'Overbooked' provides eye-opening look at the travel industry
The industry deserves more respect, just as it needs to be more respectful, Elizabeth Becker writes
April 21, 2013 4:00 AM
Elizabeth Becker -- Does the consumer a service.
By Carlo Wolff
Elizabeth Becker makes a convincing case for treating tourism as the serious, consequential industry it is in "Overbooked," her thoughtful, sometimes contentious examination of the field. Her research is personal and thorough, her goals admirable, her analysis perceptive. At the same time, she is a bit of a scold, and her book can be ponderous.
Ms. Becker aims to raise the profile of tourism so that government -- particularly that of the United States -- treats it with the respect such an economic driver deserves. She builds her case by interviewing tourism officials in France (the most popular travel locale); in Italy, where tourism, largely fueled by the cruise ships Ms. Becker clearly detests, is a "disease" threatening Venice; in Dubai, a city with a ski resort inside a shopping mall; in "nature tourism" sites in Zambia, Costa Rica, and Sri Lanka; China, the "new giant"; and in the United States, the "old giant."
"OVERBOOKED: THE EXPLODING BUSINESS OF TRAVEL AND TOURISM"
By Elizabeth Becker Simon & Schuster ($28).
"In gross economic power it is in the same company as oil, energy, finance and agriculture," she writes of tourism, noting it employs one of every 10 people in the world and generates $3 billion in business daily.
Yet governments remain ambivalent toward it, may subvert it, and too rarely capitalize on it -- particularly the United States, she maintains.
Unlike China, where centralized planning has driven investment in infrastructure that facilitates tourism, or the United Arab Emirates, where oil money has fueled massive development of new destination cities, the United States stresses individual endeavor over centralized planning -- which makes it a loser in tourism competition.
"While the governments of the other top tourism nations accept their role in organizing, regulating and promoting tourism, the United States does not," she writes. "Other governments have websites in multiple languages to help foreigners plan their visits; the United States did not until 2012."
In her eyes, the U.S. approach to tourism is a failure, but other governments don't do that well, either. While Ms. Becker cites France as an example of enlightened tourism policy, she deplores how Italy handles tourists to Venice (the city has a base population of 60,000 -- and 20 million tourists a year). She blasts the Cambodian government for allowing so many tourists into Angkor Wat (they're wearing out its famous temples), and she castigates the cruise industry for pollution. She is merciless and principled and backs her assertions with facts, figures -- and her own witness.
Even though Ms. Becker excoriates such players as Adam M. Goldstein, the president and CEO of the cruise line Royal Caribbean International, and the rulers of Dubai, who have built their architectural extravaganzas on the backs of cheap foreign labor, she praises those who do right by tourism. These include Alain Juppe, the mayor of Bordeaux, who transformed his French city into a mecca for wine lovers, and Isabel Salas, a howler monkey specialist from Costa Rica who enhances that country's efforts in ecotourism.
Ms. Becker also makes a point of having tourism-industry journalists pay their own way. "The transformation of travel writing into an extension of the tourism industry was cemented by the financial difficulties in the media business," she writes. "In every other form of journalism free travel is a gift and considered a serious conflict of interest."
As features editor of a hospitality trade magazine for more than 10 years, I accepted free travel to destinations, including Europe and Dubai, to cover the hotel business. Ms. Becker's point is well taken; favoring one's "hosts" is a natural inclination, particularly since they treat writers on such specialized assignments with special care.
Ms. Becker, a former National Public Radio foreign editor and New York Times reporter, does the consumer a service by raising such issues. I only wish she had lightened up from time to time. Considering she and her husband spent five years researching it, "Overbooked," while essential to understanding tourism, can feel a bit overcooked.