Overbooked. The exploding business of travel and tourism.

A review of a book by Elizabeth Becker.

„Overbooked” is a work of an award-winning American journalist and former correspondant for the New York Times. In my opinion, it is a mandatory reading for anyone interested in sustainable tourism and responsible travel. If you decide to dedicate some of your time to read it, I guarantee that you will plan your next holiday more thoughtfully than before. Instead of ticking another “must see” place off your list, maybe you will look for less obvious alternatives?

There are many places labeled as „must visits”. The ones that you absolutely need to see at least once in a lifetime. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, Venice, the temples of the Angkor in Cambodia, Machu Picchu… I’m sure you can think of a lot more. We live in times where more and more people have a possibility to visit these once romantic and unavailable sites. What in the past was an activity for the chosen ones, has now become a very common way of spending your free time. It is good, we tend to think, because travelling educates so it’s nice that nowadays more people have access to such intellectual enrichment. It is also beneficial for the local people – thanks to tourism they have jobs and can make their living. The truth, however, is much more complex. Yes, tourism is currently one of the largest global businesses. In some countries it is the base of their very existence. Sadly, at the same time the industry contributes to environmental degradation, exploitation of the local employees, cultural impoverishment and a rise in the general price-level…

About the book

The author of „Overbooked” dedicated 5 years of her life to write it. The book is an outcome of many years of travelling, analyzing resources available in the archives of the UN World Tourism Organization and visiting libraries in such places as the headquarter of the National Geographic. Also countless interviews and conversations with employees of the tourism sector, owners of tourism related businesses and the local people living in the most touristic places. Thanks to this meticulous and multi-aspect approach, she managed to create a real compendium of knowledge on the influence that the tourism has on the environment and local communities around the globe. In the majority of cases the situation looks rather gloomy.

Every chapter of the book is a travel to another country, region or town. I won’t be able to discuss all of them in a single blog post, but I will tell you about the ones that I found the most interesting or shocking.

A dead city

First of all – Venice. The city that many perceive as a quintessence of romanticism and charm is no longer that place. Instead what was once a lively place, we now have a museum that naïve tourists still enjoy visiting but in which there is no room for the local people. They have been chased out of their homes by rising rents and prices in general. Where they once had their homes or family businesses, we now can see luxurious boutiques of well-known international brands. Some of the factories that in the past produced the famous Murano glass have been closed and replaced by exclusive hotels operated by international hotel chains. There is plenty of stores with luxury goods for rich tourists as well as souvenirs made in China. At the same timethe local people don’t have a place to go and buy food for a reasonable price.

Two faces of Dubai

Then, there is Dubai. This super city built in the middle of a desert for many is an embodiment of richness and splendor. It seems to be saying to the rest of the world: “We have everything, we don’t need anything from you”. Dubai tempts the tourists with its beaches, golf courses, horse racing events and even ski slopes. The local government would like Dubai to appear as an open and cosmopolitan place. They also show a great concern about the environment by organizing international conferences dedicated to sustainable tourism. Furthermore, they invest in alternative energies, such as nuclear, solar or wind. Sadly, these are only appearances. All the power of Dubai comes from the work of semi-slaves. Most of the construction workers are poor family men from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Exploited by their cruel employers or shifty recruiters.

Then, there comes the environmental degradation. The pollution generated by this gigantic city causes death of huge numbers of river fish every year (100 tonnes in 2009). The construction of an artificial island where the Atlantis hotel was later built destroyed the only local coral reef as well as many turtle-nesting sites.

Another interesting (and sad) aspect of the whole thing is how the touristy and international character of the city contributes to a linguistic impoverishment of the local people. Young citizens of Dubai, living in such a worldly place, communicate mainly in English.  Their English, however, is very simplified and adapted to the needs of everyday, basic communication. At the same time, they neglect their mother tongue – Arabic and, as a result, they don’t fully master none of the two languages. The life in a touristic, cosmopolitan city deprived them of an important element of their identity, which is one’s own language.

An unhealthy fascination

Finally, Cambodia, on the example of which the author discusses the phenomenon of dark tourism. It means that these days crowds of tourists are attracted to places which in the past were scenes of genocide, such as concentration camps in Poland and Germany, Kigali in Rwanda or Sarajevo in Bosnia. One of these sites are the killing fields in Cambodia, which also became a popular destination for a huge number of tourists. In theory, it is all about a history lesson, the aim of which is not to forget the old crimes, not to repeat the same mistakes, to educate those who are unaware… Nevertheless, something feels wrong about it. Why can only such drastic images appeal to the crowds? Aren’t these visits somehow disrespectful towards the dead? I was particularly struck by the following extract from the book, about the killing fields located south of Phnom Penh:

„The government erected a memorial using 8,985 skulls collected from the grounds. These skeletons were never given the religious rites and cremation required by the Buddhist faith; instead they are on permanent display, some organized by age and gender but, again, without names. This does not feel like a sacred space but one of utter desecration”.

Wildlife protection

To give you a rest from depressing topics, I would like to add that the book includes some optimistic examples as well. One of them is the story how creating national parks available for tourists in Africa helped protect or reconstruct the population of once endangered species of wild animals. Financing such places and education of the local people changed the perception of the animals: once massively killed, they are nowadays considered as a treasure which requires protection. Also because they attract tourists who are willing to pay considerable amounts of money to watch them. This, in turn, helps create jobs, improve the education for children and develop the local economy in general.

Why read it?

The book is definitely not a light, quick reading you will go through in two days while commuting to work. It requires some concentration, time and a good level of English (not sure into how many languages it has been translated). It is an example of a high-level journalism, so the language used is not the simplest one. Nevertheless, if you have a chance, don’t hesitate to reach for “Overbooked”. It is a valuable, reliable book which can certainly become an eye-opener for many readers – you will become aware of the aspects of tourism that so far you haven’t paid much attention to. It definitely impacted my way of thinking. After the reading,  I’m pretty sure I will not visit Dubai. Probably I won’t travel to Venice, either. Instead, I would like to look for some less distant alternatives, which will provide me with opportunities to relax but also help support small local businesses. I hope that other books that I have on my “to read” list for the New Year will help me find some ideas.

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    1. Tak, tak, czytałam! Zresztą dzięki Twojej recenzji na blogu 🙂 Też bardzo ciekawe i daje do myślenia, choć jednak “Overbooked” wydaje się bardziej wieloaspektowe i obiektywne – Jennie Dielemans trochę tendencyjnie podchodzi do sprawy, wrzucając wszystkich turystów do jednego worka, jako takich bezmyślnych pustaków, a wydaje mi się, że rzeczywistość jest trochę bardziej złożona. Chociaż może to kwestia tłumaczenia, trudno powiedzieć, nie znając oryginału. Aha, no i w “Overbooked” jest większe zróżnicowanie jeśli chodzi o regiony świata i o aspekty sprawy 🙂

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