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Q&A: Travel and Tourism Both Economic Boost, Environmental Hazard

A new book by Elizabeth Becker offers insight into the impact travel and tourism have on the world economy and the environment
A new book by Elizabeth Becker offers insight into the impact travel and tourism have on the world economy and the environment
The travel industry has made it possible for those who have the money and the time to go wherever their dreams will take them. The costs for such freedom are hefty -- both to the individual traveler and to a world that travel makes smaller each day.

According to the U.N.-based World Travel Organization, international tourism has grown from 25 million tourists to more than one billion in 2012. Responsible for nine percent of the world’s economy, there’s no denying the impact the growth of international travel on the socio-economic fabric of the world in which we live.

But in her new book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, former New York Times and Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Becker notes the positive impact of the tourist trade is off-set by some less-desirable consequences.

Williams: You write that there are more than one billion cross-border trips a year. How big a deal is that for the world economy?

Becker: It’s enormous. And it’s shockingly important, when you think that for most people travel and tourism is a past-time or a hobby, they do not think of it as a major industry. But it is now in the top five or so economic sectors and going in one direction, up. It’s now responsible for $6.5 trillion of the global gross product. It employs one out of 11 people around the world, so it’s very important, and I might add on the downside, if tourism were a country, it would be the fifth-biggest polluter. So it’s a huge impact economically, socially, environmentally, culturally.

Williams: Now, some of those visits will be members of families getting together, they won’t necessarily be packaged tours.

Becker: No question, and the reason it’s called the travel and tourism industry is because they don’t pull out the thread of “why did you travel?” It’s just the same reason you put the gas in your car, you measure how much oil is used in a country, not what it’s used for. And it’s the same for travel and tourism. And that’s one of the big stumbling blocks I’ve had trying to get people to understand why the industry is so important. People think of it for why they travel, not the basic fact that travel and tourism is now one of the world’s major industries.

Williams: You’ve touched on countries or industries that aren’t doing a good job, but which countries are doing a good job with their tourism? And what about China, how has China managed its tourism industry?

Becker: I found Deng Xiaoping in January of 1980, right after he wrested control, gave a series of six directional talks on why tourism was going to be so important to China as it opened up to the world. Now, the economic piece, that’s understandable. But then, he said he hoped that tourism would mean they would have a good environmental consciousness, that did not work out, obviously.

But then thirdly, he said that tourism would be important for what we would call public diplomacy. He said China does not have a great reputation out there in the broader world. These are my words, not his, obviously. And he said we have to learn how to treat tourism well, remember our hospitality which we used to have; we have to make every tourist a little sort of ambassador to go back, because the reputation of China after all those years of the Cold War wasn’t great.

And he said part of that would be a tourist cadre. And to this day, the government is responsible for training and licensing all those tour guides you see, whether they’re from the Flying Dragon Company, or the Silver Moon Company, they’re all government-licensed. And they all say the same thing about Mao Zedong was wonderful, that Deng Xiaoping was necessary, and we’re a wonderful country, and that yellow stuff that’s making your eyes water isn’t smog, it’s mist, and all this sort of stuff.

I interviewed other foreign tourists to see if it was working, and it was. It is a huge success; and now, the biggest boom in hotels is in China, China is scheduled to be the biggest attraction for foreign tourists by 2020, and the same year they expect the Chinese to be the largest number of tourists.