Few books have put together an overview of the evolving travel business as solid as “Overbooked: The Global Business of Travel and Tourism” by Elizabeth Becker.
Becker has written two previous nonfiction books: one on Vietnam (“America’s Vietnam War”) and one on Cambodia (“When the War Was Over”). While the travel industry seems a far distance from war, this book is actually a good extension of the author’s background as a researcher.
In fact, the author spent five years preparing the material that eventually appears in “Overbooked.”
The resulting work gives an overview of an industry that serves an estimated one billion travelers a year. And since the travel industry attracts a fair number of entrepreneurs and small businesses, I picked up a review copy of the book via Netgalley and found it to be a solid read.
It will spark the imagination both of the travel enthusiast and of the entrepreneur seeking inspiration and entrance into the industry.
See The World and How Its Countries Have Marketed Travel
The author divides the book into several segments including the rise of consumer tourism, and the impact on culture and the environment. For example, the opening chapter examines the history of the modern travel industry. Traditionally, travel had been seen as a frivolous pursuit. But Becker examines how several factors over the years have contributed to its increasing popularity and demonstrated its economic value.
Specifically, Becker covers the start of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, which maintains industry stats. She also examines the influence of the book “Europe on $5 a Day” by American GI Arthur Frommer which promoted affordable travel options for the first time, noting:
“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.”
Becker presents her examples and case studies briefly enough to fit the busy entrepreneur, but with enough detail to provide a detailed economic overview. And this porridge-just-right approach is ideal for helping entrepreneurs interested in understanding the needs and dynamics of the market.
At the same time, Becker seasons her research with personal experience. The result is much more than mere regurgitation of facts. A must-read is the chapter on Cambodia titled “Getting It Wrong.” It discusses the country’s missteps in developing tourism following the Vietnam War. Doing her research, Becker met Dith Pran, a local journalist who would later be a key figure highlighted in the movie “The Killing Field.” The book notes:
“When war broke out in 1970, these former tour guides, hotel clerks and drivers were hired immediately by foreign journalists who needed help translating the language and the country…For them, the temples at Angkor – one of the most elegant wonders of the world – symbolized their country at peace, at its best .… The zenith of their life as tour guides was the day in 1967 that Jacqueline Kennedy came to Angkor, ‘fulfilling a childhood dream.'”
More historical and economic context abound as Becker explains how tourism was seen after a United Nations peacekeeping mission intervened in 1993:
“The U.N. anointed a joint government that includes some brilliant officials, some incompetent officials, many corrupt officials, all working in an atmosphere of mistrust. They did agree on one matter – tourism would be essential to their recovery…. Cambodia’s timing couldn’t have been better. Tourism was gaining the respect of economists and development experts. Over the last two decades it has become the second-largest source of foreign exchange, after oil, for half of the world’s poorest nations.”
Some approaches to promote tourism were more successful than others. Countries and cultures ranging from France to Dubai are explored. You’ll read about protecting culture within the Dubai chapter. She also includes a fascinating history of the cruise industry.
Ecotourism: Real or Just Marketing Talk?
A chapter on ecotourism is also extremely educational. Readers may not be aware of the part Costa Rica has played in development of the ecotourism industry. Becker uses her Costa Rican experience to highlight what should constitute responsible ecotourism, including provision of employment opportunities for locals and efforts to preserve the natural environment. You’ll read Becker’s observations about how small business is included in sustainability plans:
“Back on the ship the crew had organized a display of local handicrafts for sale in what they called the “global marketplace”. On sale were baskets handwoven from native grasses by indigenous women; jewelry crafted by local artists; and blouse and shifts sewn by nature seamstresses …. This was straight out of the how-to list for responsible ecotourism. The Company offers the means for local small entrepreneurs to develop and sell sustainable products that are based on the area’s nature, history, and culture.”
And then there are her points about the controversial practice of “greenwashing” for marketing. Complexity arises when entities make claims without much to back them up. For example, hotels can certify as green, yet overlook community involvement or habitat needs. Becker writes how the tourism industry is “filled with confusing claims of environmental stewardship based on little more than changing towels less frequently and therefore saving water.”
The final segment of the book presents China as a new opportunity for the travel industry and the United States as a traditional marketplace.
This is one of the better books on the travel industry. Just as “Broke USA” highlights the pawn shop industry, “Overbooked” takes an in-depth look at travel. And it provides valuable details sure to make any business plan better. Read it to make your travel agency or travel-related business savvy about the travel industry, or to get background if you plan to enter the travel industry.