Elizabeth Becker’s Overbooked is part reportage, part travelogue and part annoying—not all in equal measure thankfully—and remains a useful primer for the reader with an interest in where the global tourism train is taking us.
First published in 2013 (our later edition included a 2015-dated epilogue), Overbooked zooms in on case studies from around the globe used to highlight particular aspects of tourism. Divided into six chapters: the business of tourism, cultural tourism, consumer tourism, nature tourism, the new giant (China) and the old giant (USA), the book takes the reader on a trip around much of the globe.
Within each chapter different destinations are looked at through a mish–mash of vox pop, talking heads and academia which results in a bit of an uneven read as the text swerves between the irrelevant personal and the more relevant. Take for example when the author and her husband Bill (who features over and over ... and over again) are in Venice and their local guide Matteo turns them on to a local eatery (yes, apparently such places still do exist in Venice):
“Matteo had told us where it was but made us promise to tell another tourist.”
We assume the above must be read in a hushed tone. Later, at the other extreme, Geoffrey Dobbs of Sri Lanka’s Dutch House and Sun House fame (a man whose family has “a few colonialists in its past”), says, on the need to bring together the Tamil and Sinhalese communities:
”We’ll need a czar here.”
Hmmm. The white saviour meme raises its head on a few occasions throughout the book, as do plenty of US companies. Take hotel conglomerate Marriott for example—a company getting ridiculed online thanks to a cringeworthy fake history put together for yet another god-awful property on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc Island. Marriott flies the author out in a private plane to their “offset project” a vast reserve in the back blocks of Brazil—we guess a karma offset for what they are doing on Phu Quoc.
Repeatedly through the book, there is a skew towards high end tourism being, if not the cure to the woes of overtourism, then at least a decent sized band-aid. But when you believe just the opposite (as we do), that budget, low-end tourism is the best way to support local communities in a low impact way—in essence where the trickle down effect has just one set of hands to pass through—reading Overbooked can be a frustrating experience.
Take for example in the Cambodia chapter, which does a pretty good job of laying out just what a train wreck tourism development has been in the country. The author discusses the aims of Roland Eng, named Cambodia’s first minister of tourism in 1993:
“On the business side, tourism could set the tone for quality development and allow Cambodia to skip the early, shabby stage of tacky hotels that foul the cities and beaches of other nations while doing little to raise living standards.”
Then just 20 pages later, in 2001:
“Coastal resorts from Sihanoukville, the largest and the least attractive, to Kep and Koh Kong, exploded with tension as the new private owners took control of the land.”
On the next page the author, in one of many digs towards budget travellers, suggests backpackers care for little other than a swinging hammock:
“Now that beach is famous among the Lonely Planet crowd as the Waikiki of Cambodia.”
Roland didn’t see that train coming? Also, we think the author actually means Kampot, not Koh Kong (the latter had no resorts at the time)—a number of minor but annoying errors in the book. As for the Waikiki line, we couldn’t find any reference to Serendipity beach being compared to Waikiki by Lonely Planet, but having been to both, unlike we assume, the author, it is a ridiculous and totally out of touch comparison—no self respecting travelling hippy would string up a hammock on Waikiki today.
These are not new angles though. Our good friend James Fahn, writing in A Land On Fire (way back in 2003) writes on island development in neighbouring Thailand:
“The tourism blight ravaging Thailand has a very predictable life cycle: Promotion leads to encroachment and development, which is followed by pollution and decay. All too often, people notice only in the final stages, when it is usually too late to prevent the environment from being despoiled.”
Cambodia and Venice are two of the book’s worthy stars of doing tourism wrong. Likewise the section on the cruise industry leaves a satisfying burn—we loved this quote describing the industry, attributed to Paul Bennett, founder of Context Travel:
“They’re like portable low-rent Hiltons that go everywhere with little concern for the garbage they leave behind or the havoc they make in the short time they invade a place.”
While the chapter on Dubai is interesting for its background to the country and the business prowess required in developing into a flight hub, Becker also touches on the situation of imported labour there (which has had plenty of press coverage around the build up to the 2022 World Cup). Talking of imported labour, she says:
“They are brought in from the poorer communities of South Asia and live in labor camps under conditions that would be illegal in most countries.”
To give this a Southeast Asian context, this really brought to mind the southern Thai islands like Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, especially the latter. On both islands, much of the menial labour is undertaken by Burmese, often in uncertain and vulnerable working situations—and tragically they’re often used as fall guys when things go bad. Many tourists don’t realise that one of the reasons that beach bungalow is costing under $20 a night is because the staff are being paid peanuts (if at all). All that cheap travel brings with it a hefty price tag for others.
We found the eco-focussed chapters on Zambia (touching on Mozambique) and Costa Rica to also be interesting, but again frustrating where the author’s clear preference for high-end tourism being the only way to do eco tourism “right”. Reading that the way forward is a world of $900 a night tent safaris with private butlers seems nonsensical to us. But instead of locally run, community focussed, low impact projects, we’re instead told about the work US millionaires are underwriting in the developing world—yes, more white saviour.
On Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft with a net-worth in excess of US$21 billion), bankrolling a park in Zambia “For him, it’s not about making money. It’s about doing it right. His sister came here and fell in love with the place”.
The chapter also mentions Greg Carr, a US millionaire who has become deeply involved in a park in Mozambique. This New Yorker story by Philip Gourevitch is an excellent read on the challenges Carr has faced. In the New Yorker story, there is a great line from a hereditary chief when he says “No one should go on the mountain without my consent”—yes, things can be very complicated. Back in the Becker book, the Safari chapter finishes with a anecdotal tale of Barack Obama’s half sister, berating him on wanting to go on a safari, she says:
“How many Kenyans do you think can afford to go on a safari?”
Obama still went.
We’re not trying to denigrate the sometimes monumental tasks these wealthy individuals are undertaking, but surely there are projects being driven by the local wealthy as well? While far from perfect, the work Tomy Winata has done in Indonesia’s southern Sumatra could have been worth a mention perhaps.
As with backpackers and budget travellers, Becker is biting in her criticism of modern-day travel writers (using way too broad a brush in our opinion). Becker flails them for gushing prose (which the author doesn’t shy from using on occasion in Overbooked), for not calling out destinations on their failings, and for being too cosy with advertisers. Early on Becker writes (on the practice of not disclosing freebies), and to her credit she does note that she didn’t have to pay for the private plane flight to Marriott’s karma garden:
“That would be declared corrupt and the antithesis of ethical journalism. Yet it is the engrained way of writing about travel in the United States, much of Europe and Asia.”
Cough splutter—not at Travelfish!
Far later, in one of two chapters dedicated to China (which Becker is inexplicably bullish on), a tour agent says:
“ “We don’t buy advertisements,” she said. “We rely on travel writers.” ”
What Becker doesn’t do enough of, is give clear suggestions on how things can be turned around. Save getting a US gazillionaire onto your project, she doesn’t really get into the nitty gritty of how tourism can be better channelled to be a positive force rather than a destructive one. Yes there are general examples in the book, but the detail isn’t there. She does appear to think the high end offers promise, but in our book, it is the high end that is demanding the horizon pools, personal butlers and private flights. Approaches like limited ticketing, double pricing and other admission controls are barely touched on, nor are efforts to better distribute where people are going. A chapter covering this kind of material in some depth would have been a welcome addition.
It would also have been great to have seen more coverage of projects that are doing good work and making progress in “bad places”. Just an hour from Siem Reap in Cambodia, in Banteay Chmmar, or, not far from Sihanoukville at Chi Phat, there are long-running community projects which tick a lot of the boxes of what tourism should be, and it would have been good to have had examples like that to show that even in destinations like Cambodia, where so much of the news is bad, there are good things happening and there are projects worth your support.
Tourism is what you make of it.
Early on Becker writes:
“In bookstores and many personal libraries, travel guides have replaced history books as the way to understand the world. Walk into your favourite bookstore and the section devoted to travel books will be double or triple the size of those devoted to history.”
So next time you are going on holiday, go buy a history book. If you have some money left over, consider picking up a copy of Overbooked as well.
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