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.
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.
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.
So instead of traveling to Las Vegas, Nevada, go to Las Vegas, New Mexico—and stay at the historic Plaza Hotel. On your Florida vacation, replace Orlando with Apalachicola. Heading to Europe? Bypass Spain and visit Portugal; after a few days in Lisbon, take the train to Porto. And if you must see Spain, drop by the offices of the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Thomas Swick, travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel during 1989-2008, is the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with
a Maverick Traveler.