Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2 p.m. ET

Outlook: Time for A Little Cruise Control

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Elizabeth Becker
Author, 'When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution'
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; 2:00 PM

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

"I didn't think so," writes Elizabeth Becker, author of "When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution" and former student of media coverage of tourism at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

"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."

Becker was online Tuesday, Sept. 2, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article on tourism and trying to get away from it all.

A transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Elizabeth Becker: Hi, this is Elizabeth Becker and I look forward to your questions about my Outlook piece on tourism.

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Alexandria, Va.: It seems like a huge part of the problem is "out sourcing" beach vacations to 3rd world countries where you can take a luxury vacation in an "all inclusive" resort for a fraction of what it would cost in Europe or the U.S. As you pointed out these aren't really benefiting the locals very much. Is there a way to cut down on or stop these?

Another example of a locally managed program. A Guatemalan village has organized a Spanish language school with home stay. Local teachers do Spanish training in the afternoon when their AM school day is over. Local Indian or Spanish speaking families host the students. They get volunteers from the U.S. or Europe to be the administrator of the program -- no pay but a great month in a small mountain village. This is win-win for every one. (The volunteer administrators have never abscond with the money. Too isolated in the mountains to get away.) Can this kind of thing be reproduced?

Elizabeth Becker: There are ways to avoid these. The National Geographic has
a sustainable tourism department with lots of good suggestions

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Bethesda, Md.: While I value the concern over environmental impact of travel and call for more eco-friendly travel, your story conveyed an element of "now that I've done it, you can't."

I hope more people benefit from the broadening effects of travel and exposure to other cultures.

Elizabeth Becker: I'm sorry you read that into the piece. On the contrary,I hope more people now and the future can travel and that will require careful and thoughtful tourism.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I was in Cambodia in 1999, when one could go to several site in Angkor and have the place almost to yourself. Now it is supposedly overrun with people, but there are other changes as well. In 1999, because of security concerns, a Westerner like me could only go to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and the roads connected them in an out of the country. Even major cities like Battamburg were not considered safe. Now, you can visit probably any place in the country. So even though we may grieve for the overrun Angkor area (and I do), the entire country has opened up. So while you write that it's getting harder to "get away from it all", why can't we just expand our horizons to the possibilities of the non-famous places? Next time, perhaps I'll go to Battamburg, just to see what's there.

Elizabeth Becker: Very good observation. Yes, it is great so many places are now open. The point I was making is let us value those places and make sure they are well cared for.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you look at the role that the UNESCO World Heritage Convention plays in this issue? Clearly, being listed as a World Heritage Site brings added prestige to a site, but it may also bring more tourists than a site can handle effectively. Do you see a way in which the World Heritage Convention can foster more sustainable tourism to these globally significant sites?

Elizabeth Becker: The UNESCO World Heritage people are very aware of these issues. Check out the National Geographic sustainable tourism on this as well. Also, the U.N. World Tourism Organization understands this.

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Bethesda, Md.: Isn't the idea a bit elitist? The world is getting more crowded and people need to get used to it. If you want to really get away, spend more time doing research to find your perfect vacation, and have an open mind to try out new things -- it doesn't even have to be expensive.

Elizabeth Becker: I don't think it is elitist to want to protect and preserve what is beautiful in this world. You are absolutely right that more research will often lead to options that encourage the best of travel.

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Alexandria, Va.: It seems like a huge part of the problem is "out sourcing" beach vacations to 3rd world countries where you can take a luxury vacation in an "all inclusive" resort for a fraction of what it would cost in Europe or the U.S. As you pointed out these aren't really benefiting the locals very much. Is there a way to cut down on or stop these?

Another example of a locally managed program. A Guatemalan village has organized a Spanish language school with home stay. Local teachers do Spanish training in the afternoon when their AM school day is over. Local Indian or Spanish speaking families host the students. They get volunteers from the U.S. or Europe to be the administrator of the program -- no pay but a great month in a small mountain village. This is win-win for every one. (The volunteer administrators have never abscond with the money. Too isolated in the mountains to get away.) Can this kind of thing be reproduced?

Elizabeth Becker: Good examples they are and can be found in many spots, especially Europe

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Baltimore, Md.: Noel Coward was lamenting the risk of pack tourism as far back as the early 1960s in his musical Sail Away, which featured these lyrics:

Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel When the right people stay back home? What explains this mass mania to leave Pennsylvania And stand around like flocks of geese, Demanding dry martinis on the isles of Greece.

Now, of course, it would more likely be a cosmo or a Bud Light, but the story is the same.

Elizabeth Becker: I'd not heard that. Very cool. And, yes, it is an old problem that has grown in magnitude. Thanks

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Arlington, VA.: First Ms. Becker, thank you for your unique and BALANCED perspective in "Don't Go There." As an applied anthropologist, I have devoted my career to designing and evaluating projects that maximize benefits to the poorest of the poor and minimize adverse impacts on the environment. Your article underscores a negative instance of globalization, which has grossly exacerbated inequalities of wealth. I also share your concern for sex tourism and the exploitation of young girls and boys; due to their families' desperate need for income as their subsistence land is absorbed by agro.enterprises for exportation or tourist facilities. How can we raise awareness among mainly Western men (the Japanese too) of the consequences of sex-tourism? What are the alternatives? What can advocates for human rights and the environment do to offset the insatiable world tourism market? You mention Zambia's model of "community tourism", and that "hunting" is among the benefits of this model. However, that contrasts with the claim that poaching has been dramatically reduced. Finally, some months ago, I visited a remote part of Guatemala, one of the poorest regions, where tourists rarely venture. A NGO, consisting of a number of communities is seeking to promote eco-tourism as a means of income-generation and protecting the environment. How can I advise these people about the pitfalls of tourism?

Congratulations on your excellent piece. I look forward to a further dialogue with you.

Elizabeth Becker: I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. From what I've seen, governments will have to work with local communities, businesses and international organizations to come up with effective regulations. Please see my full report
written at Harvard
www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/discussion_papers/D45.pdf

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Arlington, Va.: Isn't it a little "apples and oranges" to say that cruise ships create three times more pollution per passenger mile than airplanes? Seems to me mileage may not be the most appropriate criterion for comparison when we consider that it takes roughly 25 times as long to travel a mile on a ship than it does on a plane (not counting the ship's port stops) -- plus the obvious fact that nobody lives on a plane. To be fair, wouldn't you have to factor in the footprint of a week in a hotel after the plane lands?

And on the question of the waste that's dumped by ships, does the U.N. say whether this is predominantly treated waste or untreated, raw waste?

I'm not an apologist for the cruise industry, but these questions do occur.

Elizabeth Becker:
Much of the research on cruise ships came from the U.N.
and you can read it in my full report for Harvard:
www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/discussion_papers/D45.pdf

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washingtonpost.com: Lost in the Travel Pages:  The Global Industry Hiding Inside the Sunday Newspaper

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Alexandria , Va.: No problem Elizabeth! Try Danby, Vermont 07539. Thirteen miles north of Manchester, nestled in the green mountains next to the Appalachian trail, it is perfect for a free week in nature. Or if you have more dollars try Mongolia. While there you can look for dinosaurs. Both were great this summer. Also was in Ankor Wat this summer. Off season it is a pleasure. Florence, Paris, Venice are still great the first two weeks of December. It is all about knowing where to go when!

Elizabeth Becker: So right. A little research helps. But my worry is not so much avoiding crowds but making sure the crowds don't destroy those beautiful destinations. Then it won't make any difference when you visit

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Columbus, Ohio: What advice do you have for the American public about our national parks, historic sites and wilderness areas? How can we help to maintain their "frontier" or natural state under increasing visitorship, commercialism and decreasing institutional financial support (that is noncommercial)?

Elizabeth Becker: The National Parks are administered through the federal government. Otherwise, the individual states are in charge of tourism. You know, "I Love New York", "Florida - The Sunshine State." Those state tourist boards should know how much you want to preserve those wilderness areas.

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Annandale, Va.: Should everyone just go to DisneyWorld?

What about EcoTourism? As it becomes more popular will the locations just become degraded?

Elizabeth Becker: Eco tourism at its best leads to improvements since its twin goals are to protect the environment and make sure the local people benefit from tourism. It originated in Costa Rica and the UN Foundation here is a big proponent.
Once again, government regulations or advisories that support ecotourism will go a long way to protecting against environmental degradation.

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Concord, N.H.: Wanted to ask about the Azores -- recently the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations named the Azores as the world's second most appealing islands destination.

Elizabeth Becker: Glad you brought that up. The National Geographic's list of the best and worst kept islands is available on line.
Reading the criteria helps explain how islands can be open to tourism without compromising their well-being.

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Denver, Colo.: Hello,

Attractions will always be crowded as they "attract." For example, Victoria Falls was quite busy and is worthwhile to visit but a house boat trip on Lake Kariba nearby had few visitors although it was beautiful and easy to see elephants and other wildlife. Different people will desire different experiences in their travel. Paris is quite able to handle hordes while Bwindi National Park in Uganda cannot but really, how many people will vacation along the Congo boarder? Has Paris ever not been crowded with tourists?

Elizabeth Becker: Hi. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. What I suggested in the piece is that this is more than about crowds. It is about crowds causing permanent damage. For instance, the crowds that are pushing out the middle class and workers from Venice because they can no longer afford to live in that city.

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Maryland: I definitely agree with your article that tourism is having a profound impact on local cultures and the environment. I was in Australia and Fiji over the summer and this was the topic of discussion for the course. Comparing Australia and Fiji I think the regulations and rules (for care and use of natural resources such as reefs and rainforests) in AUS were better managed due to a more stable government. Fiji, on the other hand, is currently in a coup and has poor management. One "eco-tourist" resort my group evaluated was deemed to be not at all sustainable of local culture or environment, and lacked education. It is also possible to purchase a license that says you're eco friendly without actually having to do much, plus those standards vary from place to place. I don't think a global standard would be possible, but as tourism will clearly continue, how do you think things can be regulated/managed?

Elizabeth Becker: Thank you for that informative comment. The global regulations are aimed at setting standards, not imposing them. The U.N. World Tourism Organization's Web site goes into this at some detail. I also recommend my paper for Harvard's Shorenstein Center:
www.hks.harvard.edu/presspol/research_publications/papers/discussion_papers/D45.pdf

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The way you travel: I think what you are suggesting is the way I travel anyway. Even if I include a visit to a must-see spot or city, I try to stay in a neighborhood out of the hubbub, often rent apartments, and always include part of my travels in smaller towns. This is a more rewarding way to travel -- away from crowds and high-rises. There is room for us all if we spread out a bit!

Elizabeth Becker: Sounds like you travel lightly which is always good and probably get a lot out of it.
I agree there is room for us all but there has to be a change of mentality so that industrial side of tourism doesn't overtake the side of travel we all love.

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Oakton, Va.: What impact will both the rising price of fuel -- translated into ticket prices; and the fact that the world will run out of fossil fuels in the next fifty years -- have on global tourism? And vice versa -- what effect will this have on local tourism?

Elizabeth Becker: So far, the U.N.World Tourism Organization says that tourism is up and could hit 900 million this year.
That, though, is the short-term view. Long term it is bound to affect travel which is why Mr. Bronson of Virgin Airlines is leading a venture to find fuel-alternatives for airlines.

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Concord, N.H.: Can you tell us how the Azores fit in to the context of your article?

Elizabeth Becker: Although I didn't mention the Azores, any destination that thinks about the down side as well as the benefits of tourism is taking responsibility for its environment and its people. That is what this article is all about.

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Laurel, Md.: There's an economic theory that once people achieve a certain level of income, they don't want any more, they want to enjoy themselves.

Given that a substantial fraction (about 1/3) doesn't have to work to hard to live long and comfortably, shouldn't travel become a worldwide pastime? What else are we going to spend our money on? Bigger homes, TVs and autos?

Elizabeth Becker: Travel is a great past time. But just as we accept that there are consequences to our behavior in nearly every aspect of our lives, we have been largely blind to the effect of tourism. And, as you say, more and more people are traveling so there needs to be more ways to insure that they understand the downside as well as the benefits of their trips.

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Rockville, Md.: Anyone who travels extensively on a cruise ship or to packaged resorts isn't interested in the "travel" experience of mixing in with local culture. They just want to get away, and this is a segment which marketeers have grasped on to. To fix that, the marketeers should be convinced that their margins will be higher by sending non-experiential tourists to blah destinations since they really don't care. Then they'll market to them.

Elizabeth Becker: I'm going to guess you're not in the travel business.
But, there has to be a better way to provide a getaway that
doesn't hurt the environment. Thanks

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I had the pleasure of re-visiting the Azores this spring, which are ranked #2 in the world out of 111 island destinations by the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations, in terms of being unspoiled by tourism (the Faroes are #1, the highest-rated U.S. destination is Michigan's Mackinac Island, at #8): National Geographic

During my visit on the island of Sao Jorge in the Azores, I met a young-retired English couple who told me that they'd vacationed a great deal in Europe, especially on islands. When they went to their travel agent to plan this trip, they asked for a place where the culture, environment and scenery had not yet been badly despoiled, and the Azores were what the agent recommended. Even though this couple spoke no Portuguese, they found enough English spoken that they managed to get around on three different islands just fine. Since I'm part Azorean and speak some Portuguese, I was able to be a liaison for them with the community where we were staying, which just happened to be holding one of its major festas of the year that weekend! All three of us were able to enjoy a number of the festa events, and were warmly welcomed by the local people, including a nice emigrant couple visiting from Canada who were fully bilingual. The English couple were tremendously impressed by (and grateful to have the chance to experience) local customs still undiluted by pandering to tourism priorities. I pointed out to them that undoubtedly the local residents appreciated the courtesy and respect they demonstrated during their visit, too.

Elizabeth Becker: What a wonderful example of the best of travel. Your travel agent was good to begin with and then you had one of those once in a lifetime trips that we all hope to have.
Thank you for the story.

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Elizabeth Becker: Thank you all for your questions. It's been a good discussion.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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