Join BookBrowse today and get access to free books, our twice monthly digital magazine, and more.

BookBrowse Reviews Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism

by Elizabeth Becker

Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker X
Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2013, 464 pages

    Feb 2016, 320 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
Buy This Book

About this Book



Elizabeth Becker uncovers how tourism, once the pasttime of the rich, has become a colossal enterprise with profound impact on countries, the environment, and cultural heritage.

Kendall Jenkin's response to the cruise she had just taken was telling: "I'm just so blessed to be home. I don't want to hear the word 'cruise' ever again." Jenkin was one of many passengers on a Carnival Cruise in February 2013 that lost power and after four harrowing days in the open seas, had to be tugged back to port. Cruise lines and their extremely questionable practices come under the microscope in Elizabeth Becker's close look at the tourism industry, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. These giant cruise companies, Becker says, don't have to follow the same environmental and labor laws for businesses that are based on land. What's worse, major cruise lines are headquartered in countries like Liberia to avoid tax hurdles and other regulatory restrictions. The lure of a cruise for many middle-class Americans is extremely strong - especially since most are priced quite affordably. As Becker shows in her book though, their true costs are much more than the ticket price shows.

As more people around the world are becoming part of the middle-class, the numbers of trips taken - by water, air or land - has correspondingly increased. "Pollution and environmental degradation are the serious downside of those crowds of tourists and travelers who are making 1 billion discrete foreign trips every year and possibly three times that many trips within their own countries," Becker writes in her exposé of the travel industry.

In some chapters, Overbooked explores the origins and history of tourism and the role that it plays in national economies. In others, we visit countries that are doing tourism right and wrong. The book's structure is a bit haphazard and seems to be dictated more by Becker's travels than any linear narrative. Becker shows how tourism dollars might bring in money but that a lack of central planning for standards of any kind is doing grave damage to the very spots that are the biggest draw. "Governments are like the head of the octopus, controlling in obvious and subtle ways just about everything that affects travel and tourism. Governments can preserve cultural sites or allow them to be destroyed; they can set wilderness areas or issue permits to build resorts along a deserted beach..." Becker writes. She makes her case with examples. France, for instance, has recognized that tourism is a vital industry that stimulates the economy and creates a large number of jobs. The good news is that France also knows that tourists are attracted to the country because of characteristics that make it French. So it expends a lot of effort in retaining its "Frenchiness" (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert's lexicon). For example, the city of Bordeaux, Becker writes, used to be a mess despite the popularity of its vineyards. But the mayor expended a lot of money in cleaning old buildings and improving city infrastructure to the point where the revitalized city is a magnet for tourists.

On the other hand there is Cambodia. The rich and glorious cultural heritage as embodied by the Angkor Wat and other Buddhist temples is being exploited so much and with such unplanned haste, Becker says, that the sites are being completely ruined. Equally worrisome, the tourism dollars are not reaching down to all levels of the population and creating meaningful jobs. "Tourism brings in $2 billion each year but it enriches Cambodia's elite rather than helping the underprivileged," Becker points out. Over-pumping of water has lead to a dramatic drop in water tables with the result that the Cambodian temples (the very draw for tourists) have started sinking into the ground.

While the problems that Becker brings to our attention are legitimate, her work suffers from an ethnocentric view of the situation. For example, Becker laments that millions of people travel from Japan and China and other countries and don't pay the cities they visit, the time and attention they deserve. In the book, a Venetian complains about Japanese tourists: "They spend fifty-five minutes on culture, then one hour buying souvenirs - 'Venetian' masks made in China - then back to their buses."

"How could they come all the way to Venice and spend only one hour seeing the glories of the world's great cities?" Becker asks. While one can certainly sympathize with her sentiments, she fails to recognize that people around the world might not share her idea of a good vacation. How many of us have gone on family vacations when each person had a differing idea of what to do each day? Aunt Suzie wants to go to the spa while Uncle John might want to hit the golf links. Whose idea of an ideal day is better? Becker also forgets that vacations are expensive. Is it wrong that these Japanese tourists might want to check off more than one sight in a day, that they do not have the luxury of both time and money to spend three days in just Venice alone?

The solutions Becker offers are limited – probably because the problem is still nascent. One chapter explores the advantages of sustainable or eco-tourism with a focus on Costa Rica. Becker does seem to be aware that the trip might not be for all. "That night we watched the sole movie shown during our trip: David McCullough narrating a PBS special based on his book about the building of the Panama Canal. I felt like I was part of a New Yorker cartoon about politically correct travel." The other major hurdle? Money. Not many can afford the $4,800/person price tag for such an expedition even if Becker says the experience is worth the money. Regular tourism is voyeuristic and exploitative, Becker implies, with poor countries earning up to five percent of their gross national product "selling themselves to foreign tourists who marvel at their exotic customs, buy suitcases of souvenirs and take innumerable photographs of stunning sites." But eco-tourism doesn't necessarily solve these problems either, does it?

Despite these drawbacks, Overbooked emerges as a vital and compelling book that shines light on an important global issue. Even if it might not offer many solutions, it at least asks the questions worth asking. "Amplify these remarks into a broad public debate, and soon communities, businesses and governments can sort out what they want – and don't want – from tourism and travel," Becker writes in the afterword. "Without a debate, nothing changes." Fair enough.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2013, and has been updated for the March 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Food Tourism


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Overbooked, try these:

  • Underland jacket


    by Robert Macfarlane

    Published 2020

    About this book

    More by this author

    From the best-selling, award-winning author of Landmarks and The Old Ways, a haunting voyage into the planet's past and future.

  • City jacket


    by P.D. Smith

    Published 2012

    About this book

    With erudite prose and carefully chosen illustrations, this unique work of metatourism explores what cities are and how they work. It covers history, customs and language, districts, transport, money, work, shops and markets, and tourist sites, creating a fantastically detailed portrait of the city through history and into the future.

We have 9 read-alikes for Overbooked, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Women and Children First
    Women and Children First
    by Alina Grabowski
    After Lucy Anderson falls to her death at a high school party, no one in Nashquitten, her gloomy, ...
  • Book Jacket: Henry Henry
    Henry Henry
    by Allen Bratton
    Allen Bratton's Henry Henry chronicles a year in the life of Hal Lancaster. Readers already ...
  • Book Jacket: The Last Murder at the End of the World
    The Last Murder at the End of the World
    by Stuart Turton
    The island is the only safe place left on Earth. Since a deadly fog overtook the planet, the ...
  • Book Jacket
    A Kind of Madness
    by Uche Okonkwo
    The word "madness," like many others that can be used to stigmatize mental illness — e.g., "...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
Look on the Bright Side
by Kristan Higgins
From the author of Pack Up the Moon comes a funny, romantic, and moving novel about life's unexpected rewards.
Book Jacket
The Pecan Children
by Quinn Connor
Two sisters deeply tied to their small Southern town fight to break free of the darkness swallowing the land whole.
Win This Book
Win Bright and Tender Dark

Bright and Tender Dark by Joanna Pearson

A beautifully written, wire-taut debut novel about a murder on a college campus and its aftermath twenty years later.



Solve this clue:

A W in S C

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.