Overbooked by Elizabeth Becker (Simon & Schuster)


Mass tourism is becoming a world-changing industry, says Elizabeth Becker, with international borders crossed by "a billion travelers" in 2012 and more to come in the future. It's an industry that "creates $3 billion dollars in business every day. If frequent-flier miles were a currency, it would be one of the most valuable in the world." "At least one out of every ten people around the world is employed by the industry, according to Wolfgang Weinz of the International Labor Organization."

It's also an industry with little regulation and superficial information. Travel writing is largely a collection of puff pieces in glossy magazines, and bland, almost unreadable laudatory journalism in newspaper travel sections. Online information is dominated by the dubious wisdom provided by Wikipedia and hotel booking websites. Hard facts are hard to come by.

This is why Overbooked is both a blessing and a disappointment. Becker seems confused about whether she should write about what she has experienced or what she has gleaned from other sources. Her section on cruise travel is informative and  shocking--and personal. She's been there, done that, and investigated without pulling punches. The exploitation of cruise ship workers, the pollution caused by the ships' untreated sewage when on the open seas, and the environmental impact caused by brief, rapid surges of thousands of shoppers in Alaska, Venice, and Belize is well explained in this portion of Overbooked.

China, "at the center of the tourism gold rush" is given short shrift, to the point that it's justifiable to wonder if Becker has been there since her initial trip in 1978. In less than fifty pages, she races through a thumbnail history of change since the Communist victory in 1949, focusing on Beijing and its "cultural suicide," going from "every storybook about old China," to "a modern "Anywhere" city; looking skeptically at quotes from Western tourists about their Chinese travel experiences; reporting statistics given by hoteliers and owners of tour businesses; closing with her own time spent with rapacious tour guides in polluted areas. This section is so scanty and so formulaic that it feels as though Becker, pressed by a deadline, simply fleshed out her notes.

Far better is her section on travel in Cambodia, as one would expect from the woman who wrote the brilliant history of that country, "When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Revolution. Becker clearly knows and loves Cambodia; she devotes less space to it than she does to China but the difference is for Cambodia, every one of her words counts. She writes eloquently and knowledgeably about the destructive effects of mass tourism on the splendors of Angkor Wat, of the commercialization of the Pol Pot years at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, centers of "dark tourism," the land grabs that, since 2000, have "evicted over 100,000 people in Phom Penh alone," the casinos that have been built on the country's borders, "at least 32" of them, attracting gamblers, money launderers, and sex tourists.

When she embarks upon the subject of sex tourism, Becker becomes sloppy, muddling statistics of men who have sex with prostitutes with stories of men who have sex with children, Citing Somaly Mam's autobiography of her forcible entry into prostitution at the age of twelve, her repeated torture and rape as a sex slave, Becker links this to the evils of sex tourism, while ignoring that Somaly's prostitution was in brothels that served Cambodian men. This sort of cavalier approach to a tragic situation serves nobody, least of all the credibility of Overbooked.

Becker is at her best when she carefully researches the different forms of travel that exist for the discriminating tourist: ecotourism, medical tourism, safari tourism, shopping tourism, retired-senior tourism. Dubai is eviscerated as the luxury-shopping capital of the world, and Costa Rica is revealed as a natural paradise, successfully coping with over 2 million tourists a year. Still even when she shows herself as the fine journalist that her readers have come to expect, she provides a quick overview of too much, too fast. "...this book is not meant to be encyclopedic," Becker tells us, but it could have been more substantial. Overbooked is overstuffed and underdone--and that is too bad.~Janet Brown