Is Tourism Destroying the World?

Travel is transforming the world, and not always for the better. Though it’s an uncomfortable reality (who doesn’t like to travel?), it’s something award-winning journalist Elizabeth Becker devoted five years of her life to investigating. The result is Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.

I caught up with the author to get the inside scoop on the book, what prompted her to write it, and what she learned along the way, and this is what she had to say.

Leslie Trew Magraw: You made a name for yourself as a war correspondent covering Cambodia for The Washington Post. What prompted you to write this book?

Elizabeth Becker: My profession has been to understand world events. I reported from Asia and Europe [for the Post] and later was the senior foreign editor at NPR. At The New York Times, I became the international economics correspondent in 2002, and that is when I began noticing the explosion of tourism and how much countries rich and poor were coming to rely on it.

But tourism isn’t treated as a serious business or economic force. Travel sections are all about the best vacations. So I used a fellowship at Harvard to begin my research and then wrote this book to point out what seemed so obvious: Tourism is among the biggest global industries and, as such, has tremendous impacts—environmental, cultural, economic—that have to be acknowledged and addressed.

Which country can you point to as a model for sustainable tourism?

One of the more ambitious is France, which is aiming for sustainability in the whole country. The key, I think, is that the French never fully bought in to the modern obsession with tourist overdevelopment. They have been nurturing their own culture and landscape, cities, and villages for decades. Since they have tied their economy to tourism, they have applied a precise and country-wide approach that mostly works.

All relevant ministries are involved, including culture, commerce, agriculture, sports, and transportation. Planning is bottom up, beginning with locals at destinations who decide what they want to promote and how they want to improve. The French obsession with protecting their culture—some would call it arrogance—has worked in their favor. The planning and bureaucracy required to make this work would try the patience of many governments.

Now, even though the country is smaller than the state of Texas, France is the most popular destination in the world. Tourism officials told me one of their biggest worries is becoming victims of their success: too many foreigners buying second homes or retirement homes in French villages and Parisian neighborhoods, which could tip the balance and undermine that sustainable and widely admired French way of life.

Many destinations are making impressive changes. Philanthropists are helping African game parks find their footing. I was lucky to see how Paul Allen, for instance, is helping in Zambia.

Which country is doing it all wrong?

Cambodia has made some bad choices in tourism. It is blessed with the magnificent temples of Angkor, glorious beaches in the south, cities with charming overlay of the French colonial heritage, and a rural landscape of sugar palms, rice paddies, and houses on stilts.

Yet, rather than protect these gems, the government has allowed rapacious tourism to threaten the very attractions that bring tourists. Tourism is seen as a cash cow.

Some of the capital’s most stunning historic buildings are being razed to build look-alike modern hotels. In Angkor, a thicket of new hotels has outpaced infrastructure and is draining the water table so badly the temples are sinking—and profits from tourism do not reach the common people, who are now among the poorest in the country.

In addition, Cambodia has become synonymous with sex tourism that exploits young girls and boys. The latest wrinkle is to encourage tourists on the “genocide trail” to see the killing fields and execution centers from the Khmer Rouge era.

With more than a billion people traveling each year, how can we see the world without destroying it?

That is the essential question. Countries are figuring out how to protect their destinations in quiet, non-offensive ways. They control the number of hotel beds, the number of flights to and from a country, the number of tour buses allowed. Some have “sacrifice zones,” where tourists are allowed to flood one section of beachfront, for example, while the rest is protected as a wildlife preserve or [reserved] for locals. Most countries are heavily promoting off-season travel as the most obvious way to control crowds.

Countries are also putting more muscle into regulations [governing] pollution. The toughest problem is breaking the habit of politicians being too close to the industry to the detriment of their country. Money talks in tourism as in any other big business. Luxury chains wanting a store near a major tourist attraction will pay high rents to push out locals. Officials fail to enforce rules against phony “authentic” souvenirs.

One of the worst offenders are the supersize cruise ships that swarm localities, straining local services and sites and giving back little in return.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for 21st-century travelers?

Avoiding “drive-by tourism.” This is a phrase coined by Paul Bennett of Context Travel, referring to the growing habit of people visiting a destination for a few hours—maybe a few days—and seeing only a blur of sights with little appreciation for the country, culture, or people.

One of the eureka moments in my five years of research was reading old guidebooks in the Library of Congress.

The Baedeker Guides were written in consultation with historians and archaeologists who presumed the tourists wanted to immerse themselves in a country. They included a short dictionary of the language of the country and, only at the very end, short lists of hotels and restaurants.

Today it is the reverse: Guides have short paragraphs about history, culture, and politics and long lists of where to eat and sleep.

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My advice is to first be a tourist where you live. Explore the museums, the farms, the churches, the night life, the historic monuments—and then read up on local politics and history.

If you’re interested in volunteering overseas, first volunteer at home. Then when you’re planning your next trip abroad, use that experience as a template and study up on the destination you’re about to visit.

Don’t forget to try to learn something of the local language. It is a gift.

Q: Are there any tourism trends that give you hope for the future of travel?

A: People are again recognizing that travel is a privilege. Responsible tourism in its various forms—volunteer tourism, adventure tourism, slow tourism (where people take their time), agro-tourism (where visitors live and work on a farm), ecotourism , geotourism—all speak to tourists’ desire to respect the places they visit and the people they meet. I think people are also recognizing that bargain travel has hidden expenses and dangers.

Costa Rica was an eye-opener for me; it deserves its reputation as a leader in responsible tourism that nurtures nature and society.

Finally, several groups including the United Nations World Tourism Organization have put together a global sustainable tourism council with a certification program to show tourists which places are genuinely making the effort.

Thoughts? Counterpoints? Leave a comment to let us know how you feel about this important topic.

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