A Conversation with Leo Hickman
by Ron Mader
Leo Hickman is a journalist and author of Guardian Book’s The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays (2007, 416 p.p.)
Ron Mader: The Final Call has elements of some of my favorite investigative reporting books while showcasing your talent at narrative writing. What’s the background of this book? How was it written? Is it being well received?
Leo Hickman: I first had the idea for this book about five or so years ago. Like many people, I had enjoyed visiting destinations on holiday but often left wondering whether my visitation had actually had a positive or negative impact on the destination itself and its peoples. I wondered about the damage to the local environment, and the natural resources. In addition, I wondered about just how much in the way of income my visit was ever likely to bring to the local population. So about 18 months ago I set off on a series of trips to popular destinations around the world—Cancun, Ibiza, Miami, Kerala, Costa Rica, the French Alps, Thailand, Benidorm, Hong Kong, Dubai, etc. to interview as many people “on the ground” as I could to try and better understand the full impacts—warts and all—of the mighty global tourism industry, something I was surprised to learn hadn’t really been done before outside of academic and NGO circles. As a Guardian journalist, I wanted to write a mainstream book that spoke directly to travelers and tourists, but also to those within the industry who hold so many of the important levers to possible solutions. The book has been billed as an “investigative travelogue”—part investigation, part travel writing.
Yes, I’m pleased to say that so far the book has been positively received with good reviews in The Financial Times, the Irish Times, and the New Statesman. Better still, people who have read the book have started to contact me to say how compelling they found the book’s findings and conclusions.
R.M.: Are most holiday-goers traveling independently or are they participants in group tours?
L.H.: In the U.K., at least, there is certainly growing evidence that more and more people are traveling independently—booking a flight, car rental, and hotel online, grabbing a guidebook and off they go. According to the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, U.K. citizens made almost 45 million holidays trips abroad in 2006, of which 18.8 million were “inclusive tours,” so that’s about 42 percent. Sorry, I don’t have global figures. There is certainly a debate to be had though—which I raise in the book—about whether it is automatically a good thing that more and more of us travel independently. Traveling this way carries with it much greater responsibilities, in my view, but ultimately it can have a more positive impact, particularly with regards to making sure as much of the money we spend “sticks” to the destination.
R.M.: After writing this book, do you have some unanswered question?
L.H.: The big one for me is how the tourism industry is going to face up to what I saw from my investigations as a series of mounting and grave problems. Surely, there can’t be many other industries that would risk destroying their own key assets in such a cavalier and short-sighted way. There seems to be very little in the way of preparing and investing for the future—the prevailing attitude within the industry seems to be to make as much money as quickly as possible with little, if any regard, for the long-term future of the destination. As someone with young children who already point to the atlas in their bedroom with a sense of wonder, this saddens me deeply.
R.M.: In your recent essay on Travel Mole—Travel Industry has Head in the Sand Over Climate Change—you say that “the travel and tourism industry is a long, long way from truly grasping the scale of the problems that lay before it—in some ways it reminds me of where the tobacco industry was about 40 years ago.” Should we be looking for leadership from the industry itself when those in charge are rarely accountable, rarely transparent, and the simplest data about tourism statistics remains suspect?
What is absent is solid data to answer vital questions: How many people are traveling? Where does the money go? We also need to embrace dialogues that permit discussion about more subjective topics: How empowered are locals to make decisions that affect their livelihoods? Are travelers satisfied with the information at hand in making choices about where to go and what to support?
If what we are seeking are ways for travelers and locals to be more ethical to each other and to place—the resource base for the interaction—then isn’t it time we start talking about supporting decentralized movements and campaigns rather than make expectations of government and industry?
L.H. I totally agree with you about the point that the leadership within the global tourism industry—organizations such as the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization, the World Travel and Tourism Council, etc.—lacks transparency, is made up of a small, often transferable cabal of industry executives, and that the statistics they pump out about the industry have to be taken with a pinch of salt. When researching my book I had to largely rely on some of their figures and this sometimes made me a little uncomfortable. But, sadly, there does seem to be a real lack of truly independent figures, ones that can’t be accused of supporting an agenda.
But isn’t that true of all statistics to a certain degree? NGOs can often be accused of just the same thing, for example. That’s why in the book I tried to rely on much more of what people “on the ground” were telling me in person, even though statistics will always play their part in this kind of investigation.
The question of where the money goes is, of course, one of the hardest to pin down with reliable figures because vested interests are either trying to prove it does indeed “trickle down” and benefit everyone in the local community, or that it most certainly doesn’t. But from just talking to many low-level tourism workers around the world—the chambermaids, the taxi drivers, the waiters, etc.—I must report that the latter seemed to be much nearer the truth.
Improving the quality of the data available will clearly help to better answer all of the questions you raise about tourists having the knowledge to book the “right” holiday, or for communities to make the best decisions about how they manage and nurture their destinations.
In general I always support the notion of decentralization, and I think tourism is a good example of where destinations might fare better, both in terms of environmental stewardship and even marketability, if they didn’t have to constantly feel the heavy hand of big government or big business on their shoulders at all times. Global tourism seems to be governed by a one-size-fits-all approach at the moment, and the ones calling the tunes are organizations such as the UNWTO and WTTC, which are broadly all about pushing the big infrastructure, “international standard” approach to tourism. This is the world of increasing bed capacity, more runways, wider highways, and one in which every tourist is assumed to want a minibar, air conditioning, golf course, and buffet at every turn.
In my view, there is a damaging lack of subtly to this approach, and it is one that has directly or indirectly caused many of the problems I have witnessed around the world. There seems to be a fundamental lack of trust among big-industry players that destinations can ever know best when it comes to managing their own assets. No wonder some people talk of tourism as a form of modern-day imperialism. These players talk of believing in the “free-market,” but this is a clever illusion in my eyes. There is little that is “free” about how the global tourism industry is managed at the moment from what I can see.