Right after reading Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism by Elizabeth Becker, it occurred to me what an utterly unoriginal idea travel is. For one, people have been traveling for centuries. We do it as much out of a desire for discovery--both cultural discovery and self discovery--as out of necessity. And what we end up discovering tends to be the same ol' epiphanies the world over, regardless of the culture you choose to explore or who you are. Perhaps that universality is what explains or benefits the second point. Travel has become so common and so relatively safe, such a typical pasttime really, that it's been successfully co-opted as a marketing concept, a means for entire countries and cultures to sell themselves to would-be travelers.
The notion of country or culture as just another brand to be advertised and sold
is a large part of what Becker's book is about. While her book covers
some history of travel in general, she generally doesn't go back any
further than the early 20th century, when the idea of travel seems to
have given way to the concept of tourism. Becker focuses on a few countries and cities specifically (to name a few, France, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Zambia, Venice, Dubai, Las Vegas) and examines how each has used tourism to promote itself and what positive or negative effects the embrace of tourism has had on the local environment, economy, culture, and everyday community. She also discusses a number of general trends in tourism, old and new, such as cruises and ecotourism.
Overall, it's not exactly a thrilling read. Don't expect an action-packed travel memoir. Even though Becker visits each of the places she reports on and signs on for various tours and excursions, her vacation fun-time is compromised by interviews with numerous tourism and government officials and attendance at tourism conferences, a couple of which sound about as exciting as an orthopedic footwear conference or world watchmakers summit. Nevertheless, quite a bit of the info in this book should be eye-opening to even experienced and well-informed world travelers. The chapter on cruises was especially revelatory, as Becker documents the various violations and abuses in everything from labor rights to taxes to waste disposal that the big cruise companies have been getting away with for quite awhile.
I've found a few critiques of this book that accuse Becker of having an elitist attitude, and I wonder if those critiques stem from her less-than-thrilled review of a Royal Caribbean cruise she takes with her husband to Cozumel and Belize. If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that people who love cruises LOVE their cruises. In fact, for many people who say they love to travel, cruising is the only way they experience travel. Becker acknowledges that the reason for this is because cruise lines have made it so easy for people. Everything is accounted for on a cruise--accommodation, meals (from fancy dining to massive buffets to 24-hour pizza and burger stations), shopping, excursions, gambling, dancing, drinking (as well as AA meetings onboards), workout centers and spas, photography, live entertainment and shows, art auctions...you name it. And while cruises may stop at ports in exotic, foreign countries--thereby advertising the notion that cruises offer a taste of foreign culture--the truth is most passengers are steered into tourist villages at these ports, where retailers offer "cut-race" prices on items such as diamonds or leather products that are heavily talked-up during shopping seminars on ship. Becker explores the relationship between retailers such as Diamonds International and Park West Galleries and the major cruise lines, as well as how efforts to enforce U.S. labor laws and environmental regulations have been stymied by cruise bigwigs and their political benefactors in Congress.
(Full disclosure: I'm not a cruise fan. Granted, I've only been on one. And only because it was free. I'm glad I got to go for free because I would have been pretty T-O'ed at the end if I had to pay for what it all turned out to be. Yes, the meals were fabulous--but other than eating 24 hours a day for a week if I wanted to, I didn't find much that was on offer on the cruise to be my kind of thing. I don't gamble. I don't karaoke. The swimming pools were filled with kids. Every place was crawling with kids actually. Our tiny cabin had no windows or port holes, no nothing. The drinks were expensive. The decks were crowded and noisier than I expected, and then it rained a few days when we were out to sea. The art auction was confusing and disappointing--and Becker's account of it explained a lot about how these cruise art auctions are talked up to essentially swindle passengers into buying a bunch of pretty worthless paintings. My cruise stopped at Cozumel (Mexico), Belize, Roatan Island (Honduras), and Freeport (Bahamas). It poured and poured buckets at Cozumel. I got off the ship to basically just wade through some flooded streets and find an Internet cafe to tell friends back home how much fun I was having. At Belize I signed on for an excursion of canoeing and wine tasting that was actually pretty fun--even if I did get drenched in another downpour while still out in the canoe and found myself standing in a nest of red ants while taking a picture of some crocodiles at the winery. At Roatan I went to the beach and was scared off by a hotel guard with gold teeth and a gun when I tried to sit on one of the hotel's beach chairs. He didn't have the English to tell me I was on private property, and I didn't have the Spanish to talk to him nor the chutzpah to ignore him as he stood over me with his arms crossed and stared down at me. Message understood, I went to another end of the beach to try out some famous heavily alcoholic "Monkey LaLa" drink at a cabana, but the cruise drunks had already hit the cabana and guzzled all the booze and the bartenders said it would be half an hour or so before they could get any more to make even one Monkey LaLa for me. At Freeport my family and I took a cab to some tourist market and then walked on the beach for maybe 20 minutes until it started to rain. Whenever I list the countries I've visited, apart from Mexico (which I've visited on another occasion for 2 weeks) I never include the countries I "visited" on the cruise. What's the point?)
In defense of Becker and her skepticism about cruises, she takes another cruise, a much smaller one organized through National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions aboard the ship Sea Lion, of Costa Rica and the Panama Canal--and she loves it. Indeed, much of what she has to report about Costa Rica's forays into tourism, especially ecotourism, is positive. Costa Rica and France are in fact two countries and governments that seem to be doing the best that can be done in terms of both promoting and regulating tourism. Becker also gives credit to Zambia and a number of safari and tour companies there that have been working to give tourists authentic safari experiences while preserving the wildlife and combating the destruction of African native species by poachers and hunters. The hitch in many of Africa's wildlife parks is that some locals would prefer to turn them into more modern development or use them for their own farming.
Indeed, the wishes and rights of locals in the face of tourism are a running concern throughout the book. Becker's chapter on Cambodia investigates how that country's tourism development has pushed thousands of people out of their homes and off their land, rendering them absolutely homeless and powerless. In turn, the "sex tourism" that has plagued Thailand for so long--and that Thailand has been working to combat of late--is now booming in Cambodia, with so many young girls being sold off as prostitutes by their own destitute families to brothels and tourists. Meanwhile, Prague, newly in vogue as a destination for Western European visitors and especially popular for stag parties, has seen a significant rise in prostitution and sex trafficking to feed the city's tourism boom. Dubai's transgressions in the race to be the tourism mecca of the world may be the worst of them all. A culturally indistinct desert city of manmade islands, half-finished skyscrapers, indoor snow slopes, and outrageous opulence and garishness, modern Dubai has essentially been built by imported slaves. I admit Dubai is not a place I have any desire to visit. It's always sounded to me like a triple-hell version of Las Vegas, another city I try to steer clear of. Of course, this is a world of different strokes for different folks, and clearly lots of people are digging Dubai these days. But part of Becker's point is that those people are a key to change when it comes to correcting the problems caused by tourism. Who owns the hotel you're staying in or the tour operator you're traveling with? Where does all the money you're spending abroad go? Back into the workers' pockets? Back into the community? Or does it line the pockets of bribed local officials or multinational CEOs? When a tourism business advertises itself as "green" or tosses around the prefix "eco-", whose environmental regulations are they supposedly conforming to, if any? How are the locals and long-standing businesses in the area being affected by tourism? Are they being pushed out by increasing rents and non-local chains? Are the locals happy with the changes tourism has brought to their community, culture, and country? Are there any locals even around to ask anymore?
It's worth asking some of these questions before heading out on a trip. And it's worth asking yourself if some of the awesome adventures or cheap deals you're looking for while traveling are worth the trouble being caused to locals, workers, and the environment.
It's also worth asking yourself why you choose the destinations you do when you travel. And that question brings us back to the role of branding in tourism and the relationship between tourism marketing and government these days. Why is France so popular with tourists around the world? Becker's argument is essentially that the French government takes tourism very seriously. France wisely recognized tourism as the potent industry and money maker that it is decades ago while recovering from the world wars and successfully branded itself as an ideal tourist destination. It's true that so much of modern France's infrastructure is designed around making things easier and beautiful not just for the French, but for visitors as well. France's pact with tourism might also explain the so-called cultural arrogance many accuse the French of flaunting. The French are protective of their culture because that culture is a big draw for tourism, which in turn contributes mightily to the French economy. Cultural arrogance? Or economic shrewdness? I'd credit the French with more of the latter when it comes to tourism. In any case, whatever France is doing, it's working. It's currently the most visited country in the world. And that success has as much to do with the French government knowingly exploiting the desires that fuel human wanderlust: romance, good locally grown and raised food, beautiful buildings and art, pretty countryside, easy transportation, cultural authenticity, the wish to be at the center of it all (as in Paris) and then to get away from it all (as in Provence). Not many other places in the world have managed to combine all these desires into one cultural and national package--at least, not one that can be neatly organized into a one or two-week holiday that'll please folks from all parts of the globe.
France's success at branding itself to visitors contrasts with the approach these days of the United States. It was illuminating to read of the "lost decade" (as Becker calls it) in American tourism. The U.S. used to be one of the top destinations for travelers around the world. And no wonder--we are the country of Yosemite and Yellowstone, Vegas and Times Square, Disney World and Graceland, the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Trail. Our national parks system in fact paved the way for other countries to begin protecting their own wilderness areas, for the sake of tourism as much as for wilderness itself. Tourism in the U.S. banked on our country's reputation for wide-open spaces and welcoming smiles. Too bad the U.S. stopped banking on tourism.
Since 9/11, the U.S. seen has seen a significant drop in foreign tourists. All those travel safety and security measurements implemented by our government in the wake of 9/11 have made it much harder for people abroad to come to the U.S. even for a couple weeks' visit. (They've certainly also made it harder for Americans themselves to travel abroad and to travel by air within their own country.) Many potential tourists are simply afraid. And it's not so much what may happen to them while they're in the U.S. that scares foreigners--it's what may happen while they simply try to get in. Foreign visitors to the U.S. speak of greater hassles at airports and borders both coming and going. Some of these complaints are coming from even frequent visitors to the U.S. from our former allies like Britain. In the meantime, unlike France, our government has had less foresight in taking tourism seriously. Becker traces this back to the 1990s. While President Clinton welcomed tourism bigwigs in the U.S. to White House in 1995 to discuss the potential for tourism in boosting our economy and world image, Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House used his "Contract with America" to slash, among many other things, the federal government's travel and tourism office. Congress reasoned that tourism promotion could be left to the states and regional offices to figure out. No big loss? Becker cites the numbers in a report covering U.S. tourism between 2000 and 2008 (the Bush years, essentially): a decrease/loss in "68 million visitors; $509 billion in spending revenue; 441,000 jobs; $270 billion in trade surplus and $32 billion in tax revenue."
With the election of President Obama in 2008, there's been some improvement in recognizing the importance of tourism to our economy and a friendlier national image. One example of this that Becker actually makes no mention of is the Obama administration's concession to Cuban Americans, who may now travel freely to Cuba since 2009, as well the approval of numerous "people-to-people" programs that allow Americans to make educational package trips to Cuba since 2011. While this development might seem backwards to the idea of inviting foreigners to come here, I'd argue that improving the U.S. image can just as well begin with encouraging Americans to travel abroad more often and with more open minds--essentially as ambassadors for America.
When it comes to the idea of selling America as a tourism brand, I admit I don't like it. I think American culture--any world culture really--is far too huge and complex to reduce to a neatly packaged idea or tour. And although it certainly makes financial sense, I suppose I also don't like the idea of governments controlling "cultural branding" because it makes me wonder how much my dreams of travel have been sold to me. I like to think that my wanderlust is an organic outcome of my personal worldview and experiences. That my dreams are my own. That any fears I might have about the world and travel were allayed by my own determination, curiosity, courage, and sense of adventure--not by advertising. How much was I buying into a brand, masterfully marketed by the French government, when I made my first trip to Paris? When I took off for Australia for 7 weeks with less than a month's planning ahead of leaving, was it pure spontaneity on my part--or was it all those cute kangaroo commercials promoting the land down under? Maybe it was even the Men at Work song...or the sight of Hugh Jackman with his shirt off in Baz Luhrmann's Australia.
This is where Overbooked leaves me. How has tourism changed the world, the books asks--and answers. My question is how has tourism changed travel? How has this new industry changed the ancient impulse of wanderlust? Whose dreams do I really follow when I travel the world's roads? Who owns my dreams? Who sent them? And what sends me?