Review of “Overbooked” by Elizabeth Becker

That is not just an unfortunate travel situation, but the title of a new and very interesting book by Elizabeth Becker which examines a number of different aspects of the travel industry.  Becker, as a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, has great credentials for this task.

The book is subtitled “The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism,” and it sheds light on an under-reported industry.

Becker has some of the prejudices common to mainstream journalists with regard to travel writing and reporting. She notes the overwhelming preponderance of positive stories in travel sections, and the fact that stories that appear there are often the result of sponsored trips. She remarks that tourism, by many measures the largest industry in the world, is also the least examined.

Having been both a business and a travel reporter, I agree with a lot she says on this topic. It is a rare business section of a newspaper that takes travel or tourism seriously. Somehow, tourism never seems to generate the excitement among business editors that  aerospeace, high tech, or even mining and manufacturing do.

The thing I found hardest to believe in her book was the amount that waiters made on her Caribbean cruise with Royal Caribbean Line (www.royalcaribbean.com) They make $50 a month plus room and board, and are required to work continuously for about 12 hours a day. In other words, customers are expected to tip heavily to bring the wait staff and housekeeping staff up to even a minimal standard of living. It is no wonder that all these positions are filled by young people from poor countries, and even so, staff turnover is high.

. So if you wonder why cruise prices tend to be lower than an equivalent land-based holiday, that is part of the reason. Another part is that while you are aboard most cruise ships, you are constantly subjected to shopping temptations. In addition, the shore excursions offered on board usually have a very high markup, with the profit going to the line. Even some of the shops onshore have tie-ins with the cruise companies. While Becker sailed with Royal Caribbean, I suspect most of the other large cruise lines employ similar practices.

Another unsavoury side of the tour industry is sex tourism and especially child sex tourism, which is widespread in the Third World, particularly in countries such as Cambodia. Becker, who previously reported from Asia, examines this subject  in depth..

The environmental impact of tourism also concerns her. She uncovers one tour company, associated with National Geographic (www.nationalgeographic.com) which offers in-depth eco-cruises of the Central American jungle that meet with her approval. They are, of course, a lot more costly than the usual cruise.

It doesn’t always make for pleasant reading, but this is an important book that provides insight into the impact of mass tourism on our world and a lot of food for thought.

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