Major Opinion Piece in Washington Post Outlook
- The lead article in the Washington Post OUTLOOK section for Sunday,
August 31 at
Elizabeth Becker will be on-line on Tuesday, September 2nd to answer
questions about this article -- see the URL above for details.
Don't Go There
The whole world has the travel bug. And it's ravaging the planet.
By Elizabeth Becker
Sunday, August 31, 2008; B01
Did you manage to find someplace for your vacation this summer where
you could get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature, or
whatever it is that you like to do with a free week or two?
I didn't think so.
It's getting harder and harder. The world has shrunk -- and the
tourist legions have exploded. The streets of Paris and Venice are so
crowded that you can barely move. Cruise ships are filling harbors
and disgorging hordes of day trippers the world over. Towering hotels
rise in ever-greater numbers along once pristine and empty beaches.
Thanks to globalization and cheap transportation, there aren't many
places where you can travel today to avoid the masses of adventure-
or relaxation-seekers who seem to alight at every conceivable site. I
used to love going back to my old haunt in a Himalayan hill station
where, as a student in India in 1970, I climbed those steep, silent
paths and watched langur monkeys swinging in the trees outside my
window. No longer. Now, Moussurie is chock-a-block with tourist
lodges, garbage and noise; the monkeys are fleeing.
This problem goes far beyond a veteran traveler's complaint that
things aren't the way they used to be, or annoyance at sharing the
Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal with thousands of other photo-snapping
tourists loudly asking questions in languages the locals don't
understand. What's happening today is of another magnitude.
The places we love are rapidly disappearing. Global tourism today is
not only a major industry -- it's nothing short of a
planet-threatening plague. It's polluting land and sea, destroying
wildlife and natural habitat and depleting energy and natural
resources. From Asia to Africa, look-alike resorts and spas are
replacing and undermining local culture, and the international quest
for vacation houses is forcing local residents out of their homes.
It's giving rise to official corruption, wealth inequities and
heedless competition. It's even contributing to human rights
violations, especially through the scourge of sex tourism.
Look at Cambodia. The monumental temples at Angkor and the beaches on
the Gulf of Thailand have made that country a choice destination,
especially for Asians, who spent $1 billion there last year. But the
foundations of those celebrated temples are in danger of sinking as
the 856,000 tourists who every year crowd into Siem Reap, the nearby
town of 85,000, drain the surrounding water table.
Meanwhile, Cambodia's well-connected elite has moved to cash in on
the bonanza, conspiring with police and the courts to evict peasants
from their rural landscape, which is being transformed by high-end
resorts catering to wealthy visitors. Cambodia's League for the
Promotion and Defense of Human Rights is compiling files that bulge
with photographs of thatched-roof houses being burned down while
police restrain their traumatized owners. And at night along the
riverfront in the capitol of Phnom Penh, the sight of aging Western
men holding hands with Cambodian girls young enough to be their
granddaughters is ugly evidence of the rampant sex-tourism trade.
All this came as a shock to me. I've been writing about Cambodia for
more than 35 years, but I never considered tourism there a serious
subject. But when I went back last November, I couldn't avoid the
issue. In three short years, tourism had transformed the country. In
every interview, the conversation wandered toward tourism, its
potential and its abuses. When I went up to Siem Reap, I found the
great hall temple of Angkor as crowded, as a colleague said, as
Filene's Basement during a sale. Forget tapping into any sense of the
I began researching the global tourism industry and why journalists
have allowed it to fly under the radar. Newspapers, the Web and the
airwaves are filled with stories celebrating travel; few examine the
effects of mass tourism. As Nancy Newhouse, the former New York Times
travel editor, told me: "We never did the ten worst [places to
visit], only the ten best."
Most people can't imagine that tourism could be a global menace. Even
the word "tourism" sounds lightweight. And travel has always been
surrounded by an aura of romance. For centuries, beginning with the
first tourists on holy pilgrimages, travel has been about adventure
and discovery and escape from the pressures of daily life.
It wasn't until the end of the 20th century that tourism was added to
the list of industries measured in the U.S. gross domestic product.
And the results were a revelation: About $1.2 trillion of the $13
trillion U.S. economy is derived from tourism.
Tourism has become the stealth industry of the global era. According
to the United Nations, the international tourist count in 1960, at
the dawn of the modern era of air travel, was 25 million. By 1970,
the figure was up to 165 million. Last year, about 898 million people
traveled the globe, and the international tourism industry earned $7
trillion. (And those figures don't include people who vacation in
their own countries.)
The U.N. World Tourism Organization was established as a special
agency five years ago with the twin goals of keeping track of the
tourism industry and figuring out how poor countries, in particular,
can take advantage of the tourist boom without causing their own
ruin. Geoffrey Lipman, the assistant secretary general of the new
organization, has spent his life studying the industry. "Tourism," he
told me, "is arguably the largest cluster of industrial sectors in
the world" and needs to be included in any international discussions
about eliminating poverty or protecting the environment. If properly
conducted -- maintaining respect for a country's environment and
culture, providing local jobs and a market for local goods --
tourism, the United Nations believes, is easily the best way for a
poor nation to earn foreign currency.
There are several promising examples of this philosophy at work. The
nonprofit British National Trust offers tourist rentals in restored
cottages and historic mansions and then uses the money to buy more
land and properties to preserve and protect. The African nation of
Namibia, meanwhile, has created what it calls "community-based
tourism," which manages more than 25 million acres of wildlife
preserves, opening much of the land to tourism -- hunting or photo
safaris, birding and white-water rafting -- that employs local
residents and has dramatically reduced poaching.
Most of the tourism industry, however, is heading in the opposite
direction. TOURISM IS NOW RESPONSIBLE FOR 5 PERCENT OF THE WORLD'S
POLLUTION, ACCORDING TO A RECENT STUDY. Cruise ships are one of the
biggest culprits. These floating hotels create three times more
pollution per passenger mile than airplanes. YEARS OF CRUISES HAVE
HELPED SPOIL THE WATER OF THE CARIBBEAN, WHICH, ACCORDING TO THE
UNITED NATIONS, ABSORBS HALF THE WASTE DUMPED IN THE WORLD'S OCEANS.
Now these ships are venturing into already fragile polar waters. Last
year, Norway banned all cruise ships from visiting its region of the
Beach erosion has been swift. After the South Asian tsunami in 2004,
fishermen were told to move their homes away from the beaches, but
luxury hotel chains with clout were allowed to rebuild near the
water's edge. In the United States, the upswing in violent hurricanes
hasn't put a dent in the number of vacation homes being built by the
sea. "ESSENTIALLY EVERY TROPICAL ISLAND IS IN DANGER," THE NATIONAL
GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY'S JONATHAN TOURTELLOT TOLD ME.
In poorer nations, unregulated tourist developments have put
unbearable strains on scant resources, especially water. High-end
tourists often waste more water in a day with multiple daily showers
and toilet flushes than some local families use in a month.
Then there's the fear that over time, major tourist destinations will
become virtual ghost towns. Residents of Venice went on strike last
spring to block licenses for more hotels; the city of canals is now
so expensive that many locals have been pushed out, helping cut the
permanent population nearly in half. This summer, the British
government issued a report on rural living that included a serious
warning that the rich were buying so many vacation or second homes in
the countryside that many local residents couldn't afford to live in
their villages anymore.
But of all the ills brought on by mass travel, none is as odious as
sex tourism. The once-hidden trade is now open and global, with
ever-younger girls and boys being forced into prostitution. The
Department of Justice estimates that sex tourism provides from 2 to
14 percent of the gross national incomes of countries such as
Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The United States has taken a lead in attempts to eliminate sex
tourism, but otherwise, it has stayed out of the tourism debate,
mostly viewing tourism as a private matter. Now, however, says Isabel
Hill, director of the Commerce Department's Office of Travel and
Tourism Industries, the questions raised by mass tourism have become
too large to ignore. She hopes that the United States, like so many
European countries, will "recognize our limitations and how we have
to regulate our resources."
Still, there probably won't be a U.S. secretary for tourism and the
environment anytime soon. But don't be surprised if the next
international agreement on climate change mentions the role of
tourism, or if some countries start regulating tourism along with the
environment, because the two go hand-in-hand.
In fact, you'd better hope that they do -- if you ever again want to
find that cool vacation spot where you can get away from it all.
Elizabeth Becker, the author of "When the War Was Over: Cambodia and
the Khmer Rouge Revolution," studied media coverage of tourism at
Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public
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