Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker
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Overbooked

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“A meticulously reported and often disturbing expose of the travel industry”—The New York Times

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Tourist Trap: The Risks and Rewards of the Global Travel Industry

A man plays an accordion in front of the “lovelocks” left by tourists on the Pont des Artes, Paris, Sept. 6, 2013 (photo by Flickr user Ben Francis, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

A man plays an accordion in front of the “lovelocks” left by tourists on the Pont des Artes, Paris, Sept. 6, 2013 (photo by Flickr user Ben Francis, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Tourism and travel are usually seen as what people do when taking time off from real life. An industry built on beach resorts and ski chalets, bus tours of the Eiffel Tower and African safaris doesn’t seem to rise to the same level of concern as burst oil pipelines or illegal logging in the Amazon.

Yet considered as an industry, global travel and tourism is the world’s largest employer; would rank as the fifth-largest carbon emitter if it were a country; is second only to energy as the favored strategy for developing nations trying to rise out of poverty; is credited with saving Europe from a deeper recession after the global financial crisis; is blamed for ills ranging from the environmental destruction of coral reefs, fragile coastal habitats and old-growth forests to the spreading of child prostitution and the upending of local cultures; and represents 9.5 percent of global GDP.

Nevertheless, the global travel and tourism industry is rarely discussed in serious economic or diplomatic conferences as a contributing factor or potential solution to global crises.

Policymakers have been slow to realize that the tourism industry is a major player in the global economy, representing a $7.6 trillion global market annually. For developed and developing countries alike, tourism can be a key component of economic development plans. And in this age of unemployment and underemployment, tourism is the rare industry that always creates jobs, albeit often poorly paid.

How did tourism rise to such heights? The industry was a sleeper through most of the 20th century. But with the end of the Cold War, the whole world was opened for travel for the first time in modern history. The former communist bloc countries, from Russia and Poland to China and Vietnam, went from forbidden territories to hot destinations. Open borders became more attractive as improvements in technology made travel easier and far less expensive. The travel industry has taken advantage of everything from the Internet to airplanes able to fly nonstop halfway around the world. The rise of the global middle class cemented travel as a basic necessity and right, essential to a generation that prizes “experience” and is used to a hyper-consumerist lifestyle. And with the rise of the mobile “sharing economy,” new billion-dollar companies like Airbnb are shaped around making travel even more effortless.

All projections for international travel point upward. In the past two decades, the number of international trips doubled to 1.1 billion every year, an astonishing number for a world of 7 billion people.

Tourism’s popularity can seem more frivolous than serious. But the dangers of travel and tourism are real and clear. Left to its own devices, tourism can be an unguided missile, capable of undermining not only a country’s financial health but also its politics, environment and culture.

So the refusal to take tourism seriously mystifies Taleb Rifai, the secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). From the organization’s headquarters in Madrid, Rifai works with a skeletal staff to encourage governments to give tourism the same consideration as other industries.

“Overall, we need governments, as well as international organizations, to afford tourism a higher place in national agendas and support the sector through cross-cutting policies that advance tourism’s sustainable growth and development, including visa facilitation, connectivity and balanced taxation,” he says. “I would make tourism a national policy in every country.”

Seen in context and managed properly, tourism can help address some of the greatest international issues: climate change, poverty reduction, public diplomacy, environmental protection and the reduction of human trafficking. While many countries may acknowledge tourism’s greater potential, too many measure success solely by the number of tourists who visit and the amount of money they spend, rather than the impact they have on the places they visit.

Smart Tourism: The French Model

A model for smart tourism is France, the country that invented the notion of a coordinated national tourism policy. Planning for tourism covers issues large and small. For example, in Paris, tourist couples have disfigured the graceful Pont des Arts footbridge by hanging padlocks on its wire fencing as a sign of their “love.” Over time, what began as a few scattered locks grew into an eyesore numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and more than a few Parisians became irritated. When the heavy padlocks destroyed part of the bridge, the city decided to take action. This month, the city removed the padlocks, known by the syrupy term “lovelocks,” and has developed plans to alter the bridge to prevent their replacement.

For the French government, a rigorous national tourism policy is intended to help France remain distinctly French, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario whereby tourism turns the country into a Disneyland filled with cookie-cutter hotels and resorts and ersatz “cultural” events. Instead, the government has preserved the French landscape and coastline with clear rules and regulations, avoiding the mistakes of neighboring Spain, where the endless string of beach hotels along the Costa Brava has earned the nickname “the Coast of Cement.”

This strategy has paid off. By maintaining its “Frenchness,” France attracts more tourists than any other country in the world.

Ironically, modern French tourism was spurred by the United States. After World War II, when the U.S. extended billions of dollars in aid through the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, American experts decided that tourism would be the best industry to lead the French recovery. American hoteliers taught Parisians the advantages of plump pillows, gift shops and convention centers. Ten years later, French President Charles De Gaulle created the world’s first Ministry of Culture, and tourist dollars were funneled into the repair and recovery of museums and historic venues, as well as the performing arts.

Today, nearly every French ministry—agriculture, transportation, culture, economics and foreign affairs—cooperates on the tourism portfolio. Earlier this year, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius even made a highly publicized visit to Charles de Gaulle Airport to greet Chinese tourists arriving in Paris. To add to the complexity, tourism planning begins at the local level and requires coordination with private industry throughout the process. While such a bureaucratic thicket could drive many an American crazy, it has been a bonanza for France.

After the 2008 financial crisis, tourism lifted the French economy with record numbers of tourists, from Chinese shopping for luxury goods in Paris to Americans renting houses in Provence. As Fabius noted during his airport visit, the tourism industry represents 7 percent of France’s job market. For other countries, the French success story can illustrate ways to preserve cultural integrity and the rural environment.

Venice and the Darker Side of Tourism

As the travel and tourism industry explodes, so, too, does its destructive impact. Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization who now chairs the United Nations committee on the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, is concerned with some of the darkest sides of tourism, such as the exploitation of children in brothels or as laborers, or the trading and poaching of wild animals.

Lamy believes that government officials are beginning to understand the importance of tourism and the need to manage it well. “Regulation can help promote global ethics,” he says, “fighting human trafficking as well as trafficking in protected species and cultural artifacts, or implementing environmental standards.”

But he warns that government regulations can only go so far. The tourism industry has to show greater responsibility, and so do tourists, who, he says, must “be responsible as human beings beyond just behaving as mere consumers.”

The abuses Lamy describes are at the extreme end of tourism’s destructive impact. More often, tourism’s impact is felt in less shocking ways. Venice is the model of what happens to a tourist destination’s cultural identity when government doesn’t regulate tourism effectively and neither the industry nor the tourists are held to proper standards. The historic city of less than 60,000 inhabitants is visited every year by more than 20 million tourists, whose presence has driven up rents, shut down green grocers in favor of souvenir shops, pushed out locals and could turn what is left of old Venice into a true Disneyland.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, is so worried about the threat of tourism to what is possibly the world’s most beautiful city that it warned in 2009 that tourism “could help send the vulnerable Venice to a watery grave.”

But the city government refuses to put a ceiling on visitors, coordinate the flow of tourists or enforce current laws on rents and the sale of cheap souvenirs. The government only banned large cruise ships from the canals after a group of movie stars signed a petition in support of the measure, even though Venetians had been asking for the change for years.

The city’s mistakes have even become a cautionary tale for other tourist destinations of what to avoid: The recently elected mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, vowed to put a cap on tourism to keep the Spanish city from “becoming Venice.”

China: Tourism as Soft Power, for Better and Worse

If Venice shows the risks of an unregulated tourism industry, China shows the potential geopolitical benefits of a carefully designed tourism strategy.

An unexpected early proponent of the soft power of tourism was Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. In early 1980, just weeks after wresting control of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng gave a series of talks about the importance of tourism in terms of China’s opening to the world and economic development. Tourism would act as a powerful tool of diplomacy, he said. By allowing foreigners into China and showing them its beauty, culture and historical sites, China’s image in the world would steadily improve.

Deng was also interested in the money that tourism promised to bring to the Chinese economy. When he made those speeches, there were no more than 500 hotel rooms in all of Beijing. Today, more new hotels are built in China every year than in the rest of the world combined.

Tourism proved to be a major element in China’s public diplomacy efforts. Government-trained guides, for instance, are part of the reason why foreign visitors come away from their two- and three-week tours just as impressed with China’s high-tech modernity as with the obligatory visits to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

But public diplomacy is a two-way street. Foreigners may love their trips to China, but they are often less happy when Chinese tourists visit their own countries.

The Chinese government has slowly changed its laws over the past 25 years so that its citizens can now travel abroad, and they are now the largest tourist population in the world. But as neophyte travelers, many Chinese tourists are poor citizen diplomats. They are often perceived as rude, and many have behaved so badly—destroying artifacts and fragile environments, refusing to obey rules, and developing the reputation for being penny-pinchers—that the Chinese government has started a blacklist to prevent the known offenders from going overseas again.

Mei Zhang, the founder of WildChina, the gold standard of Chinese tour operations, says she remains “forever a critic and an optimist” about Chinese citizens traveling abroad. While Zhang is all too familiar with the websites showing Chinese tourists behaving badly, she nonetheless says that as the Chinese travel, they begin to see what is missing in their own country—with clean air and water topping the list.

“In Chinese there is an ancient phrase: ‘Traveling 10,000 li [more than 3,000 miles] is like reading 10,000 books.’ Traveling is as effective as books in educating the people and the mind.”

Spillover and Fallout: The Canadian Example

Today, governments can’t ignore the tsunami waves of tourism. Those billion-plus global visits per year will not sort themselves out on their own. Moreover, countries’ tourism plans can be undone by political and economic changes not only at home, as for Egypt and Tunisia following the political upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring, but also in the surrounding region.

The spillover effect hit Canada, for example, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The U.S. began requiring that passports be used when crossing the U.S.-Canadian border. Since most Americans still don’t have passports, Canada watched its tourism industry take a dive. In response, Canada belatedly adopted its first national tourism policy.

“We were complacent before, with the biggest consumers on the planet as our neighbors,” says David F. Goldstein, president and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission. “Now we’re playing catch-up with the rest of the world.”

The strategy is simple: outreach and marketing on the web and in foreign countries; improving access by air and road to all of Canada; improving sites where tourists visit; and ensuring all of this does not disrupt Canadian communities and the economy. And it has worked. French, Japanese and Chinese tourists, among others, have helped lift Canada’s tourism industry out of the doldrums. It is now an $81.7 billion industry, employing half a million Canadians and, Goldstein says, fostering Canada’s image as a nation quite different from the United States.

Sustainability: Tourism as Development Strategy

All of these national policies are informed by concerns about serious global issues. For developing countries, poverty elimination is at the top of the list. So far, tourism plays only a minor role in deliberations over reaching the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. But as a major global industry that depends on the exotic locales of developing nations, it could be a game changer. Done properly, tourism can be a boon for raising living standards while protecting what is best in a country.

Bhutan is one of the best examples. To ensure that its culture, environment and economy aren’t perverted by mass tourism, the Himalayan nation limits tourism through measures like controlling the number and types of hotels, from backpacker inns to luxury resorts, and imposing a high tourist tariff. There is no mass tourism in Bhutan, no unruly crowds, no damage to the beautiful mountains and villages. And the tourists who visit come from the ideal demographic for a host country: cultured, wealthy enough, adventurous, with a nice balance between old and young. The majority of money from tourism goes to local businesses rather than multinational corporations, a strategy that directly reduces poverty. In the tourism trade, it is known as “low-volume and high-value tourism.”

But Bhutan is an exception; for every good example, there are two or three countries that fell victim to the giant mall of the tourism industry.

Development expert Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, says he is wary of tourism as a development strategy because too often the bulk of tourist money goes to multinational corporations, not local businesses in the country. He calls this phenomenon “money in and money out,” and it is on full display in the tourism-as-development approach in Cambodia, which blossomed after decades of war and genocide. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen sold off prime land from national forests and beaches to foreign corporations for hotels, casinos and resorts, forcing villagers and farmers off their property.

Tourism in Cambodia is flourishing, but most of the profits go to foreign corporations or line the pockets of corrupt officials. The vast majority of tourists go to the world-renowned temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Yet the surrounding province has become poorer with tourism, not wealthier. As Douglas Broderick, the U.N. coordinator in Cambodia, told me a few years ago, only 7 percent of tourism receipts stay in Siem Reap. “More tourism money stays with the locals in parts of Africa than it does in Siem Reap,” he added.

This does not have to be the case. When Sri Lanka finally ended its decades-long civil war in 2009, the government promoted tourism as a major driver of postwar reconstruction. Foreign investors sought out opportunities to develop the beautiful beaches that had been off-limits since the 1970s. Soon, Sri Lanka was named the place to visit by top-ranking tourism magazines and websites. The money was so tempting that some property wasn’t returned to its rightful owners, and instead quietly came under the ownership of officials or their families, including top military officials.

Nonetheless, the promise of tourism as a central part of Sri Lanka’s postwar reconstruction has held. The industry grew 40 percent during the first year of peace, and by 2012 it was bringing in $1 billion a year. The new government is slowly developing tourism with an eye toward bringing together the formerly warring Tamil and Sinhalese communities.

Sri Lanka had a rare opportunity to rebuild tourism from the ground up. Hiran Cooray is the chairman of Jetwing Hotels, the country’s premier hotel chain, and a member of the government’s tourism board. He says that “government regulatory bodies, other than on a few occasions, have done their job well to curtail bad development in beach resorts and in the interior of the country.”

The new atmosphere of peace, including freedom of speech and the ability to pursue sound policies, he adds, “is overall a huge sense of relief for all citizens.” Still, Cooray says he wants a greater focus on protecting the environment and promoting local communities—something tourism is ideally suited for.

Environment and Climate Change

Tourism is a significant contributor to climate change, arguably the most critical issue of our time. The industry is responsible for some 5 percent of the world’s total carbon footprint, according to the UNWTO, thanks to airplane flights, air-conditioned hotels, tour buses, car trips and mass-produced souvenirs.

At the same time, tourism can be a victim of climate change. As oceans continue to rise and weather becomes unpredictable, some destinations are losing their appeal.

The cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates exemplify how tourism can create one of the world’s worst carbon footprints in a matter of a few decades. The UAE purposefully remade itself from a small nondescript desert nation with sizeable oil deposits into the major air hub and tourist nation in the Middle East, boasting everything from the world’s biggest mall and tallest building to indoor skiing. In the process, it also rose to become one of the worst environmental culprits according to the Living Planet scientific report, which shows each nation’s per capita environmental footprint.

The UAE held its first green tourism summit in 2010, which I attended. Amid the predictable self-promotion and congratulations, several speakers underlined the bad news and proposed profound solutions. The UAE began working with organizations like Living Planet and has actually reduced its footprint. But the indoor skiing and ice-skating continue.

By contrast, Costa Rica is proving that a healthy tourism industry can have a positive impact on the environment and climate change. It invented ecotourism in the 1970s, using the burgeoning travel industry to preserve and protect its wilderness. Even though it is about the same size as the U.S. state of West Virginia, Costa Rica is home to more species of birds than the U.S. and Canada combined, more butterfly species than all of Africa, 200 reptile species, 208 mammal species and 35,000 insect species. Thanks to ecotourism, these species are thriving, and Costa Rica is working with its neighbors to create a larger ecoreserve known as the Path of the Panther. All this while the vertebrate wildlife population worldwide has been cut in half since 1960. And in the process of becoming a “biological powerhouse,” Costa Rica has achieved the highest per capita income in Central America, serving as a model for other developing countries trying to recover or save their wilderness through ecotourism.

U.S. Tourism

Meanwhile, the U.S. is one of the few governments that believe tourism should be left to the private sector, and the country has suffered the consequences.

In 1996,  Congress dismantled the federal government’s small tourism agency, the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration. Since then, the U.S. has had no national tourism policy to create industry rules and regulations across the country. As a result, as tourism climbed around the world, the U.S. lost out on billions of tourist dollars. Moreover, the border policies adopted after 9/11 had the unexpected consequence of infuriating some of the most sought-after foreign tourists, who stopped coming to the U.S. That led to a loss of over $600 billion in business.

Without a serious national policy, the industry often evades regulation, with dire consequences for the environment. For example, the U.S. is home to Carnival and Royal Caribbean, two behemoths that control nearly two-thirds of the global cruise industry, both of which are headquartered in Miami. Yet the cruise lines do not have to follow many American laws. Congress has exempted cruise lines from U.S. labor laws—waiters are paid $50 a month plus tips and no benefits; from most sewage and water regulations under the Clean Water Act; and from standards of the Clean Air Act in international waters.

The result has been complaints about air and water pollution from Alaska to Maine. The state of California worried that its coast had become “a sewage pond for big ships” and banned all sewage discharges from cruise ships along its coastal waters, winning approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency last year. Alaska has also set standards to regulate black water—human waste—from cruise ships, as well as strict limits on sewage disposal. However, under  pressure from the industry, some of those standards have been relaxed.

U.S. President Barack Obama has slowly shifted the federal government’s stance. He signed a 2010 law to promote travel and tourism for the country’s economic recovery, including the first national website where foreigners can learn about travel to the U.S. He also released a 2012 national tourism strategy. The most significant aspect is to further improve the visa process so more foreigners can travel to the U.S. and not worry about being stopped at borders and airports. While the new strategy is bringing back some of the tourist trade from Europe, it does not address the fundamental issues that tourism presents for the environment and the quality of life for areas inundated with tourists, nor does it effectively regulate the industry.

Conclusion

This summer, the padlocks are gone from the Pont des Arts in Paris; China will add at least one more airport for arriving tourists; Sri Lanka will try to use tourism to protect its tropical forests and promote its fragile peace; and the U.S. will continue to treat tourism as an afterthought, not even bothering to join the UNWTO. The cost of the neglect to the U.S. and other countries with a similar approach will be needless conflicts between locals and tourists, more pollution and missed opportunities to use tourism to improve livelihoods and neighborhoods. All over the world, the question is whether policymakers will finally seize those opportunities by acknowledging travel and tourism as a serious industry at the center of important global policy debates.

Elizabeth Becker is the author of “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.” She has been the international economics correspondent for The New York Times, the senior foreign editor of National Public Radio and a war correspondent in Cambodia for The Washington Post.

"Becker writes history as history should be written"—The Financial Times