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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Cambodia, which Becker knows well from her days as a news correspondent, is another sad case, as the $2 billion that tourism brings in each year “enriches Cambodia’s elite.” She notes that the worst poverty exists in tourist areas and that the boom in new hotels in Siem Reap is draining the water table which, in turn, is causing the foundations of Angkor Wat to sink. The country also has the sorry distinction of being a destination for both “dark tourism” (killing fields and torture centers) and sex tourism. Whereas neighboring Thailand, for example, offsets its sex tourism with the more socially acceptable medical tourism. 

Moving from cultural to consumer tourism, the author and her husband take a Caribbean cruise. More reporter than sunbather, Becker asks her Turkish waiter his salary and is incredulous when he tells her it’s $50 a month. She later explains that most of the staff’s earnings come from tips. The shipboard lectures consist entirely of shopping seminars. (Instead of a girl, there is now a Diamonds International store in every port.) Back home, Becker interviews cruise line executives and tourism officials, many of the latter of whom express concerns about the invasion of small towns by masses of cruisers (who often contribute nothing to the local economy), the damage to marine life caused by endless schools of amateur snorkelers, and the pollution—of both air and water—created by the steadily growing number of increasingly large ships.  

There are now, Becker reports, around 400 cruise ships in the world; and, as she demonstrates in the section on nature tourism, not all are created equal. She and her husband sail the Pacific Coast of Central America aboard National Geographic’s Sea Lion, a vessel that carries only 60 passengers. The five naturalist guides are all from the region. The cruise’s mission is educational—there is no onboard entertainment—and the goal is to have as little impact on the environment as possible. Passengers are forbidden to collect shells. 

Costa Rica, we learn, is the birthplace of ecotourism (which Richard Leakey, a few pages earlier, calls “an oxymoron”). Becker acknowledges that “ecofriendly” is now the rage, with numerous pretenders to the title (in the same way that, less insidiously, any modest lodging is today a boutique hotel). But Costa Rica seems to be to nature tourism what France is to cultural: a country that has decided on its role and has diligently worked to make it successful. 

Becker’s little travelogues are a refreshing break from the stream of statistics, as fascinating as they often are (e.g., Dubai attracts “three times as many foreigners as New York City”), and the frequent polemics—though they’d be more engaging if she were a better writer. Critical of travel writers, whom she chastises for taking subsidized trips and thus serving as pawns of the travel industry, she falls into the habits of the worst of them, resorting to clichés and calling places—parts of Costa Rica and Panama and all of Sri Lanka—“paradise,” the most overused word in the travel writer’s lexicon. 

Of course, overuse is preferable to misuse. Chinese leaders, as Becker conscientiously reports, have committed their share of political sins and environmental abuses, but they don’t deserve this sentence: “On landing we were once again struck by the enormity of China.” 

The final section, “The Old Giant,” is about the United States, which historically, Becker complains, has paid little attention to tourism. Yes, we came up with the concept of the national park, which some other countries have adopted, but it wasn’t until last year that we had a government website for foreigners wishing to vacation here. And we have fallen behind France as the world’s most popular country to visit. These are failings that Becker laments—as do, surely, most of the people in our hospitality industry—but after more than 300 pages detailing the ravages of tourism, the lament comes off sounding a little odd. You can’t be indignant about the damage caused by tourists and then disappointed in a country for not trying to attract more. Especially, one would think, when that country happens to be your own.

Overbooked succeeds in demonstrating the growing heft of the travel industry and the numerous problems that are associated with it. A long-term, workable, global response will be difficult, if not impossible, to find. In the meantime, may I suggest a simple, individual solution? Go where other tourists don’t. It’s remarkably easy—people like to follow the crowd—and invariably rewarding, as residents of unsung places tend to appreciate the long-overdue attention.