Author ignores industry's green efforts

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Costas ChristIn the 1991 PBS documentary "The Environmental Tourist," Megan Epler Wood noted growing concerns about the impact that tourism's exploding business was having on the planet's fragile ecosystems, calling for a new tourism paradigm that was more environmentally responsible.

That same year, she convened an international meeting in Washington, bringing together tour operators, conservation leaders and government representatives from Africa, Asia and the Americas as part of the newly formed International Ecotourism Society. It took those of us at that meeting two days to officially define the word ecotourism for the first time: "Responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people."

The gathering gave birth to the ecotourism movement and set in motion what the U.N. World Tourism Organization calls one of the most important transformations in the history of modern travel: the emergence of sustainable tourism principles and practices that are changing the way people travel and how companies do business based on environmentally friendly operations; support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage; and direct social and economic benefits to local communities.

Yet in Elizabeth Becker's 448-page book "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism," you won't find mention of this historic meeting or of other milestones in the struggle to harness the economic power of the travel and tourism industry to improve livelihoods and protect nature. What you will find is a shotgun approach to research about tourism's rise on the global stage. The author writes about the octopus-like tentacles of the industry, but makes it hard to understand all the pieces.

The book often contradicts itself. Becker frowns on mass tourism (which she never defines) and all-inclusive resorts as unsavory and then, in the same chapter, heralds France as the "gold standard for tourism," without any apparent awareness that one of France's most iconic brands, Club Med, exported the all-inclusive resort model around the world.

In a chapter titled "Safari," Becker travels to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia and stays at a lodge that she celebrates as "evocative of the wilderness without falling into the kitsch trap of trying to duplicate the set of 'Out of Africa.'" Apparently unknown to her -- it's certainly not mentioned in the book -- the lodge was burying its garbage in hidden pits inside the national park, a practice that's damaging to the same evocative wilderness she describes. One of the first questions any reporter should ask when visiting a nature tourism lodge is, "What do you do with all your trash?"

Becker states that governments should play a critical role in tourism; after all, "governments sell their countries." She criticizes Zambia's government for failing to manage its tourism well but completely ignores neighboring Namibia, where the government supports community-based tourism that has led to a reduction in wildlife poaching, helped alleviate poverty and made Namibia an international model of ecotourism success.

Likewise, she glosses over Kenya as a mass tourism destination where she'd find herself "in a park that specialized in luxury tents rather than elephants." Had she actually taken the time to look more deeply, she could have learned about Kenya's Northern Rangelands Trust, a collection of indigenous-owned safari lodges and wildlife reserves that have protected more than 4 million acres of endangered species habitat, including important elephant migration areas.

Becker's book declares itself to be "groundbreaking" because she "uncovers how a one-time hobby has become a colossal enterprise with profound impact on countries." Yet travel industry trade associations, conservation organizations and international agencies have been talking about tourism's impact and publishing research papers on its growth for at least the last two decades.

They have also been wrestling with the implications of that growth and working to determine how best to harness tourism as a force for good. For example, 10 years ago as a senior director at Conservation International, I led an international research team studying tourism's rapid growth and its impact on global ecosystems. The resulting study, "Tourism and Biodiversity: Mapping Tourism's Global Footprint," was published by the U.N. Environment Programme.

Throughout the book, Becker misses the opportunity to help her readers better understand how the "colossal enterprise" of tourism has also led to the emergence of ecotourism guidelines and how that has evolved into sustainable tourism practices today. Her interchangeable use of terms such as green travel, ecotourism and sustainable tourism reveals her own lack of a clear understanding of the differences between them.

Ecotourism specifically focuses on guidelines for travel to natural areas, including national parks and wilderness reserves. Sustainable tourism applies the principles of environmentally friendly operations, protecting cultural and natural heritage and providing direct social and economic benefits for local people, and increasingly for entire countries, in what is known as "destination stewardship." She provides no information on how travelers themselves can be part of the solution (for those interested, two good sources are Ecotourism.org and SustainableTravel.org).

Recalling a trip to Brazil to attend the 2009 World Travel & Tourism Council Summit, she makes repeated references to the "elites" of the industry at the summit resembling "a society photograph in a glossy magazine."

Yet she exhibits no understanding of the years of effort it took by sustainable tourism activists to get these "elites" to discuss the very issues that Becker says are her concern: the impact of exploding tourism growth on communities, cultures and the environment worldwide.

And when Becker had the opportunity after the summit to spend time with grassroots groups working on the front lines to improve local peoples' lives through better tourism practices, including Community Action Treks in Nepal and Heritage Watch in Cambodia, she instead jets off with the same elites she seems to mock after being offered a trip on a private plane with Marriott executives to visit a Marriott-funded conservation project in the Amazon (also an award winner).

There are redeeming parts of "Overbooked." The chapter on the cruise industry gets it largely right on how some cruise lines do little to benefit local people. In the section on nature tourism, she brings to light the impressive efforts of Jetwing, a family-owned hotel and travel company in post-conflict Sri Lanka, helping to rebuild that country's tourism economy by protecting nature, safeguarding culture and ensuring fair wages and benefits for local workers.

And in two chapters devoted to China, she discusses the profound impact that China's growing middle class will have on the future of tourism. But these come too far and few among the pages.

Becker set herself a big target in writing "Overbooked," but unfortunately she misses the bull's-eye by a wide margin.

Costas Christ is editor at large and a columnist at National Geographic Traveler, where he writes about the changing world of travel. He is featured in the new book "I Am Eco-Warrior: Portraits From the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution."

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