Don't Go There

By Elizabeth Becker
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Did you manage to find someplace for your vacation this summer where you could get away from it all and immerse yourself in nature, or whatever it is that you like to do with a free week or two?

I didn't think so.

It's getting harder and harder. The world has shrunk -- and the tourist legions have exploded. The streets of Paris and Venice are so crowded that you can barely move. Cruise ships are filling harbors and disgorging hordes of day trippers the world over. Towering hotels rise in ever-greater numbers along once pristine and empty beaches.

Thanks to globalization and cheap transportation, there aren't many places where you can travel today to avoid the masses of adventure- or relaxation-seekers who seem to alight at every conceivable site. I used to love going back to my old haunt in a Himalayan hill station where, as a student in India in 1970, I climbed those steep, silent paths and watched langur monkeys swinging in the trees outside my window. No longer. Now, Moussurie is chock-a-block with tourist lodges, garbage and noise; the monkeys are fleeing.

This problem goes far beyond a veteran traveler's complaint that things aren't the way they used to be, or annoyance at sharing the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal with thousands of other photo-snapping tourists loudly asking questions in languages the locals don't understand. What's happening today is of another magnitude.

The places we love are rapidly disappearing. Global tourism today is not only a major industry -- it's nothing short of a planet-threatening plague. It's polluting land and sea, destroying wildlife and natural habitat and depleting energy and natural resources. From Asia to Africa, look-alike resorts and spas are replacing and undermining local culture, and the international quest for vacation houses is forcing local residents out of their homes. It's giving rise to official corruption, wealth inequities and heedless competition. It's even contributing to human rights violations, especially through the scourge of sex tourism.

Look at Cambodia. The monumental temples at Angkor and the beaches on the Gulf of Thailand have made that country a choice destination, especially for Asians, who spent $1 billion there last year. But the foundations of those celebrated temples are in danger of sinking as the 856,000 tourists who every year crowd into Siem Reap, the nearby town of 85,000, drain the surrounding water table.

Meanwhile, Cambodia's well-connected elite has moved to cash in on the bonanza, conspiring with police and the courts to evict peasants from their rural landscape, which is being transformed by high-end resorts catering to wealthy visitors. Cambodia's League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights is compiling files that bulge with photographs of thatched-roof houses being burned down while police restrain their traumatized owners. And at night along the riverfront in the capitol of Phnom Penh, the sight of aging Western men holding hands with Cambodian girls young enough to be their granddaughters is ugly evidence of the rampant sex-tourism trade.

All this came as a shock to me. I've been writing about Cambodia for more than 35 years, but I never considered tourism there a serious subject. But when I went back last November, I couldn't avoid the issue. In three short years, tourism had transformed the country. In every interview, the conversation wandered toward tourism, its potential and its abuses. When I went up to Siem Reap, I found the great hall temple of Angkor as crowded, as a colleague said, as Filene's Basement during a sale. Forget tapping into any sense of the divine.

I began researching the global tourism industry and why journalists have allowed it to fly under the radar. Newspapers, the Web and the airwaves are filled with stories celebrating travel; few examine the effects of mass tourism. As Nancy Newhouse, the former New York Times travel editor, told me: "We never did the ten worst [places to visit], only the ten best."

Most people can't imagine that tourism could be a global menace. Even the word "tourism" sounds lightweight. And travel has always been surrounded by an aura of romance. For centuries, beginning with the first tourists on holy pilgrimages, travel has been about adventure and discovery and escape from the pressures of daily life.

It wasn't until the end of the 20th century that tourism was added to the list of industries measured in the U.S. gross domestic product. And the results were a revelation: About $1.2 trillion of the $13 trillion U.S. economy is derived from tourism.

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