In the past decade, leaders of governments and industries alike have come to the growing realization that while travel and tourism might be seen as fun and sun by the consumer, it has arguably grown to be the world's largest single industry. That reality has serious consequences.
In the first book to examine the true scope of the global industry today, author Elizabeth Becker argues that with great power comes great responsibility, and the time for treating travel and tourism with benign neglect has passed.
A former New York Times correspondent and author of an earlier book on Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Becker describes a largely ignored and significantly under-regulated global industry in her Amazon best-selling "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism" (Simon & Schuster, 2013).
"The tourism industry should be respected for what it is," Becker said last month in an interview with Travel Weekly shortly after the book's April 16 release. "At the same time, it should be looked at seriously in terms of how it's affecting our society, which means [getting] the scrutiny that a major industry always gets."
Becker writes that tourism generates $3 billion in business every day, and she asserts that if frequent flyer miles were a currency, it would be one of the most valuable in the world. Yet she observes that despite its size and impact, the industry rarely attracts adequate attention for either its potential benefits or its possible risks.
Prior to writing "Overbooked," Becker covered global economics for the Times, and it was in that capacity that she first began to realize the impact of travel and tourism.
"As I was doing international economics and covering the big trades, I kept bumping into the tourism industry," she recalled. "As you know, the United States does not have anything resembling a tourism ministry, so we don't hear about it much in American circles. Once you get outside the country, you can't help [confronting] it. It's right there."
She writes that poor nations often view tourism as a key opportunity to emerge from poverty, an economic driver second only to oil and energy. But she cautions that while tourism can help emerging economies, it also contributes to harming the environment, corrupting local elites and exploiting local populations.
Becker's 390-page analysis of the travel and tourism industry, for which she traveled widely and conducted numerous interviews with industry officials, takes an often critical look at everything from individual destinations and how they market themselves to the cultural and environmental impact of tourism on those destinations.
She cites Venice as one example of a destination that has been overrun by tourists, to the point of potentially irreversible degradation, with between 20 million and 24 million people descending on the city each year.
The city's population, she reports, has dropped to 59,000 from 164,000 at its peak. Thus, she argues, Venetians are being pushed out of their own city by the tourism industry.
Becker is equally anxious about the $40 billion global cruise industry, writing that cruise lines pay "Third World wages ... while charging First World prices" and that the cruise industry's "contribution to the fouling of the seas is considerable."
To anyone who has monitored the cruise industry over the past decade or so, that assertion would seem to ignore the significant advances cruise lines have made in both treatment of wastewater and adoption of low-sulphur fuels.
But Becker is not dogmatic about her observations. Throughout the book, she offers a wide variety of industry stakeholders the opportunity to either back up her conclusions or defend against them, leaving the reader with the impression that the book's most important contribution to the industry is to stimulate long-overdue dialogue and debate.
In her book, Becker writes that travel and tourism has long been among the most neglected industries of its size, a phenomenon she attributes to factors ranging from corrupt governments to lax reporting by the news media.
She said a serious dialogue on the topic is crucial to making people aware of the consequences of the ways in which they choose to travel.
"The thing about tourism," she said, is that "the product is the country, it is the destination, so that I think there should be a lot more say in how tourism affects a destination for the people who actually live there."
Asked what she hoped would be the book's takeaway for people who work in the travel and tourism industry or who sell travel, Becker responded with something of a plea to travel professionals and travelers alike.
"Being part of the tourism industry is a joy, but it also means that you're responsible for the way we travel and the way we welcome people and the way we treat other people in their destination," she said.
"Overbooked" is rife with negative revelations and warnings about the travel and tourism industry.
Yet, despite Becker's often disheartening findings about the direction the industry is heading, she remains an optimist.
While there is great hope for the future of the industry, she said, it must be regulated more heavily if travel is ultimately to become an instrument of positive economic growth, development and change.
"It's still one of my favorite things in the world to travel," Becker said. "And I wrote this book because I wanted to keep it that way."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.