TOURISM BECOMES AN INDUSTRY
For aficionados of travel magazines filled with breathtaking photographs of boutique hotels on sugar-white beaches or yachts cruising turquoise-colored seas, the United Nations World Tourism Organization is a let-down. This agency dedicated to one of life’s great pleasures is housed in a nondescript ten-story building on Madrid’s Calle Capitán Haya, hidden in a leafy neighborhood with far more impressive government ministries and foreign embassies. It looks like what it is: one of the more obscure organizations in the enormous United Nations, a backwater near the bottom of the international pecking order. Moreover, it is dedicated to the business of travel and tourism, not its romance.
Most of the writers of those glamorous travel articles have never heard of the UNWTO, and of those that have, few have visited the office. “I get their emails, but I rarely read them,” said Stuart Emmrich, then editor of the influential Travel section of the New York Times.
This disconnect is a testament to travel and tourism’s reputation as a worry-free break from the real world, not a serious business. The UNWTO is one of the few institutions that recognizes travel as one of the largest industries in the world and studies its extraordinary dimensions to understand how it is changing the world.
The very idea of describing travel and tourism as a serious industry or business is an oxymoron to many people. The oil industry is serious. Finance is serious. Trade is serious. Manufacturing is serious. Foreign policy and economic policy are serious. Tourism is a frivolous pursuit: fun, sometimes educational in the lightest sense, often romantic, even exotic.
Tourism’s low reputation is a big reason why the agency is in Spain. When it came into being after World War II, the United Nations ostracized Spain because it was led by Francisco Franco, Europe’s last fascist ruler. Spain remained something of a pariah on the world scene in the 1950s. (Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of General Franco; Nazi armed forces helped Franco come to power.) The U.N. slowly accepted Spain back into the normal world of diplomacy as Franco loosened up and Spain became more democratic. Finally, when Franco was on his deathbed, the U.N. agreed to set up a small tourism policy office in Madrid in 1974. The sufficiently inconsequential tourism body wouldn’t raise too many questions, and Spain could be selected over two rivals that were not considered top-caliber at the time.
“There were three finalists—Zagreb, Mexico City, and Madrid,” Patrice Tedjini, the UNWTO’s historian, told me in his office at the Madrid headquarters. “We wanted to show that democracy was moving in Spain.”
Back then, the tourism office was a lowly subsidiary of another U.N. body. It would take another thirty years for the World Tourism Organization to win status as a full-fledged independent United Nations agency, a reward for the work it had done to define the industry and fitfully raise its profile.
The drab UNWTO office in Madrid was my logical first stop in a five-year-long study of the tourism industry. The UNWTO is the repository of rare data on how tourism works, how it drives economies and how governments direct it, so its headquarters was the logical place to begin my research into how all of the industry’s disparate pieces fit together and determine what it means to be a tourist. Snorkeling in the pure waters off Costa Rica, studying documents in Paris, tracking down the “anonymous” benefactor of a Zambian wildlife preserve, interviewing Chinese tour guides who promote the Communist Party while reciting the virtues of pandas, I inevitably saw the world through an entirely new prism. If war and revolution marked the last century, the competition for prosperity and the marketing of ways to enjoy that new wealth is molding the early years of the twenty-first century. The travel and tourism industry, with its romantic promises and serious perils, is central to that constant commerce. This book is about that journey as well as its findings.
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Tourism has a history of confounding countries and societies. The first time the world powers tried to regularize tourism was in 1925, between the world wars, when it was considered a traffic issue. Several European countries created the International Congress of Official Tourist Traffic Associations to minimize border formalities for tourists. That small office was the origins of the World Tourism Organization.
Nine years later, tourism was recalibrated as a propaganda, or public relations, issue focused on spreading the word about where and how to travel. In that incarnation the office was named the International Union of Tourist Propaganda Organizations. Finally, after World War II, it was decided that tourism had risen to the level of government relations requiring the coordination of tourism agencies of various countries like the French Office National du Tourisme and the Italian Ente Nazionale per le Industrie Turistiche. Practical questions were rising along with the increased tourist traffic: Should tourists pay duties on their cameras and automobiles when traveling into a foreign country? Aren’t they imports, and what if they tried to sell them?
By the 1960s the jet age of mass tourism was taking off. In 1958 a Pan American 707 flew from New York to Brussels, the first commercial jet flight across the Atlantic without stopping for refueling. A decade later a TWA 707 flew around the world beginning in Los Angeles and flying west after the plane was blessed by three Buddhist monks. Lower fares and bargain flights followed. European countries relaxed passport restrictions and began to see tourism as an important economic engine. “Tourism—Passport to Peace” became the organization’s motto in 1967, capturing its higher purpose to open borders in the promotion of better relations as well as the practical motive of making money.
As the U.N. shifted its notion about tourism, the U.N.’s tourism office was moved from The Hague to Geneva, where it was dwarfed among the cluster of U.N. offices and the International Red Cross. The move to Madrid was a step up the bureaucratic ladder even though it meant exile from Geneva, one of the power centers of the U.N.
In Madrid the tourism organization confronted the dilemma that faced the industry: how to prove that tourism was an industry. There was no question that travel and tourism were growing. In 1950, shortly after World War II, there had been only 25 million trips recorded by foreign tourists. By 1975 that figure had exploded to 222 million trips. But there was no agreement about what that meant for any national economy. Tourism wasn’t considered a single, unified economic activity. It was viewed as a constellation of industries—airlines, hotel chains, railway systems and tour agencies to name just a few. Separately those industries were taken seriously but not grouped together as the single economic activity of tourism.
Most conspicuously, tourism was not listed as a separate industry on national indexes. For example, when the United States created its gross domestic product index in 1937, tourism was not included as a distinct industry. It was impossible for most countries to measure what tourism added to their economies.
Then there was the question of motivation. Are business trips and tourist trips part of the same industry; can you easily distinguish between the two and should you? The answer was to define the industry as travel and tourism since the infrastructure was the same. Another issue was trade. On national balance-of-trade ledgers, tourism showed up as a service that is “exported” to the foreigners who come to visit the country. Finally, there were few educational institutions that studied tourism and could help measure the industry; another example of tourism’s irrelevance. (Switzerland was the rare nation that fostered top-flight “hospitality” schools; to this day, their graduates fill management spots in hotels, restaurants and resorts around the world.)
What countries could count were the numbers of visiting foreign tourists, a figure that was crude at best. Without a place on national budget sheets, tourism could be ignored by the economists. Yet every day there was growing evidence that tourism was becoming a staple of modern life; an essential part of the family calendar. The middle classes were luxuriating in newly affordable travel and most of the newest tourists were Americans. Their newspaper travel sections were plump with advertisements. By the 1970s, industries in the travel and tourism complex were the single largest source of advertising for American newspapers. Americans were mostly traveling in one direction—across the Atlantic and discovering Europe. And they were spending a lot of money.
Many were carrying a thin red book called Europe on $5 a Day. The author was Arthur Frommer, an American G.I. turned lawyer turned publisher. His success exemplified the potential of tourism that the fledgling U.N. organization was trying to capture.
Frommer’s book offered Americans the possibility of traveling through Europe in a few weeks rather than the months required in another era and at the same time of enjoying three-course French meals without breaking their budgets. Frommer told me he figured out “how to travel cheaply” when he was stationed in Berlin after World War II. “Before, only the elite could afford to go to Europe, make the grand tour. No one cared about the poor slob who had never traveled before,” said Mr. Frommer in his sun-filled Manhattan apartment, where books and curios cover every surface.
Now a legend—the Walter Cronkite of tourist guidebooks—Frommer consciously began writing as the champion of people who thought they couldn’t afford to travel. He was drafted into the U.S. Army straight out of Yale Law School and trained as an infantryman to fight in the Korean War, but his orders were amended and he was sent to Europe to work in intelligence. Stationed in war-scarred Berlin, Frommer used his fluent Russian and French at work, and then on the weekends as he mastered the skill of catching free rides on military planes to travel the continent. “I was a poor boy from the United States and here I was flying all over Europe,” he said. He still remembers his first freshly baked croissant and Spanish paella. After watching Frommer hitching rides to London, Stockholm, Barcelona, Venice and Paris, all on the pay of a lowly G.I., a few of his friends in the barracks asked Frommer to explain how he got to travel so much while they were stuck in Germany. His answer was The G.I.’s Guide to Travelling in Europe, written in stilted military jargon. The initial run of 10,000 copies of The G.I.’s Guide sold out in one afternoon.
Frommer had discovered what was critical to modern travel writing and decided to write a guidebook for civilians, as he put it, once he was out of the service. Above all, most people wanted help mastering the logistics of travel—airplanes, ships, hotels, restaurants, visas, traveler’s checks. What they saw once they arrived in the country was almost secondary. In a sense, Frommer reversed the order of the travel books that had come before him. Or as he told me, “People weren’t looking for a big travel book with a thorough explanation of a country’s history and culture that would stay on their book shelves for years. They wanted a guide.”
His ambitions were focused: he wanted to show the masses how to travel without breaking the bank. “I wanted everyone to be able to experience different cultures, to confront opposite views, to celebrate the world’s diversities,” he said, remembering the purity of his intentions. Frommer’s timing was impeccable. The American middle classes had begun to enjoy two-week paid vacations, an idea first instituted by the French in 1936. And private airline companies were offering passage across the Atlantic at prices the middle class could afford, sort of. “But there weren’t enough travel books back then to fill half a shelf in a standard bookstore,” said Mr. Frommer.
To write his first book Frommer scouted Europe for bargain hotels, cafés, restaurants and boat trips and wrote it all up in clear, simple itineraries punctuated by lush descriptions of the glorious sights of medieval and Renaissance cities that sparked his uncritical love affair with travel. In one of his favorite passages, he describes Venice at night: “As you chug along, little clusters of candy-striped mooring poles emerge from the dark, a gondola approaches with a lighted lantern hung from its prow. The reflection of a slate-gray church, bathed in blue spotlight, shimmers in the water as you pass by. This is the sheerest beauty and a sight that no one should miss.”
Europe on $5 a Day was published in 1960, and its modest first run of 5,000 copies also sold out in a single day. Frommer quit his day job at a prestigious Manhattan law firm to start his own publishing company and launch a movement. His style of providing the mundane details of where to stay and what to eat with an overlay of rhapsodic descriptions of the delights of travel became the hallmark of travel writing in the modern age. “I stumbled into this intense desire to travel,” he said as explanation for his phenomenal success. His series grew to fifty-eight titles and Europe on $5 a Day became ubiquitous. Ten years after its debut Nora Ephron wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called “Eating and Sleeping with Arthur Frommer.” By then, one out of every five Americans traveling to Europe that summer was following his red travel guide like a bible, booking inexpensive hotels and eating at out-of-the-way cafés, literally eating and sleeping with him and sending fawning thank you notes like one from a woman in Massachusetts saying that “not a day passed that she did not bless the name Arthur Frommer.”
What Frommer had discovered was that tourism was becoming an industry and needed to be reduced to its parts for consumers—book a plane, find a hotel, eat some meals, go on a sightseeing tour—and he was more than happy to act as that go-between with his guidebooks, making a small fortune in the process. The question for the U.N. World Tourism Organization was how to bottle that elixir, measure it and claim it officially as an industry. The answer came in two parts—first from geopolitics, then from the industry itself.
It took nothing less than the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Empire to open up minds and horizons. The Berlin Wall was the most famous of the barbed-wire barriers erected by eastern and central European puppet governments to cut off their people from their continental neighbors during the Cold War that had pitted the Communist countries against those in the democratic market system of capitalism. Since the end of World War II, the two sides had fought hot wars through proxies in Asia and South America and aimed nuclear weapons at each other in the ultimate standoff for supremacy.
The Soviet side lost and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, marking the beginning of t...
Revue de presse
“Elizabeth Becker has found a giant gap in journalistic coverage and stepped squarely into the middle of it. Even though it’s under our noses, beneath our feet, even in our happier dreams, rarely has the investigative story she recounts in her new book previously received the coverage it deserves: The rampant growth of travel and tourism.” ( National Geographic)
"[A] meticulously reported and often disturbing exposé of the travel industry." ( The New York Times Book Review)
"Required reading for anyone interested in the future of travel." (Arthur Frommer)
“The definitive account of the rise of the modern tourism industry, from its beginnings as a small, fanciful pastime among elites, to its explosive growth after World War II, to its present as an economic engine valued at $7 trillion.” ( Bloomberg BusinessWeek)
“Ms. Becker is a skilled, critical writer delivering illuminating information, telling engaging stories, and advancing her own personal observations. Overbooked appeals to a wide audience: those who make the billion trips annually; those who have a stake in the places impacted, sometimes for better, but all too often for worse, by those travelers’ visits; and all who have a stake in the global economy.” ( New York Journal of Books)
“In the tourism industry, image is definitely everything, but Becker shows readers the flip side of all this luxury and play, exposing the seedy underbelly of a business gone haywire from Cambodia to the United States.” ( Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review)
“Travel is a huge global industry, rivaling oil and finance in economic value. Now, a terrific reporter gives us a full picture of its dimensions and its future. Elizabeth Becker does so, not by loading us down with statistics but by taking us around the world to match up the daunting numbers with places, adventures, and even pitfalls that will keep you reading.” (Steven Brill, author of Class Warfare)
“A comprehensive, often alarming, and sometimes puzzling examination of an oft-invisible powerhouse. . . . Overbooked succeeds in demonstrating the growing heft of the travel industry and the numerous problems that are associated with it.” ( The Weekly Standard)
“Journalist Becker travels widely, experiencing and analyzing ‘the stealth industry of the twenty-first century.’ . . . Impressively wide-ranging . . . intriguing and eye-opening, this book will leave few in doubt that tourism deserves more consideration than it has hitherto received in larger discussions of globalization and public policy.” ( Publishers Weekly)
“Tourism is one of the world's largest – and unexamined – industries. Elizabeth Becker takes us on a compelling journey across continents to show us just how essential tourism is to global prosperity. You will never book a room, ascend the Eiffel Tower, or see the sites in quite the same way again.” (Zachary Karabell, author of Superfusion)
“Follow Elizabeth Becker on this trip around the world and become a more mindful traveler. She is not only an intrepid globetrotter, but a terrific reporter who asks all the right questions!” (Sylvia Nasar, author of Grand Pursuit and A Beautiful Mind)
“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.” ( Seattle Times)
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