and North Africa. But by building all the air conditioned hotels, malls, skating rinks and water parks for tourists in the desert, the U.A.E. now has one of the biggest energy use per capita in the world.

Are you telling people not to travel – to stop taking trips?

Not at all. I'm showing how much of our travel harms the places we visit and doesn't match up to our expectations of foreign travel. Cruises are the best example of both. My husband and I took a typical Caribbean cruise in December and in five days we spent five hours on shore. The rest of the time we were aboard ship with 3,000 other people seeing the same kind of entertainment and shopping that's available at home. It may be enjoyable, but don't kid yourself thinking this is foreign travel. It was a floating hotel and poor value for the money. On a second cruise trip to Costa Rica, there were only 60 people on board and we were swimming, scuba diving, hiking and boating in paradise most of every day. Our guides were Costa Rican and Panamanian botanists and biologists who knew every type of monkey and bird on land and shark and fish in the sea. The trip was more expensive but worth every penny.

What are the trends we should be watching for as the industry "explodes?"

The industry is moving in two opposite directions for tourism. At one extreme is the quick and easy all-in-one tour package that propels travelers in a bubble. At the other extreme is the search to recapture the 'real experience' of travel and adventure by getting to know a foreign culture. The same is true for governments. While some are trying to ride the wave of tourism and open up everything to everyone, other governments are stepping in to preserve their cultures and landscapes from over exploitation. As they say, some things are being loved to death. Success in tourism will no longer be simply attracting the most number of people, but protecting destinations from the ravages of overuse.

Tourism is supposed to improve relations between countries with people to people diplomacy. Does that still happen?

The country that seems to understand this best is China. In 1979, Deng Xiao Ping made tourism a priority to raise money and improve China's image. To this day, Chinese tour guides all learn the same script that praises Deng and the Chinese Communist Party's historic push for modernity. And most foreign tourists are suitably impressed.

After writing this book what would you like to change in tourism?

If we want to continue to enjoy traveling the world, I think it's critical that people and governments take the travel and tourism business as seriously as energy or finance. It would help to listen to the people whose lives are disrupted by tourism and those who benefit from tourism. The major issues of the economy, the environment, climate change, human rights are all affected by tourism. With one billion people crossing borders every year we have to think how we can protect what we love for future generations.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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