Author Elizabeth Becker has found a giant gap in journalistic coverage and stepped squarely into the middle of it. Even though it’s under our noses, beneath our feet, even in our happier dreams, rarely has the investigative story she recounts in her new book previously received the coverage it deserves: The rampant growth of travel and tourism.
But hold on, there are magazines, Sunday supplements, TV shows, an entire cable channel devoted to travel! How can I say tourism isn’t covered? All these stories inspire us to dream of the next place we’ll go.
That they do. But with few exceptions, they all sidestep the biggest story: The travel industry is itself transforming the world, and not always in a good way. Some five years ago journalist Becker stumbled across this elephant in the room and decided to give it a thorough examination. The result is Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism (Simon & Schuster, $28), which goes on sale this week.
Becker is no Sunday supplement travel writer. A former war correspondent with the New York Times, she covered the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and brings the same unflinching approach to what is sometimes called the world’s largest industry.
She looks at a broad swath of destinations, from those that are doing at least some things well—France, Costa Rica—to those that are “getting it wrong,” such as Venice and, yes, Cambodia. She explores the enormous impact that the rise of Chinese tourism is likely to have as a growing percentage of 1.3 billion people venture forth into the same places the rest of the world thought we had to ourselves.
She looks at how cruise companies get away with basing their business model on a modern-day form of indentured servitude, whereby ship staffs from impoverished countries work nonstop hours for weeks on end, paid $50 a month. Not per day, not per week—per month. She emphasizes the same exploitation in Dubai, where the imported laborers who built the fantasy skyscrapers did so for $175 a month (still better than cruise ships).
Without question tourism managed well can do a lot of good—economically, educationally, and as a force for peace, conservation, and preservation. If managed well.
She ends the book on a popular beach in Hawaii, as good a place as any to symbolize the increasing need to balance economic development with rising seas and floods of tourists.
I should mention that I was not entirely disengaged from her project; I had several conversations with Becker while she was working on the book, as well as granting her a couple of interviews myself. I should also note that on her own initiative, (and wallet), she took one of the National Geographic/Lindblad cruises and gave it high marks, saying it was worth its comparatively lofty price.
Becker addresses right up front the media blind-spot on the travel industry and its ramifications. Travel sections and their writers, she says, “seldom write critical reviews; only articles about what to do and what to buy and how to experience a destination.” Other lifestyle media—music, restaurants, movies, plays—“thrive on critical reviews.” But in travel, both editors and advertisers consider even a slightly negative destination piece virtually unthinkable. When an industry is inadvertently changing the world, this is a problem.
Indeed, when a few years ago I argued for more in-depth reporting at a travel writer’s workshop, several writers responded that they had proposed such stories, but editors would turn them down. In Sunday supplements, any investigative stories tend to focus on how to get a better airplane seat, not whether tourism is saving Africa’s lions or corrupting indigenous cultures. In the U.K. the Guardian’s Leo Hickman did precede Becker into this space when he published his critical 2007 book, The Final Call, but it received little press in the U.S., and today the Guardian’s travel stories seem to fit the same lifestyle mold as any other paper.
There’s a flip side to the story, as well. The scope of Becker’s book does not allow her much space to address all the nontourism pressures that degrade the places we love, such as extractive industries, irresponsible development, uglifiation, and cookie-cutter globalization. She cites Bordeaux as a success story—a renewed historic center and thriving chateau/vineyard tourism. True enough. But when I made a brief visit to Bordeaux for a conference a while ago, we all had to stay in a generic group of corporate hotels next to a beltway. I could have been in Ohio.
What her focus does encompass is the size and workings of the tourism industry, and its ramifications—no small topic. That leads us to the key question that journalists, editors, and web and TV producers should be addressing: Now what?
Tourism trips across borders passed the one billion mark last year. Trips entirely within countries total perhaps four billion. Last week in Abu Dhabi, David Scowsill, head of the World Travel and Tourism Council, pointed out that by 2050 the world will have three billion middle-class citizens, many of them eager to travel.
Where will all these people go? What will be their impact on the places they visit? On cultures, nature, global climate, World Heritage sites? On each other?
It’s time for the world’s media to discover one of the world’s most under-reported stories. For intelligent travelers to demand it. Becker’s book is the primer.