Story Stream
recent articles

The world has serious concerns over fiscal crises, security crises and environmental crises including climate change.

And then there are vacations. Yes, vacations - the getaways when we can put aside lofty concerns and remember what living is all about: seeing friends, hosting family reunions, discovering a new artist at a provincial festival and running barefoot on the beach with salt air stinging our cheeks.

At least that was the definition of a vacation before globalization took off.

Now vacations 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 $6.5 trillion to the world economy every year. Since the 2008 recession, its growth rate has rebounded faster than manufacturing and financial services. And if frequent-flyer miles were a currency, they would be the most valuable in the world, even with all those blackout dates.

It turns out that tourism is the poster child for how to benefit from the global marketplace, for obvious reasons. Wholesale travel and tourism depends on open borders. With political developments and technology - new long-distance airliners that cross half of the globe in a single flight and the internet revolution - countries off the beaten path in South America, Africa and the Middle East are more accessible.

A chart of the rise of international tourist trips is a thumbnail history of globalization.

The modern era of "Europe on five dollars a day" began in 1960. That year 25 million trips were taken across foreign borders.

Ten years later the figure rose to 250 million, a significant increase but not earth-shattering.

Then came globalization 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, a wide swath of nations behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain. This newly opened territory represented nearly one third of the planet, and by 1995, when most had opened up to tourism, there were 536 million trips.

Last year, the 1 billion mark was broken with the UN World Tourism Organization celebrating the event at its Madrid headquarters.

I dissect and explore this explosion of the tourism industry in Overbooked. The elusive octopus-like industry is everywhere and nowhere. Everyone takes vacations, but few see the industry behind them. Nowadays, any endeavor can be transformed into a travel package.

Take medical tourism, for example. Countries like Malaysia have brought together teams from their ministries of health and tourism to offer deals including airline travel, medical procedures and resort-style recuperation in the sun - all at a bargain-basement price compared to the health-care costs in the US.

The religious pilgrimage is the oldest reason for travel, and today the Hajj is the world's biggest travel event.Predominantly Muslim countries from Bangladesh to Indonesia have powerful ministries of Hajj that broker precious permission for citizens to travel to Saudi Arabia. The tourism industry has transformed the center of the holy site in Mecca. Old rest houses and buildings that once defined the traditional character of Mecca have been bulldozed and replaced by luxury skyscraper hotels and condominiums, a shopping mall and a clock tower that bears a striking resemblance to London's Big Ben. So many billions of dollars are spent on the Hajj - the pilgrims spent $16.5 billion last year in Saudi Arabia - that corruption is a temptation. In the middle of war, the Afghan minister of Hajj and pilgrimage fled the country rather than face charges he embezzled $700,000 in Hajj funds.