Why we need to take tourism more seriously

The power to transform nations.

Photograph by Farzin Ghayour; iStock

Photograph by Farzin Ghayour; iStock

When I was 18—eager to postpone university and take advantage of a British passport that let me work anywhere in Europe—I bought a backpack and a ticket to France.

In Paris, I wandered around the Left Bank, baguette in hand, imagining myself a minor character in some Hemingway novel. I sipped Pernod in a leafy hostel in Provence and drank an extremely expensive coffee in a café done up like a Van Gogh painting in Arles. In a dusty hamlet in Languedoc, I spent a month hauling stones for a miserly honorarium that, in retrospect, was obviously a racket designed to exploit naive young foreigners. It didn’t bother me. I filled journals with ecstatic ramblings about the romance of France.

The reason I went was the same reason anyone goes travelling: to discover new worlds and—travel’s implicit promise—to discover something new about myself. Over the past 50 years, this pitch has been so unequivocally successful that it obscures a larger fact. Tourism isn’t just a way to “get away from it all”; it’s one of the largest industries in the world.

Elizabeth Becker’s Overbooked is an attempt to strip tourism of its exotic aura and examine the industry for what it is: a serious business. The numbers are impressive. Tourism creates $3 billion globally every day. According to an analyst from the International Labour Organization, it employs at least one in 10 people around the world. In 2005, frequent-flyer miles were more valuable than all the U.S. dollars in circulation.

Yet, despite its size and influence, tourism is rarely treated with the seriousness of other industries. Proud nations don’t care to think of themselves as tourist destinations, mere playgrounds for residents of other countries. Hospitality is seen as a less noble pursuit than, say, manufacturing airplanes or growing grain. And while journalists scrutinize the oil, finance and agricultural industries, tourism is generally considered a pleasant, frivolous pursuit—an aspirational hobby relegated to a newspaper’s Travel pages, where breezy first-person narratives are written with a journalistic looseness that wouldn’t make it past the editors in the Sports or Arts sections.

Becker, a former correspondent with The New York Times who spent years covering the Khmer Rouge, is far more exacting. She argues that by not taking tourism seriously, governments are both failing to fully capitalize on a booming industry and leaving their countries exposed to the destructive elements that accompany foreign travel: environmental degradation, lowered living standards for the poor, sex tourism, and all the subtler injustices and annoyances that materialize when droves of foreigners arrive on your shores demanding authentic cultural experiences.

And, as Becker points out, the travel industry has exploded in the past half century, aided by open borders since the end of the Cold War, new long-haul airplanes, and more western comforts in far-flung locations. In 1950, there were just 25 million trips recorded by foreign tourists. In 2012, there were a billion.

No country has benefited more than France. Even as a dreamy 18-year-old, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the Left Bank was full of similarly starry-eyed foreigners living out their own Gallic fantasies.

None of us were there by accident. The travel industry in France was carefully built in the wake of the Second World War, thanks in large part to the Marshall Plan, which funnelled money into infrastructure. In a nation that had had its major industries devastated, tourism was the most obvious place to earn money fast. French hotel rooms were renovated, local hoteliers were trained in American tastes, and plane tickets from the United States were sold at a steep discount. Today, France is the most visited country in the world, a remarkable feat for a country the size as Texas without any tropical beaches or Great Pyramids. It is the country’s No. 1 source of employment.

If France is an example of a country that has thus far managed to harness the power of the travel industry, Becker finds plenty of places were tourism has taken an ugly toll.

In Cambodia, a booming tourist industry near the 900-year-old Angkor Wat temples hasn’t created a better life for the villagers, who work for miserable wages while much of the wealth leaks out to corrupt officials and foreign-owned hotels. Venice has become a beautiful cautionary tale, a city that is more theme park than home, as local grocery stores and butchers are pushed out for yet more hotels and boutiques aimed at well-heeled tourists. Its 59,000 residents are increasingly dwarfed by the 20-odd million visitors that come each year to enjoy a romantic gondola ride. “Venice is dying, slowly, slowly. But it is dying” one Venetian tells Becker.

Becker saves her sharpest criticism for cruises—notorious polluters and the fastest-growing segment of the global travel industry. On Becker’s Royal Caribbean cruise, she finds her waiter is paid just $50 a month with no days off, a practice possible because these hugely profitable ships are registered in foreign countries that don’t share American labour laws.

Overbooked is a clear-eyed look at a industry that will only grow in importance in the 21st century. “If war and revolution marked the last century, the competition for prosperity and the marketing of ways to enjoy that new wealth is moulding the early years of the 21st century,” Becker writes. One professor of tourism policy tells Becker it is “the greatest modern voluntary transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor countries.”

But it’s also a classic double-edged sword, with the capacity to both bring great fortune to a country and destroy a way of life. As the number of travellers continues to rise, governments will need to think seriously about how they accommodate them. How do you welcome tourists (and their money) without letting them turn your city into another Venice? How do you prepare for millions of newly wealthy Chinese tourists or boatloads of cruisers looking for a tropical paradise? Is it even possible to control tourism once you’ve opened the floodgates? A few baguette-wielding foreigners can be a blessing. A few million can quickly become a curse.