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Tourism Today: Trample, Disrupt and Destroy


Holidays overseas were once so rare for the average person in this country, that families would throw parties to show their vacation photos as slide shows. It's hard to remember that time now when it's relatively unremarkable for Americans to jet off to far-flung locations. Traveling for pleasure was once a hobby for the well off. It's now a $6.5 trillion industry worldwide that employs one out of every 12 people in the world.

The explosion of the tourism industry is the subject of Elizabeth Becker's new book. She has reported for The New York Times and the Washington Post and was senior foreign editor of National Public Radio.

Her new book is called "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism." Elizabeth, welcome to the program.

ELIZABETH BECKER: Oh, it's very nice to be back and especially in your new studio.

HEADLEE: They're beautiful, aren't they?


HEADLEE: So you write in your book about how France basically invented this idea of the travel business as an industry. Explain how that happened.

BECKER: Well, the first tourists, per se, were the English, who on their way to Rome and Greece, the great civilizations, stopped off in France and the French noticed this and started building up an industry for them. So Leon Blum, the first socialist prime minister of France, instituted the first paid vacation in the world. Two weeks paid vacation for French and they went crazy. They loved it.

After World War II...

HEADLEE: And we know that the French still love their paid vacations. Yeah.

BECKER: Oh, do they ever. And if anybody criticizes them, I say maybe you're a little envious.


BECKER: Anyway, so after World War II, oddly enough, it was the United States that helped out. France was, you know, economically in ruins and rather than wait to build up French industry, which eventually happened, the United States, through the marshal plan said, the easiest way for us to help the French recover is to rebuild their tourism industry and so...

HEADLEE: So the government actually started...

BECKER: Our government. Yeah. And so we used our foreign aid to build it back up and to subsidize some of the first inexpensive trips from the United States to France, particularly to Paris. Then it's hard to believe, but the French hoteliers needed to be trained in modern hospitality, so they came to the United States to learn about fluffing pillows, putting a lamp on the bedside table. Of course, now, the French have outstripped us in every sense of the word, but it was thanks to the United States that French recovered.

Simultaneously, the French built the first Ministry of Culture and pretty soon, you had a government-wide coordination of cultural events, transportation through rail...

HEADLEE: Identifying historical sites.

BECKER: Going to - exactly. Going to historical sites. Who doesn't love going to Giverny to see Monet's beautiful house north of Paris? You know, the music festival in Aix-en-Provence, the photographs in Avignon. This is not an accident. They made a national decision to make it into a big economic sector and it is now the biggest economic sector in France.

HEADLEE: And, in fact, it's not just nations. I mean, even travel between cities, for example - cities now see tourism as a possible boon, bringing in jobs and they boost their tourism industry. What makes tourism as a business a plus, something that cities and nations very aggressively pursue?

BECKER: Well, the answer to that - I heard at every single continent and every possible venue and it was - you can not outsource tourism. Very important. You're always going to have tourism.

And, secondly, it is a rather painless - at the beginning - transfer of wealth from one country to another. Those two together - it makes sense to a lot of countries. However, it doesn't always work so easily and that's a big part of my book.

HEADLEE: And another big part of your book is the downside, the dark side of the tourism industry, what's happened to Venice with the hundreds of thousands of people that come through and what's happened to the sacred sites in Cambodia. Explain to me why people call it one of the most destructive industries.

BECKER: It is the classic double-edged sword. When tourists love a place to death, it means that hoards of them come. They show very little respect for the place. They trample it. They leave garbage in their wake. They disrupt the culture of the place. They are destructive of the actual physical place and the daily rhythm of the place is gone. The examples are numerous. On a lot of beaches where it's - people don't even want to go there anymore. It's all gone. There are a lot of wildlife places that are gone and it's become what the industry calls a sacrifice zone where it's been so trampled that the only people who want to go there anymore are tourists.

HEADLEE: I mean, your book makes a very persuasive argument. I mean, how can you deny that tourism - I mean, just getting there, the fuel required to fly halfway across the world is not so great for the environment. But is there a brighter side, as well? What about the rise of eco-tourism? Does that help the environment? Or cases in which the effort to save the rhino, for example, has been supported by people who want to go and go on a safari.

BECKER: Right. And you just described the other half of the sword, the double-edged sword. Costa Rica - I use - it's sort of the contrary story to Cambodia where Costa Rica said, OK. We have this incredible wilderness. We're not going to cut it down. We're going to turn it into the beautiful tourism attraction it should be and they now have an amazing group of scientists and biologists. I went on a small, little boat cruise there. I couldn't believe what they've accomplished and they use tourism not only to lift up the middle class, but to preserve their wilderness.

And so that is - it has problems like everything else does, but they've very much succeeded in that and - yes - in Africa, tourism is about the only thing between - in many instances, between the wild animals and the poachers. One of the brighter sides I didn't realize until I did the research on "Overbooked" is that American philanthropists are helping out. Greg Carr, a tech millionaire who financed the Carr Human Rights Center up at Harvard - he also is underwriting the preservation of a camp in Mozambique, a huge one the size of a small state or something.

And then the Zambian wildlife park I visited - that is, in part, being helped anonymously, but it was easy to find out that it was Paul Allen of the Microsoft fortune. And Nicky Oppenheimer of the great South African fortune - he's recovering an entire huge area of a wildlife park in South Africa and he told me that, in the end, it's the wild animals that will keep and save South Africa, not all the mineral wealth.

HEADLEE: Which is something, coming from an Oppenheimer.

BECKER: And, you know - and how do you make money from that? You make it through tourism.

HEADLEE: So, I mean, my last question for you and pardon me if it's kind of a difficult one, but within our lifetimes, can we make tourism a sustaining rather than destructive force?

BECKER: Oh, sure. But it's really hard.


BECKER: It's not - because the momentum is the other direction. You have to do it, I would say, not just as a consumer, which I hope everyone is a smart consumer and looks at how they're traveling and where they're traveling and the effect they have on the place they visit, but also as a public citizen in your own country, not just where you're visiting, but how do you treat visitors in your own country? And here in the United States, that's a debate that has never - that hasn't been started and that's one of the big reasons why I wrote this book. How do we greet travelers? Where do the travelers go? Do we speak their language? Do we make sure that not only are the travelers happy in respect to the United States, but are we respectful of them?

Just look at it as an industry. The way we dissect the oil industry, the way we dissect any other industry, we should be dissecting tourism and our destinations saying, here in Washington, D.C., do we like the way the government is doing tourism? Is it helping us? Is it preserving what we want it to preserve? Those are legitimate questions at home.

HEADLEE: Well, I can answer at least two of them. We greet tourists with security checks and - no - we don't speak the language. Elizabeth Becker is the author of "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism."

Elizabeth, thank you so much.

BECKER: Oh, thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: Happy travels.

BECKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.