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Originally published March 17, 2013 at 5:40 AM | Page modified March 17, 2013 at 7:53 AM

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‘Overbooked’: the impact of exploding tourism on cultures and environments

Elizabeth Becker’s “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism” examines both businesses and countries that allow tourism to damage countries and environments, and those who do it right.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism’

by Elizabeth Becker

Simon & Schuster, 432 pp., $28

Global travelers set a record last year, surpassing 1 billion international trips for the first time. And, in 2011, tourism contributed $6 trillion to the world economy and employed some 255 million people.

In the face of these remarkable tourism trends, the U.S. government has acted with ambivalence, if not hostility, to visitors here. Clearly, though, it’s time for Americans to have a serious conversation about this business of tourism. “Overbooked” is a great point of departure.

Becker, former senior foreign editor for NPR, addresses the issue from several angles. One is how not to do tourism, starting with cruise vacations, the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry, according to Becker.

She points to cruise pioneer Ted Arison, who made two radical moves in the 1970s, when he and partner Meshulam Riklis founded Carnival Cruise Lines: The first, to repurpose their ships from transport to entertainment. The second, to operate them under foreign flags, thus avoiding stricter U.S. labor and environmental laws.

Low wages translate to lower ticket prices, which in turn bring more passengers, who stay longer onboard to spend precious dollars on alcohol, gaming, spas, classes, and other costly add-ons. Or, at best, who only get a quick look at the sights of a port — one critic calls it “drive-by tourism” — before climbing back onboard.

And squishier laws for non-American vessels allow cruise ships more latitude to inflict environmental damage, devastating in some cases.

Moving from the cruise industry to cities and entire countries, Becker cites Venice, Italy, and Cambodia as two destinations where lax zoning laws, combined with local greed, have allowed tourism overdevelopment to force out residents and pollute air and water, desecrating and denaturing the very places foreigners flock to visit.

On the other hand, some countries, like France, the most visited country in the world by tourists, according to U.N. data, do tourism right, investing heavily in infrastructure and cultural heritage, and using an empowered tourism ministry to tailor its message to specific interests. Thus, those 82 million annual visitors are more evenly distributed throughout France’s urban and rural environments, and they make deeper connections with that nation’s history and culture.

Costa Rica is the gold standard of sustainable tourism, maintaining strict controls on the types of vessels and the number of outsiders allowed to visit, and providing solid incomes and training for the Costa Rican naturalists who explain that country’s famously diverse flora and fauna to visitors, who depart with a greater sense of stewardship for the natural resources of that country and beyond.

Enter the U.S., where, according to Becker, a Republican-led Congress successfully fought back efforts in the mid-1990s by then-President Bill Clinton to strengthen an ineffectual federal tourism program. There followed the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which led to a toughening of visa requirements, which tamped down incentives for foreigners to visit the U.S. during a huge spike in tourism worldwide.

Only in the past few years has the federal government reconsidered a national plan for tourism, launching a tourism website in 2012 — www.discoveramerica.com — and making a strong effort to win back the domestic tourism industry.

Will tourism in America go the way of Venice and Cambodia, or France and Costa Rica? Elizabeth Becker’s thoughtful, informed book should move that discussion along.

Alan Moores, a Seattle-based writer, is former managing editor of SriLankan Airlines’ in-flight magazine and the in-hotel magazine of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.

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