‘Overbooked’: Elizabeth Becker on the Business of Travel

According to the United Nations tourism organization, there were more than one billion international trips taken during 2012 alone. In a new book titled, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, journalist Elizabeth Becker traces the history of tourism and points to the challenges facing the fast-growing industry, which currently contributes $6.5 trillion to the world’s economy. In this interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Becker discusses the role that both individuals and countries must play as the tourism industry undergoes significant change.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: We are here today with Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism. Elizabeth, thanks for speaking with us. You spent five years working on this book, including several trips as a tourist rather than as a journalist. Did you approach those visits differently than when you had traveled in the past?

Elizabeth Becker: Totally…. You can only judge the product by acting as a tourist. China’s a very good example. I spent the first few weeks interviewing people as I normally do [for my] research. I had already done classic research at home and then had my interview subjects; I was a journalist/researcher. Then my husband flew over, and we went on a tour. I did not do anything but act like a tourist to see how the service was, to see how all the things I had been told about came to fruition on a travel trip. It was a very good exercise for me.

Knowledge@Wharton: Was it hard to take off the reporter hat and just leave it there, and vice versa, when you were doing these two different parts of researching the book?

Becker: Yeah. It was very funny because as a reporter you have to nurture your curiosity. As a tourist, it’s a totally different curiosity. You want to know what to eat, and so on and so forth, instead of asking, “Why do you do this, and have you been brainwashed about that?” So, yes, it was different. As I say in the book, when I was on a lovely ecotourism trip in Costa Rica on a ship, I did not tell the other tourists that I was, in a sense, going to write about the trip. I had to act just like a tourist, and that was good. It was good discipline for me. It was the only way, in fact, that I could have made any judgments about the way tourism is operating now and the effect it has on both the tourists and the people they are visiting. It was excellent, and it informed the way that I ended up writing the book.

Knowledge@Wharton: The book is categorized into profiles of different countries and different types of tourism. One of the examples of tourism done right was in France, where tourism has been integrated into major government policy efforts. But you also point out, and I thought this was really interesting, that the French government prefers to underplay this in public. To me, it tied back to some of the discussion you had about how there is a general lack of talk about the business side of tourism. How do you feel that led to some of the conflicts and challenges you discuss in the book?

Becker: People don’t even like to be called a tourist. People say they are going on a trip, that they are traveling. They are not saying, “I’m a tourist.” “Tourist” sounds like someone in bulging Bermuda shorts and socks. Tourism has a frivolous reputation. Even though it is the major single sector in France, and it nurtures all the other sectors, as one of the officials said, they would rather say, “My son is a hotelier,” rather than he’s in tourism. It affects the seriousness with which the industry is held. For instance, I recommend that tourism should be at the table when we are talking about climate change in any conference, because it’s essential to discuss the environmental footprint. But as long as it’s treated as an afterthought — what we do when we’re not doing anything serious, that it is our past time, not our major industry — then it is going to be harder to tackle some of those problems, because tourism is steadily becoming a central industry [worldwide].

Knowledge@Wharton: How much do you think has been contributed to this lack of talk about the business side? You make the point that a lot of newspapers that used to have beat reporters or media organizations covering the business side of tourism have gone away just because of the general consolidation in the industry. Does not having those watchdogs out there, and maybe watchdogs in other senses besides journalism, have an impact as well?

Becker: In fact, the problem is almost specific to this industry. Most of what you read in newspapers or online or see broadcast on your various screens is the consumer side: where to go and what to do. The travel sections aren’t watchdogs, and neither are the “24 Hours in Copenhagen” and “My Favorite Caribbean Vacation.” They never had specifically great watchdogs. The best watchdogs have been nonprofits that have tried to discuss it, because it’s been only recently with the explosion of the industry that people have seen how it is changing their communities.

Knowledge@Wharton: For issues like climate change, I think it’s safe to say a broad spectrum of people take it seriously. But when discussed through the lens of decreasing tourism or stopping some forms of tourism, do you think people take it less seriously or tend to respond more defensively just because it’s hitting at a tender spot that’s really important to a country’s economy?

Becker: You’re totally right. When I have been around talking about my book these last few weeks, I start my talks by saying, “I’m not going to take away your right to travel. That’s not what I’m talking about.” People consider the right to travel a very important part of their lives. But with that right comes responsibility. When you put it in that kind of framework, they begin to understand it.

If you’re in the United States, if a politician wants to raise the gas tax to pay for alternative energy, people are not happy if they commute to work every day and rely on their cars. Well, multiply that many times over, because everyone wants to take trips. So one of the points of this book is to say this is an industry, and you are despoiling this area, you are damaging this culture, so on and so forth. So if you want to protect the places you love, you should accept that you are going to have different responsibilities.

Knowledge@Wharton: It is easy to forget those when you’re going to a place for a week and then you’re going back to your life.

Becker: Yes, exactly.

Knowledge@Wharton: The book also touches on the growth of dark tourism, including a pretty shocking description of how the Cambodian government has positioned both the former torture center of the Khmer Rouge and some of the killing fields as tourist destinations. Why do you think this type of tourism is growing in popularity? How do you think it exemplifies the delicate balance governments face when trying to both grow tourism and also respect these cultural sites in their countries?

Becker: It’s a fascinating thing. I can’t completely answer that question because, as you can see, I was flummoxed by all of this. They discovered that Westerners were fascinated with the Tuol Sleng torture center, the Khmer Rouge torture center. They decided to make that a major tourism center with all the tour buses going there. Even though this is central to Cambodian history, you rarely see Cambodians there; it’s almost all foreigners. That’s not an accident, because it is pitched to foreigners. If it were pitched to Cambodians, it would be completely reorganized and the museum would show more about the victims and the history. As it is now, it’s a voyeurism that I found upsetting in many respects.

Knowledge@Wharton: Costa Rica is also a good example. In trying to help the country recover from that really devastating time in its history, they have made a lot of interesting choices in terms of how to grow tourism. How do you think their story exemplifies the choices that governments have made or have to make when they are trying to grow this as an industry, but also trying to not destroy the environment there?

Becker: Comparing Cambodia with Costa Rica is interesting. Cambodia did not respect all parts of the society and the environment when they built up tourism. They certainly have the numbers now. But it has not enriched the average Cambodian. It has been quite destructive in many parts of the country. Costa Rica did the opposite. They have used tourism to protect what is unique and beautiful about Costa Rica. They were pioneers in ecotourism. Underneath it all, when you are using tourism as your development scheme, you’re looking at your country, and essentially you’re monetizing it. You’re saying, “Okay, how much is it worth to have birds flying in the jungle versus how much is it worth if we cut down that jungle and put in a spa for wealthy foreigners?” That’s looking at it only as a budget. Whereas the smarter countries say, “Okay, how much are we going to help the locals, and what do they want? Is it better for our country in the long run to keep that jungle? Or can we make an eco resort where we keep the jungle but we can still have some sustainable tourism?”

Costa Rica, no question, went about it with a broader view of what was necessary for the country in using tourism to increase the economy and to build up the middle class. In Cambodia, the tourism tends to not help the average Cambodian. In fact, it hurts the Cambodians who were thrown out of their villages, and it has helped an elite that is often quite corrupt.

Knowledge@Wharton: You devote two chapters to the massive growth in tourism — both tourism to China and then the massive growth of the Chinese as tourists. It also pops up in about every chapter of the book. How do you think the increased Chinese influence will impact international tourism in the future? It seems this has now become the target group that a lot of these countries are catering to because they are the biggest.

Becker: I’m not very good about prophesizing the future, but I can tell you what’s going on now, and it’s astonishing. Countries are doing studies of the Chinese tourists to figure out how you can welcome them and still remain a viable tourism spot. There are so many. The Chinese tend to be big shoppers. They tend not to want to spend a lot of money on their hotels. This is average; not every Chinese person, of course, acts this way, but they tend to like to gamble. For instance, the studies show that they would rather go to the old home of an artist rather than to the museum to see the paintings. They are now switching a lot of their industry to accommodate them, including a lot more Chinese restaurants all over the world, because Chinese tend not to, at this stage, like foreign food. Overall, if the Chinese get it right in their own country, that’s going to be huge. But if they get it wrong, which is where I’m afraid it’s going now with the pollution and all, it’s not going to be very good.

Knowledge@Wharton: Now you also interviewed the tourism ministers of several countries for this book, but not in the U.S. because the government here got rid of that position in the 1990s. How would you say that move reflected American views of tourism? How have you found that this has been changing since then?

Becker: We never had a full department of tourism at all. It was a small, but dynamic office within the Department of Commerce. What has happened is that the United States has had a very lumpy and not well thought out industry because there’s no central government thinking about it. What happened was that tourism became part of the Republican versus Democratic struggle over small and large government, or smart and dumb government. When the Republicans won the U.S. House [of Representatives], then-speaker Newt Gingrich declared that government should be out of tourism, and that’s why it was zeroed out of the budget.

This led to turning their back on helping foreigners learn about the United States overseas. Before, U.S. embassies did have people to help the locals figure out their trips to the United States. That’s gone, which is huge, because, for instance, France has at least 250 people in the world posted to help foreigners make their trips to France. But more importantly, it meant that there was no way to encourage the kind of tourists you want to visit, the wealthier ones from Europe, Asia, South America. Instead, half of our tourists were day trippers from, say, Canada or Mexico. That’s had a big dent on the tourism.

Then there’s another aspect to the United States. Because of our federal system, the states have their own tourism agencies. Like everything else on the state level, most state tourism agencies are losing their budgets. When you have the states responsible for tourism, they can’t compete in the world. I went to some of these trade fairs for travel in tourism. A country like Germany had a beautiful booth. A country like Brazil would have a great booth. Then there would be a string of a dozen or so states that would have teeny little booths — of canoeing in Delaware or the turn of the leaves in Vermont. It was sad.

Knowledge@Wharton: It’s almost like the U.S. can’t compete as a country because the states are too busy competing with each other.

Becker: Right. They are not seeing the big picture. A foreigner doesn’t care whether they are in Delaware or Montana. They want to know what the options are. And then 9/11 had a huge impact because of the immediate changes in the border, how people are treated when they come to the airport, what’s required to enter the country and how much more difficult it was to get the visa. After that overhaul when tourism took off at the end of the Cold War, which essentially opened up the whole world to tourism, the United States flatlined. From 1995 until a few years ago, there was essentially no growth.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say in the book you don’t want people to cancel their trips, but what do you hope readers take away from it?

Becker: One, we’ve all become a little lazy as travelers. We need to do a lot more research and be a lot more thoughtful and careful about our travel. I would recommend fewer trips and staying longer. We’re fly-by, fast-food kind of travel, versus the thoughtful travel that we say we want to do and we don’t. Do a lot of homework, maybe learn a language, which is anathema to too many Americans. But essentially don’t take a lot of four- or five-day trips. Take some very well thought out two-week trips, or heaven forbid, a whole month. But take fewer trips and make them more thoughtful.

Knowledge@Wharton: A bit more like back to tourism’s roots, with the grand European tour of months or years that people used to take?

Becker: A little bit more like our parents or grandparents, for whom travel was a great privilege. They were very thoughtful, and they actually read history books before they left, instead of relying on two paragraphs in a Lonely Planet guide to figure out where they are.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about governments? What do you hope governments take away from the book?

Becker: Tourism is an industry that affects the entire society…. All kinds of voices should be heard as you plan for tourism. In France, for instance, I focused on the city of Bordeaux, which has gone through a 10-year transformation that has made it a tourist Mecca. That occurred because the local mayor and the local people — the arts people, the community activists, everybody — were involved in figuring out how they were going to improve their city to bring in tourism. It meant that they also made the city the kind of city they want to live in. Tourism is one of those industries that involves everyone, because the tourists are going to be coming and visiting your area.

Largely on a government level, I think there should be a serious look at tourism. For economic stimulus, I think the President said that every Brazilian who comes to the United States spends $5,000 to $6,000. That’s huge. Do we want to use that as a stimulus? How do we want to use it to improve the economy and society?

Knowledge@Wharton: From reading the book, it sounds like you took a lot more travels than could actually all be detailed in the book. If you could add one more story about one more country to the book, what would it be?

Becker: Boy, that’s a good question. What did I leave out? Well, I would have added Germany. I couldn’t add Germany. I couldn’t do much on Thailand. But I think Germany was a surprise because we think of it, historically, as from the wars. Now, Berlin might be the most interesting city in Europe, and the Germans are very conscious that they have made their country very welcome to the business traveler. That’s one aspect that I would love to build up, the whole idea of the business traveler and conventions and meetings and things like that.

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