Book Review of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism by Elizabeth Becker

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Author Elizabeth Becker has a point when she calls tourism the invisible industry. While glowing reviews and photos of the world’s best tourist attractions are everywhere, the business side of the industry gets little attention. Governments always treat tourism as far less important than other investments, while travel journalism only looks at the surface level of tourist attractions.

Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism takes a closer look at the multi-trillion dollar industry and peels back the curtain on the tourism industry around the world. What she finds isn’t always pretty.

Cambodia’s Problems

One of the biggest chapters in the book is dedicated to tourism gone wrong in Cambodia. This chapter was of special interest to me, as I lived in the country for a couple years and witnessed some unseemly developments firsthand. There’s the foul beach town of Sihnaoukville, where crime, corruption and overdevelopment run rampant. Better known in Cambodia is the incredible Angkor Archeological Park that has become a victim of its own success.

Becker, a former New York Times correspondent, finds that the temples are slowly being ruined due to the sheer numbers of visitors from all over the world. Authorities aren’t too interested in solving this problem, which jeopardizes the future of the park.  Due to corruption and an influx of international brands, Cambodia has one of the worst “leakage” rates in the world, which is the amount of money spent that actually goes back to the locals. People are getting rich off the tourists coming to Cambodia, but it sure isn’t the everyday people.

Bayon Temple in Siem Reap
A tourist snaps of a photo of one of the Bayon Temple faces within the Angkor Archeological Park.

Another problem with the region, according to Becker, is the popularity of sex tourism. While Cambodia undoubtedly has a problem with sex trafficking and pedophilia, Becker relies on NGO statistics and discredited activist Somaly Mam to to imply that most women in the sex industry are trafficked. This black and white approach to the industry is common and does the women involved a disservice.

Europe: Too Successful?

While Cambodia is one of the countries that does is going about tourism in an unsustainable way, France is highlighted as a country that gets it right. The country has strict farming and development regulations, and the government doesn’t shy away from investing money to increase tourism. It was this decision that helped the country recover from the damage of World War II. The success of tourism of France comes at a cost, as locals are being priced out of both Paris and smaller cities thanks to all the wealthy visitors from abroad.

That balance of tourists who visit and locals who need to live somewhere is especially tipped in Venice, Italy. Massive amounts of visitors make the city almost uninhabitable, as there are few inexpensive places to shop or eat remaining. In their place are overpriced eateries and souvenir shops selling fake goods. Fewer than people live in the city full-time, with more than 7 million tourists visiting annually. Waves caused by cruise ships further damage the sinking city and the crowds during peak seasons are unbelievable. It’s no wonder that the population has been on the decline since the 1960s.

“Living in Venice is like living in a parking lot,” said one local.

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Venice in the foggy late-autumn low season.

Therein lies the challenge of tourism, yet the book never gets preachy or holier-than-thou. An annoying trend in travel writing is for tourist to complain about the prevalence tourism in a place (and I’ve done this myself), yet Becker effectively highlights the good and the bad, the successes and the challenges without snobbery.

Changing Fortunes

The author deftly highlights not just the pros and cons of tourism, but also how tourism can change an entire country. The chapters on China are especially interesting.Tthey track the transformation of a country that once shunned travelers from within the country and abroad to a place where tourists are welcomed with open arms (and open palms in the hopes of earning extra cash).

The U.S. followed the opposite path of China. While America was once the world leader in tourism, partly thanks to its invention of amusement parks and national parks, tourists have slipped away due to restrictive entry requirements and a lack of investment.

From the newly built mega-city of Dubai to the African nature preserves, tourism has the power to transform a nation for both good and bad. Overbooked highlights all of this in a compelling and readable way that will make you look a little closer at the next place you vacation in.

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Karge

Karge

I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?