Is Tourism Destroying the World?

Travel is transforming the world, and not always for the better. Though it’s an uncomfortable reality (who doesn’t like to travel?), it’s something award-winning journalist Elizabeth Becker devoted five years of her life to investigating. The result is Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.

I caught up with the author to get the inside scoop on the book, what prompted her to write it, and what she learned along the way, and this is what she had to say.

Leslie Trew Magraw: You made a name for yourself as a war correspondent covering Cambodia for The Washington Post. What prompted you to write this book?

Elizabeth Becker: My profession has been to understand world events. I reported from Asia and Europe [for the Post] and later was the senior foreign editor at NPR. At The New York Times, I became the international economics correspondent in 2002, and that is when I began noticing the explosion of tourism and how much countries rich and poor were coming to rely on it.

But tourism isn’t treated as a serious business or economic force. Travel sections are all about the best vacations. So I used a fellowship at Harvard to begin my research and then wrote this book to point out what seemed so obvious: Tourism is among the biggest global industries and, as such, has tremendous impacts—environmental, cultural, economic—that have to be acknowledged and addressed.

Amazon named "Overbooked" one of the ten best books of the month. (Cover courtesy Simon & Schuster)
Amazon named “Overbooked” one of the ten best books of the month. (Cover courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Which country can you point to as a model for sustainable tourism?

One of the more ambitious is France, which is aiming for sustainability in the whole country. The key, I think, is that the French never fully bought in to the modern obsession with tourist overdevelopment. They have been nurturing their own culture and landscape, cities, and villages for decades. Since they have tied their economy to tourism, they have applied a precise and country-wide approach that mostly works.

All relevant ministries are involved, including culture, commerce, agriculture, sports, and transportation. Planning is bottom up, beginning with locals at destinations who decide what they want to promote and how they want to improve. The French obsession with protecting their culture—some would call it arrogance—has worked in their favor. The planning and bureaucracy required to make this work would try the patience of many governments.

Now, even though the country is smaller than the state of Texas, France is the most popular destination in the world. Tourism officials told me one of their biggest worries is becoming victims of their success: too many foreigners buying second homes or retirement homes in French villages and Parisian neighborhoods, which could tip the balance and undermine that sustainable and widely admired French way of life.

Many destinations are making impressive changes. Philanthropists are helping African game parks find their footing. I was lucky to see how Paul Allen, for instance, is helping in Zambia.

Which country is doing it all wrong?

Cambodia has made some bad choices in tourism. It is blessed with the magnificent temples of Angkor, glorious beaches in the south, cities with charming overlay of the French colonial heritage, and a rural landscape of sugar palms, rice paddies, and houses on stilts.

The author. (Photograph courtesy Simon & Schuster)
Elizabeth Becker (Photograph courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Yet, rather than protect these gems, the government has allowed rapacious tourism to threaten the very attractions that bring tourists. Tourism is seen as a cash cow.

Some of the capital’s most stunning historic buildings are being razed to build look-alike modern hotels. In Angkor, a thicket of new hotels has outpaced infrastructure and is draining the water table so badly the temples are sinking—and profits from tourism do not reach the common people, who are now among the poorest in the country.

In addition, Cambodia has become synonymous with sex tourism that exploits young girls and boys. The latest wrinkle is to encourage tourists on the “genocide trail” to see the killing fields and execution centers from the Khmer Rouge era.

With more than a billion people traveling each year, how can we see the world without destroying it?

That is the essential question. Countries are figuring out how to protect their destinations in quiet, non-offensive ways. They control the number of hotel beds, the number of flights to and from a country, the number of tour buses allowed. Some have “sacrifice zones,” where tourists are allowed to flood one section of beachfront, for example, while the rest is protected as a wildlife preserve or [reserved] for locals. Most countries are heavily promoting off-season travel as the most obvious way to control crowds.

Countries are also putting more muscle into regulations [governing] pollution. The toughest problem is breaking the habit of politicians being too close to the industry to the detriment of their country. Money talks in tourism as in any other big business. Luxury chains wanting a store near a major tourist attraction will pay high rents to push out locals. Officials fail to enforce rules against phony “authentic” souvenirs.

One of the worst offenders are the supersize cruise ships that swarm localities, straining local services and sites and giving back little in return.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for 21st-century travelers?

Avoiding “drive-by tourism.” This is a phrase coined by Paul Bennett of Context Travel, referring to the growing habit of people visiting a destination for a few hours—maybe a few days—and seeing only a blur of sights with little appreciation for the country, culture, or people.

One of the eureka moments in my five years of research was reading old guidebooks in the Library of Congress.

The Baedeker Guides were written in consultation with historians and archaeologists who presumed the tourists wanted to immerse themselves in a country. They included a short dictionary of the language of the country and, only at the very end, short lists of hotels and restaurants.

Today it is the reverse: Guides have short paragraphs about history, culture, and politics and long lists of where to eat and sleep.

My advice is to first be a tourist where you live. Explore the museums, the farms, the churches, the night life, the historic monuments—and then read up on local politics and history.

If you’re interested in volunteering overseas, first volunteer at home. Then when you’re planning your next trip abroad, use that experience as a template and study up on the destination you’re about to visit.

Don’t forget to try to learn something of the local language. It is a gift.

Q: Are there any tourism trends that give you hope for the future of travel?

A: People are again recognizing that travel is a privilege. Responsible tourism in its various forms—volunteer tourism, adventure tourism, slow tourism (where people take their time), agro-tourism (where visitors live and work on a farm), ecotourism , geotourism—all speak to tourists’ desire to respect the places they visit and the people they meet. I think people are also recognizing that bargain travel has hidden expenses and dangers.

Costa Rica was an eye-opener for me; it deserves its reputation as a leader in responsible tourism that nurtures nature and society.

Finally, several groups including the United Nations World Tourism Organization have put together a global sustainable tourism council with a certification program to show tourists which places are genuinely making the effort.

Thoughts? Counterpoints? Leave a comment to let us know how you feel about this important topic.


  1. Erin
    United States
    April 26, 2013, 8:34 pm

    This article is spot on. I travelled in Laos and Cambodia for a few weeks. Laos was great and not overrun. Then I went to Cambodia and it was such a shock. It was so crowded. The vision I had of Angkor was totally different. We really do need to re-think tourism.

  2. Chang Noi
    Bangkok, Thailand
    April 24, 2013, 7:29 am

    Tourism is destroying some parts of countries & culture, but it also brings a lot of communication, freedom and thoughts.

    Elizabeth’s views of France and Cambodia are very short sighted and do not do justice to both these countries.

  3. Renuka
    April 20, 2013, 1:15 pm

    I agree with Chin Chi. Paris is not Paris anymore! It is over-crowded and dirty. People need to be more responsible.

  4. Karen Kefauver
    United States
    April 20, 2013, 11:17 am

    Elizabeth Becker has written an important book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism and Leslie Trew Magraw has written an insightful interview with the author. In any conservation issue, it’s easy to take a grim view, so I want to be optimistic (in addition to being realistic) and say that in some cases, tourism is SAVING beautiful natural places that would otherwise be destroyed by governments who did not deem they worthy before they began reaping tourism dollars!

  5. Paul Bennett
    Philadelphia, PA
    April 19, 2013, 11:04 am

    Elizabeth’s is a great contribution to the topic. Thanks for sharing.

    I, too, love the idea of being a tourist where you live, first. I think this ties in directly with the first commenter’s observations in Paris. As these major destinations become overcrowded we have to think about the etiquette of being a traveler, and the difference between being thoughtful and being detrimental—which we naturally do in our own environment. In Venice where tourists can outnumber locals on a big cruise ship day, Venetians decry the lack of decorum. When you have thousands of visitors in one place, if they’re all shouting, wearing inappropriate clothing, and feeding the pigeons, the sense of place suffers, and we all lose.

    Not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I remember when guidebooks talked about stuff like that, too. On my first trip to Europe as a teenager I remember learning (with horror) that in European cities you should wear pants. This is the local custom. Europeans wear shorts at the beach, but not in their cities. If I wore shorts I’d look out of place, said the guidebook. Now, twenty years on, I realize that there was more to it. Not only would I look out of place, but I would also effect the sense of place that makes a European piazza so special. San Marco in a sea of bikini tops is less itself.


  6. Ron Mader
    Las Vegas, Nevada
    April 19, 2013, 7:40 am

    The author makes a good point: “Tourism isn’t treated as a serious business or economic force. Travel sections are all about the best vacations. ” I wonder if she blogs or tweets

  7. Hank
    Phnom Penh
    April 19, 2013, 4:50 am

    ” In addition, Cambodia has become synonymous with sex tourism that exploits young girls and boys. ”

    Unfortunately this is a common perception, propagated by the international press and others. While there is some truth to it, it is not the “haven” it used to be and any offenders are quite likely to find themselves behind bars.

    “The latest wrinkle is to encourage tourists on the “genocide trail” to see the killing fields and execution centers from the Khmer Rouge era.”

    This is hardly something new, there aren’t a huge number of sights to see around the capital so tourists have been encouraged to visit these places since I came to Cambodia in the late 1990s.

  8. Danny Marx
    Washington DC
    April 18, 2013, 9:57 am

    Great interview Leslie!

    Don’t necesarily agree with Britton that tourism is killing the world, but it definitely needs to be studied and managed as to not get to that point.

    I love the comment on how important it is to “first be a tourist where you live. Explore the museums, the farms, the churches, the night life, the historic monuments–and then read up on local politics and history…Then when you’re planning your next trip abroad, use that experience as a template and study up on the destination you’re about to visit”

    Something about the golden rule in there.

    Keep the great interviews coming!


  9. Britton @ green coffee
    April 17, 2013, 4:59 am

    I agree with your statement and tourism is killing the world.

  10. Paul McIlwain
    April 16, 2013, 5:11 pm

    Really enjoyed the interview and comments from Elizabeth Becker. From the authority of her research and close engagement with the issues, she articulated in some new ways things that we, in our own small way, are trying to say at SteppingLight. We’ll definitely be buying the book.

  11. Chin Chi
    Bath, UK
    April 16, 2013, 8:03 am

    Thank you for this great article! In some ways I feel the same because I just got back from a trip in Paris traveling with my aunt. The point made about France being the most ambitious country in the tourism business is very, very true.

    It was exhausting being surrounded in an area, from what I could remember, of more tourists than the locals. The landscape and architecture were great, though I couldn’t help but feel sad that Paris was not…well, Paris anymore. Loud people talking over each other while snapping their cameras away, hundreds of tour buses that drove by, litter thrown in the streets and the pushing and shoving in the Louvre made things less appealing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Paris immensely. But obviously things are changing this city.

    Then again, who am I to say what makes a tourist a good tourist? I did go to all the tourist attractions after all. So maybe it isn’t partly due to the handling of tourism within a country. I came back home and put myself into perspective and realized that perhaps it is the tourists that makes this business overwhelming. The idea and comfort of being able to tell others, ‘Oh yes, I saw the Eiffel Tower!’ or ‘The Notre Dame was great.’ People go there so that they can have something to claim. How are we sure if they actually, 100% saw it? Were they able to understand the history of it? Did they appreciate it? Or did they only take a 5 minute stroll? We can never know.

    This is my thought on it but nevertheless this article was a good read and will share this to those that could appreciate it too.