The Magazine

Getting There

How, and why, Americans go on vacation.

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Every March I drive to Miami Beach to attend the annual Cruise Shipping conference and trade show, and every year I am struck anew by the number of entities connected to cruising: not just shipbuilders (Fincantieri, Meyer Werft) and the ever-widening circle of ports (a booth one year for the English Lake District), but manufacturers of everything from pianos to lasers to waste management systems, caterers (who fill a section of the convention center floor with their seaworthy foodstuffs), interior design firms, clothiers, talent agencies, photographic studios, and special services (“U.S. immigration explained”). The assemblage attests to the seriousness of a business built on fun. 

'Tourists II' by Duane Hanson (1988)

'Tourists II' by Duane Hanson (1988)


It is a microcosm of the travel industry, the subject of Overbooked. A former reporter for the New York Times, Elizabeth Becker has produced a comprehensive, often alarming, and sometimes puzzling examination of an oft-invisible powerhouse. Employing nearly one-tenth of the world’s population and creating “$3 billion in business every day,” Becker asserts that, economically, the travel industry stands “in the same company as oil, energy, finance, and agriculture.” The suits at Cruise Shipping would not disagree.

But the idea of travel as an industry, like the concept of humor as literature, is difficult for many people to grasp. The enjoyment associated with both seems somehow to disqualify them from importance. Overbooked should help the travel industry gain respect while, fittingly, giving readers only a modicum of pleasure.    

However, it is interesting, if not all that surprising, to learn that the French invented the modern vacation, instituting a paid leave of two weeks for every citizen in 1936. A couple decades later, American workers received the same, in what was perhaps one of the last instances of a trend starting in France before coming to the United States. The substantial growth of the French vacances, to a current five-week minimum, has not been replicated here. 

Becker begins her journey in Madrid, at the headquarters of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (about as far from the allure of the road as one can get), and notes that travel writers rarely include the offices on their itineraries. Even more scarce, I suspect, are vacationing families and honeymooning couples. She hears of the need for sustainability, as the increasing numbers of international travelers are threatening the environments they flock to see. Then she sets off to investigate travel in all its modern-day manifestations.

She heads next door to France, the king of cultural tourism, and the most-visited country in the world. (We’re #2.) Its 78 million visitors annually, spending over $48 billion, make tourism the top employer in France and the primary export. Becker gives a good historical explanation for this development, noting that postwar France greatly increased its number of hotel rooms while, around the same time, airlines were persuaded to offer special tourist fares on trans-atlantic flights (both thanks, in large part, to the Marshall Plan). And in 1959, Charles de Gaulle created the world’s first Ministry of Culture.

Despite some present-day Gallic concerns that their country is becoming an Old World theme park, France is, for the most part, an example of the positive impact of tourism. Americans who have recently tried to practice their French with their Parisian waiter, only to get fluent English in return, have been astonished witnesses to this. But it’s not just visitors who benefit: Becker and her husband visit Bordeaux, a city that, in trying to lure tourists away from the capital and Provence, became more attractive and livable for its inhabitants as riverside warehouses were replaced with a park and a modern tramway system was built. Bordeaux is the future of tourism, she is told—at least in France.  

Venice is a different story. There the crowds of tourists, thickened by the arrival of large cruise ships, are driving out residents who grow tired of fighting for space on their morning vaporetto and of finding their neighborhood bakery replaced by a souvenir shop. “Venice is dying slowly, slowly,” a city guide tells her, a man whose livelihood, ironically, depends on tourists.