When the world was riding the wave of open borders and economic prosperity, very few countries took note of the toll that thriving, unregulated tourism inflows were having on their environment, communities, and infrastructure.
Elizabeth Becker identified this growing threat to destinations in her book, OVERBOOKED: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, in 2013. The book was a milestone in that it facilitated an honest conversation around “overtourism” when people were yet to come to their senses of how the world’s favourite past time was affecting the health of the planet.
In this interview, Elizabeth Becker shares what inspired her to write her best-selling book. She also discusses how governments, the cruise industry and the media need to step up to the challenge to make tourism more sustainable.
Sustainability Leaders (SL): Elizabeth, you started your career as a journalist covering foreign affairs. What got you interested in the topic of tourism sustainability, and overtourism in particular?
Elizabeth Becker (EB): I was the New York Times International Economics correspondent in the early 21st century when I noticed that tourism was one of the industries that were taking off in the new age of globalization. Back then you rarely heard anyone talk about “tourism sustainability” and the term “overtourism” wasn’t part of public discourse. So I discovered those topics during my investigation of the global business of tourism, looking for the roots of its success. I arranged my book to demonstrate how some leaders understood how to use tourism to help rather than harm their countries and how others did not.
In that sense, I used a classic method of going to the root of an industry, examining how it was growing, what were the effects of the business on the economy, culture, and environment, who benefited and who did not.
SL: In your book, you describe France’s tourism model as one which nurtures culture and enhances the community. To your mind, what made France prioritize tourism to benefit its people and culture?
EB: France was one of the original leaders of modern tourism. It developed during the 1930s and a period of popular social programs under Prime Minister Leon Blum, who championed the law mandating two-weeks of paid vacation in 1936 for French citizens (we still don’t have mandated paid vacations in the US).
The long-standing French pride in its culture led to France creating the first Ministry of Culture. It became part of the French mentality that foreigners were visiting their country in order to revel in its culture and the people of France are at the heart of its culture. Hence tourism should enhance not demean French culture. That’s the ideal.
This is an excerpt of an interview with Sustainability Leaders, originally published on Sustainability Leaders Project.