Overbooked

Overbookedoverbooked-cover

By Elizabeth Becker . Simon and Schuster, Trade paperback edition 2016.

Elizabeth Becker spoke to an audience in the Ralph Bunche Library at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC about her latest book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, as part of the Library’s ongoing Speaker Series. 

In 1980 there were 250 million tourists. In 1995, 500 million. By 2012? Wait for it…. One billion tourists rove the planet in search of something different than home. Then there’s the environmental impact of the mammoth cruise ships, idling buses, trains, planes, ferries or cars they rode in on. Where ever that place may be, there’s an impact – sometimes positive, often negative.

A large eager group listened to Elizabeth Becker discuss the research and analysis behind her new work “Overbooked” The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism published by Simon & Schuster this year. Becker pointed out that tourism provides opportunities for advancing public diplomacy and ran us through the efforts of savvy countries like France, Costa Rica, China and others with national marketing programs. Attracting tourists from BRIC countries – China mainly- France harnessed the power of tourism decades ago. The “well-heeled, educated tourists” leave their RMB, reals, and rupees and rubles throughout France, not just Paris. The country has an integrated win-win marketing strategy that drills down to agricultural networks so provincial inns will have enough succulent organic lamb chops for the menus. Every week, a cultural festival in different regional towns ensures steady stream of visitors. The tourism ministry even issued a marketing report on how to attract Chinese tourists.

Alas, the US government abandoned the promotion of US tourism around 1995. There’s no national tourism marketing program. Since 2011, tourist traffic to the US has flat-lined, called “the lost decade” by travel industry professionals, said Becker. During the same decade, the number of tourists nearly doubled. In 2009, more Chinese went to Paris than anywhere in the entire USA, including Hawai’I, Becker pointed out. US efforts to leverage tourism for public diplomacy are lightweight or non-existent. Tourism marketing is left to the states, Becker pointed out, but most states don’t have the resources to integrate with regional or national travel networks.

Anyone who’s been out and about in the world during the 21st century knows about the crowds of people – in the baggage scan line, traveling and spending money. Too bad they aren’t spending that moola in the US, even if they do stand on the wrong side of Metro escalators. The impact of gigantic cruise ships damages the ocean ecosystem and shore environments. Fragile Venice receives 20 to 24 million tourists a year. Angkor Wat took in 800,000 tourists in the first quarter of 2013, yet the province of Siem Reap is now Cambodia’s poorest with devastating environmental degradation and declining water resources. I wonder if there is an internal migration issue as well, as in China, Mexico and elsewhere, farm families go to the tourist destinations for hotel construction work or service jobs, but can no longer afford to live in their own region. I’ll have to read the book to find out.

It’s not all bad though – Costa Rica practically invented eco-tourism and maintains highly sustainable programs. African game safari tourism is key to protecting animals and communities, Becker commented.

The Q & A session opened with discussion of what can be done to tap into tourism revenues and how can public diplomacy leverage tourism to support its goals. Becker mentioned that in the past Embassies offered information about travel in the US, helping to promote the US tourism industry. She mentioned that the US could encourage residents and citizens to learn foreign languages to be better hosts for those potential visitors. At the request of one participant, Becker recalled her celebrated war reporting career, a strange interview with Pol Pot followed by a desperate escape from Cambodia.

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