What I learned from my 'Overbooked' promotion tour

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Elizabeth Becker
Elizabeth Becker

While on the road giving talks about my book "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, (Simon & Schuster, 2013)" the first response from the audience was often panic. When I explained how global tourism had "exploded" and was changing how we all lived, I could count on someone in the audience to ask, "Are you trying to tell me I can't travel wherever I want?"

As strange as it might seem, a follow-up question was inevitably, "How can you stop the tourists from destroying the places I love?" be it Barcelona, the Taj Mahal or the Amazon.

Everyone loves to travel, and at the same time everyone is afraid that travel is spoiling the planet. The surprise is how those conflicting emotions break down. Now, as "Overbooked" comes out in a paperback edition with a new epilogue, I wanted to reflect on what I learned from my book talks and travels.

"Overbooked" was the first serious examination of how and why travel had joined the elite ranks of global industries and what that meant for our cultures, economies and environments. Even two years ago, pundits were not convinced of the power and influence of the industry.

Elizabeth Becker signs a copy of “Overbooked” in Puerto Varas, Chile.
Elizabeth Becker signs a copy of “Overbooked” in Puerto Varas, Chile. Photo Credit: Bill Nash

Today, travel's importance is widely accepted. Look at Egypt: The pyramids were on the bucket lists of travelers stretching back into antiquity. Now Egypt's political troubles have spelled disaster. Tourists are staying away, and without them Egypt's economy is tanking, which causes the country's political troubles to increase in a vicious cycle.

The sense of who is the good guy and who's bad has also shifted. Surprisingly, Americans now find themselves in both categories, whether they are tourists or travel industry titans.

On the positive side, Americans are among the most coveted tourists around the world. In China, tour guides told me Americans are more open to adventure, less picky about food and lodging and less likely to act like snobs. In Northern Europe, from Copenhagen to London, the locals said they valued American visitors for their sophistication and their awareness that sustainable travel meant respecting the places they visit.

"Americans are open-minded, and I miss them," one Venetian told me.

The problem is that there seems to be fewer and fewer American visitors.

"I can't believe an American is in my shop," said a boutique salesman in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

A Thai official complained at a meeting in Washington that there were too many feckless Chinese tourists and not enough thoughtful Americans. 

"Where have they gone?" he wondered.

In part, the apparent dearth of Americans, one big change since "Overbooked" was published, might be a perception that arises because of the sudden emergence of the Chinese as the planet's largest tourist group. And like many cultures new to travel, the Chinese have a mixed reputation. Websites are devoted to videos of "Chinese tourists behaving badly." But to put that in perspective, we have to recall the bad old days when Americans began to travel in large numbers and we, too, were considered so provincial and uncouth that we earned the sobriquet the "ugly American."

Still, it is not just perception that the American tourist is disappearing. While the percentage of Americans holding passports is up to more than 35%, it's largely because post-9/11, passports have been required for travel to Canada and Mexico. In contrast, 60% of Canadians hold passports. For European countries it is often more than 75%.

The higher number of U.S. passports hasn't translated into more foreign vacations for Americans. In fact, we aren't using those passports for foreign vacations as much as we used to. By one estimate, fewer than 4% of Americans took a trip overseas last year for leisure.

In part, that is a result of a well-documented and growing problem: Americans' reluctance to take a vacation. While global tourism was exploding in this century, Americans were opting out, reducing the amount of vacations they took by nearly a week. The result is that they are depriving themselves of one-third to one-half of the time off they have earned. That leaves little time for travel, especially overseas. And, to my shock, I found it is getting worse.

I am beginning to wonder if overseas travel is no longer part of the American DNA. There are many ways in which the political culture is not conducive to travel, including the fact that the U.S. remains the only developed nation that does not guarantee its citizens paid vacation time.

Back in 1996, in a rush to reduce the size of government, Congress zeroed out the budget of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration. Travel was declared to be largely a private enterprise that fell outside the purview of the government. In March 2010, Congress created a private/public effort known as Brand USA to promote inbound U.S. travel, but embassies are still forbidden from helping foreigners get information about travel to the U.S. And following the 2008 recession, states cut back their already-small tourism bureaus. The state of Washington eliminated theirs.

Compare that with China, which included the right to two paid "golden weeks" of vacation in its tourism initiative. Chinese President Xi Jinping has continued the push, negotiating with other countries to grant the Chinese more and longer tourist visas, most recently with the U.K.

The paradox of the disappearing American traveler is that the U.S. invented some of the glories of modern tourism, from national parks to theme parks.

And while U.S. tourists might be in short supply, America's travel industry continues to have an outsize impact globally. Arguably, the biggest innovation in travel today is Airbnb. As global travel doubled to 1 billion trips a year, the demand for hotel rooms, especially in lower price ranges, wasn't being met. Airbnb stepped into that vacuum with a data-driven rental product, offering a bed, a room, an apartment or a home, declaring itself part of the "sharing economy." Though Airbnb didn't exist until 2009, and though it doesn't manage or own a single property, it now provides more accommodations than any traditional hotelier worldwide.

Still, Airbnb has engendered many critics, not consumers but destination residents, and I heard from them frequently and loudly on my tours. From the French Quarter in New Orleans to Barcelona, residential communities were furious at the flood of tourists staying in unregulated, short-term rentals. It is easily the No. 1 hot-button issue I encountered.

The quiet, expensively restored residential area of the French Quarter, for example, was being flooded with noisy tourists until it eventually resembled the Quarter's most raucous haunts.

"The noise, the puking in our gardens," homeowner Mari Kornhauser said. "It's starting to look like Bourbon Street."

She voiced what is becoming a residential manifesto in the era of mass tourism: "We are a community, not a commodity."

Cities and neighborhoods are reaching the tipping point, with Barcelona putting a freeze on all new short-term rentals as the city's new mayor figures out how to reverse and repair destruction caused by too much unregulated tourism.

This is happening around the world as communities say they are losing their identity, their freedom and their way of life to waves of tourists arriving without their approval.

Charleston, S.C., is divided over the former mayor's approval for larger cruise ships to dock, disembarking thousands more tourists into the city's historic center.

Visit Copenhagen's Henrik Thierlein told me that the city's tourism office coordinates quiet zones and studies density charts to prevent oversaturation, always asking the question: "How do you take advantage of the growth in tourism and not be taken over by mass tourism?"

Whether they describe their goal as sustainable tourism, ecotourism or responsible tourism, communities are demanding a bigger say in the number of tourists descending upon them.

In Chile, the locals want tourism that protects that country's spectacular nature and culture.

In Venice, citizen groups told me they simply wanted to reduce the number of visitors. Last year, Venice's 59,000 residents hosted more than 20 million visitors. Citizens have petitioned their government to reduce the number of cruise ships that dock there and now are discussing whether to put a cap on the number of tourists allowed in the city. Just as visitors need a pass to ascend the Eiffel Tower, a new initiative demands that they acquire a pass to enter heavily trafficked areas like St. Mark's Square.

As the scholar/activist Marco Scurati told me in an email, Venice needs to find an "organic approach to too much tourism that is destroying a delicate environment and the right of citizens to live in their own place."

That could be one of the themes of the next decade as tourism continues its explosion.

Former New York Times international economics correspondent Elizabeth Becker is the author of "Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism," now available in paperback. She began her career as a war correspondent in Cambodia and was the senior foreign editor for National Public Radio. Visit www.elizabethbecker.com.

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