The rise of the tourist hordes

Elizabeth Becker says the global passion for travel today is threatening to overwhelm - and destroy - that which attracted us in the first place

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 April, 2013, 2:27am

The world has serious concerns over fiscal crises, security crises and environmental crises. And then there are holidays - when we can put aside lofty concerns and remember what living is all about: seeing friends, hosting family reunions and running barefoot on the beach.

At least that was the definition of vacations before globalisation took off. Now they have joined the ranks of the biggest global industrial complexes. While few noticed, travel and tourism grew into a giant business sector and the world's largest employer - beating out health care, education and retail. At least one out of every 11 people works in the industry, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Tourism contributes at least US$6.5 trillion to the world economy every year. Since the 2008 recession, its growth rate has rebounded faster than manufacturing and financial services.

A chart of the rise of international tourist trips is a thumbnail history of globalisation. The modern era of "Europe on five dollars a day" began in 1960. That year, 25 million trips were taken across foreign borders.

Then came globalisation and the opening of borders. The end of the cold war in the early 1990s accomplished just that - opening long-closed borders in eastern Europe and Asia. By 1995, when most had opened up to tourism, there were 536 million trips. Last year, the 1 billion mark was broken.

The impact of tourism on the environment, culture and society is enormous. Hordes of day-trippers have transformed beautiful cities like Venice, where 20 million tourists visit the historic city of 60,000. The environmental costs can be high as well. Cruise ships, for instance, are notorious polluters.

Not surprisingly, France and Costa Rica are two countries that understood early on tourism's potential and the safeguards required to ensure that tourism enhanced their communities and national treasuries. But few would have guessed that Deng Xiaoping would be among tourism's early proponents. In late 1978, he gave five "direction talks" on the central role tourism might play in China's reform movement.

For Deng, tourism was a natural to earn China much-needed foreign cash - he predicted US$10 billion a year by the new millennium, and China reached that goal in 1996. He viewed tourism as an effective way to flip negative impressions of China and set in place a system to create a state-controlled sector that includes government-trained tourist guides extolling the joys of the open market and China. He also rightly warned that pollution from rapid industrialisation could despoil the beautiful spots that would attract tourists.

When first reporting on this stealth industry and its downsides in 2008, I was accused of threatening everyone's right to travel. Yet every right comes with responsibility, and protecting the world's beauties would seem obvious by demanding that the industry respect local culture, heritage and the environment.

The destinations are in peril if the public, their governments and international institutions don't study travel's impacts and find safeguards to protect what's loved by all.

Elizabeth Becker is a former New York Times correspondent. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online.