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The Big Idea: How Tourism Can Destroy the Places We Love

Foreign travel has doubled in less than 20 years, but Overbooked author Elizabeth Becker says our summer trips are destroying the places we most love—like Venice, Cambodia, and the Taj Mahal.

Luigi Costantini/AP

What is your big idea?

The travel and tourism business deserves the recognition, respect, and regulation as one of the world’s biggest industries. We have to stop thinking of our vacations and getaways as a break from real life and see them as part of an economic behemoth that can make or break countries. It is already the world’s biggest employer, providing jobs for one out of 11 workers. It contributes $6.4 trillion to the global economy. If it were a country, travel and tourism would be the fifth biggest polluter. This explosive growth is recent. Since 1995 foreign travel has doubled and last year reached the historic number of 1 billion trips.

All that travel is rapidly transforming cultures, countries, and societies, sometimes for the better and often times not. France is a model for using tourism to nurture a culture. As part of their tourism industry, the French have protected their villages, historic cities, farms, arts, and landscapes. Tourists go there to feel French for a few weeks, and they have made France the most popular destination in the world, beating out the U.S. In turn, tourism is France’s biggest economic driver.

However, left unchecked and without proper regulations, tourism can destroy the places we most love. Exhibit A is Venice, an open-air masterpiece. But in the past decade the city of less than 60,000 inhabitants has been swamped with over 20 million visitors each year. The tourism boom is driving out the locals. They can’t afford the higher rents propelled by foreign demands and the authorities turning a blind eye to illegal renting and leasing. Now souvenir shops and high-end foreign boutiques are replacing local artisans and essential local services from schools to clinics to bakeries and green grocers. The United Nations says that Venice is in greater danger of being drowned by tourists than water. Locals call it the hollowing out of the city into an empty theme park. On some days, the crowds at the Taj Mahal are as thick as the first day of after-Christmas sales.

What is the problem with tourism helping to lift poor nations out of poverty?

It is an excellent idea but very difficult to pull off. Too often, the money spent by tourists doesn’t stay in the local community or help the poor. It goes directly to the foreign hotel chain that tourists prefer, to the foreign banks, and to the local elites. Cambodia is an example of what the industry calls “money-in, money-out.” At least 2 million tourists visit Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples every year. Yet since the tourist boom, the per capita income of the people of that region has dropped to the lowest in Cambodia. Only 7 percent of tourist dollars reaches the poor. Hotels purchase most of their needs from outside the country—they don’t buy much food from Cambodian farmers—and they employ foreigners at the top jobs. Most of the Cambodians getting truly rich from the industry have family ties to top government officials.

Costa Rica is an example of getting tourism right. The government pioneered eco-tourism with an eye to enriching the local economy and protecting the wilderness. Tourists visit Costa Rica today to see the country’s natural wonders–they have more butterfly species than all of Africa, and more bird species than all of North America—and to swim or hike in some of the most pristine spots in the hemisphere. Most of the tourist money stays in the country and preserves all that wildlife and helps build the middle class. This required the government and private industry to figure out how to translate those goals into workable, transparent policies. Not easy.

You’re not telling us to stop taking trips, but what can we do to make traveling more conscientious?

I think we need to recognize that the days of innocent travel are over. The right to travel includes a responsibility to respect the places we visit. Generally, experts suggest taking fewer trips and making them longer. That is better for the environment and the region you are visiting. Don’t demand luxuries that are a burden to local resources. You don’t have to live like a local but it helps to understand local conditions. Take the time to study the history, culture, and even a bit of the language of the country. Nowadays people prepare for a trip by reading little more than a few pages of a guidebook. Once you’re on the trip, patronize the local shops, cafés, hotels, and resorts. See the sights and respect the laws and customs. That means not acting like an adolescent free to misbehave. Be as careful as you would be at home. Classic rules still hold: travel off-season, visit the most popular sites and landmarks off hours, and explore places that are off the standard tourist grid. I’ve traveled all of my life, and some of the most memorable occasions have been on crowded third-class trains through India or flying on sketchy Soviet airplanes around Southeast Asia. I fear that if we act like spoiled consumers when we travel, we will ruin the places we love the most.