Liz: Okay, ready?
Both: Rock, paper, scissors.
Liz: Paper beats rock.
Ben: Yeah, so Hi. Hi. There should be exclamation mark. _Yes, paper beats rock._ Yeah.
Liz: Oh, yeah.
Ben: Okay, so I am Ben Klemens.
Liz: I'm Liz Landau. And this is
Both: Pod, Paper, scissors.
Ben: Okay, I want to break so I get asked the first question. So Liz, when's the last time you ... traveled?
Liz: Well, Ben, besides my West Virginia sojourn to
Both [singing]: Harper's Ferry
Liz: and a couple other places in West Virginia, actually, it's been quite a while. One of my most recent trips before the pandemic was to Florence.
Ben: Tell me about this Florence person.
Liz: Well, Florence Nightingale was a very important nurse who realized that windows should be open. But I'm talking about Florence, Italy.
Ben: So how did it go? Should I be visiting one day?
Liz: Well, when the world opens back up, I do recommend that everybody see Florence at some point. It's a beautiful historic city, however, you have to pick the right weekend. Apparently, the weekend that I chose was a national holiday in several parts of Europe. So when I got there, the main square with the cathedral had thousands of people. I mean, there was probably 500 people in line just to climb the stairs to get to the top of the cathedral and get that view of the city that you see in postcards. I couldn't believe it. I mean, anything that you wanted to do any museum, you had to book it at least 24 hours in advance online. Otherwise, you'd be waiting for hours. I mean, it was like Disneyland, and there weren't even any goths around.
Ben: Instead of the Magic Kingdom, you have people in line to climb stairs even. That's, that's pretty bad. So I guess all Florence was like that dense all over.
Liz: Just the historic center. Once you cross the river, and you got away from all of the monuments that are in postcards, you can get a real sense of tranquility, you can walk around in nature, I even found a really nice lookout point. And I got some awesome photos. And there weren't even that many tourists there. It was just like a lesser known spot.
Ben: And of course, every tourist could have done what you did. But somehow they didn't. So it sounds like things are out of equilibrium. It sounds like the equilibrium would be for more tourists to decide, "Yeah, with at least some probability, I'm going to go across the river."
Liz: Are you talking about a mixed strategy?
Ben: I am.
Ben: I guess this raises the question of whether tourists are strategic, whether they work out, yeah, everyone is going to go to this place, so maybe I should go to the other place?
Liz Landau: Well, here's the thing, Ben. Everybody wants to be the star of their own postcard. [Ben laughs] So if you've seen a place on a postcard, and these days, Instagram is like postcard central, you want to be able to say, "Hey, I got that view that everybody knows of this cathedral."
Ben: My brother doesn't do that, by the way. He, you know, he takes personal photos or like little things that he thinks are interesting. And then when he gets home, he types into his favorite search engine, you know, wherever he went. The Taj Mahal? I don't know if he's been to the Taj Mahal, and just saves some photos, he's like, they're professional photographers. And they stood exactly where I stood. So I might as well just use their camera.
Liz: Wow, I guess that would save a lot of time, if you have to wait three hours in line to see the thing that you wanted to see, like the Mona Lisa.
Ben: Yeah, see it, and then, you know, focus on the thing instead of focus on you know, fiddling with your camera. Anyway, I like his approach. But yeah, so do you think tourists are strategic?
Liz: Well, maybe we should ask an expert.
Elizabeth: My name is Elizabeth Becker. I'm the author of _Overbooked: The exploding business of travel and tourism_. I've been a journalist for decades.
Ben: Yeah, she talked about how it's really hard to get people to actually spread out and gave a couple of examples where people tried to make that work. The first thing she talked about when I asked her about that was those websites about, you know, using your points to game the system.
Liz: Oh, my God, I have so many points right now that I can't do anything with because I can't go anywhere.
Ben: Yeah, and those sites they're like, oh, aren't you brilliant, because you used your points in this like, incredible way? Well, it really is the airlines just trying to incentivize people flying off peak. And it's nice that the point shifter, gamer people transmit to the public like, yeah, here's how you can do it.
Liz: One thing that I forgot to mention in our flirting episode was that one guy on my first and only date with him, spent half an hour talking about all of his different points programs, how many points he had, and how he was going to get more?
Ben: Oh, yeah, it's important that you, you know, kind of show that you're really good with money on a date. That's why every time I went on dates with people, I would always go someplace where I could use a coupon.
Liz: Wow, Ben.
Ben: But get getting back to tourism. That was a joke. But getting back to tourism. Yeah, she she also had a couple of examples where governments were able to do this.
Elizabeth: But governments themselves are now promoting off season. It's no accident that they have blockbuster exhibits, where people will fly from New York to Paris, and they have it in non traditional times. So like freezing your toes off in January.
Ben: But there's kind of a limit to how far you can do this. At some point, things are going to be crowded all the time. And that's happening more now.
Liz: Yeah, I mean, like, Florence, while I happen to be there on a particularly bad weekend, I'm sure that the locals still have a hard time enjoying their own historic center, even in off peak times, because there are just so many people who want to see that cathedral.
Ben: Yeah, things have opened up in a way that they hadn't historically,
Elizabeth: People don't seem to realize that, until the 1990s, half the world was cut off for travel. And before that, you know, what was the period, maybe between the first and second world war, a very short period? This is the first period where you could really travel. And of course, being human beings, we've made a mess of it. It's stunning. And you know, you're talking eight trillion dollars a year in the olden day—in pre pandemic.
Liz: So yeah, Elizabeth seems to think that government control is really the answer.
Ben: Yeah, she talks about that a lot, didn't she? And I guess it kind of makes sense, you know, how many ways can you really incentivize, incentivize people to fly off peak? At some point, like, I don't know, it's just crowded all the time, right. And the result of this is a lot of examples where government just puts its foot down and says, here is the limit to the number of people that we're going to have in this space at this time.
Elizabeth: Everybody knows that Bhutan, wonderful beautiful Bhutan, was upfront about saying: We are only allowing X number of visitors. This this number of backpackers this number of sort of middle class and this number of elites, and that it worked brilliantly, but a lot of people call them elitist. I don't think that's elitist at all. They're considering how to limit visitors without them knowing it. How many people can come to Yellowstone at a certain time? How many people can get in? How many hotels are you going to allow? In Key West, how many cruise ships are going to have land? How many budget flights are you going to have? Are you going to allow your central city, if you're a gorgeous old city in Europe, are you going to allow tour buses or not? How many tickets do you get to go into a museum in Rome? I'll never forget the first time a friend of mine went to Paris and was _furious_ that you had to have tickets to get into the Eiffel Tower. Of course you have to have—when you have this many tourists, you have to ticket. More and more you're going to see that.
Ben: Liz, I guess I told you I am on the Transportation Committee of my hyperlocal government, for my neighborhood. And yeah, I get to listen to people talk about all sorts of issues about like, parking and sidewalk cafes and whether they take up too much of the sidewalk.
Liz: Oh, yes. I've actually witnessed you, Ben, remove a sandwich board from a sidewalk because it was blocking the path.
Ben: Yeah, I take the ADA seriously, let me tell you. Elizabeth Becker took these things seriously, too. She's done some reporting. She's done a local government beat or two. And she brought this up a lot over the course of our discussion about how travel gets planned.
Liz: Hey, Ben, do you know what cruise control is?
Ben: Wait, was that was this one of the later Mission Impossible movies?
Liz: I'm actually not sure.
Ben: Mission Impossible, colon, Both: Cruz control.
Liz: I was actually thinking about what Elizabeth Becker was talking about with regards to the preponderance of cruise ships in Key West.
Elizabeth: in the last election most of us weren't looking at Key West, Florida, to see what was going down in tourism. But that city which you know probably for Hemingway, and for the Margaritaville kind of vibe, and artists and stuff. That city after I think about a ten year, maybe five year campaign of locals put on the ballot the issue of getting rid of all the big cruise ships with their thousands of passengers descending on the city, flooding the streets, destroying their normal street life, just buying coffee or ticky tacky, and a couple of drinks and getting back on the boat. They banned them entirely.
Ben: And to me it's a really great story, because, yeah, having seen how difficult it is to get local governments to get together and make a decision, it's great to see when it works. And it's especially important that the local governments do this because the US federal government is _so bad at this_.
Liz: I mean, as she points out, there is no central Tourism Board of the US.
Elizabeth: We did have a good office within the Department of Commerce. But under—the speaker house was Newt Gingrich with his Contract with America, 1996, got rid of it. As you know, state budgets are in horrible shape. So the first thing you cut is going to be your tourist bureau. There's some states that don't even have them anymore.
Liz: Elizabeth also pointed out that America is not the number one destination for a lot of people. She gave a bunch of reasons why people would be looking to other countries for tourism.
Elizabeth: Canada has taken a lot away from the United States. Even before the pandemic, even before the worst of of the xenophobia of the Trump administration. Our gun culture was turning people off every time there was a gun incident, and every time someone was murdered, especially if that person had a foreign sounding name, you saw a drop. The xenophobia also brought the foreign students not coming. And if you don't have foreign students coming—your child comes to the United States for education because we we still have great universities, the family will visit, that's a big engine for tourism. And then with the trade war and conflict with China that went down. Guess who were the biggest spenders for tourism: Chinese. They're the biggest number of foreign travelers and they spend the most per person. Let's just say that European countries know this and, and go out of the way to help, and so of the Canadians.
Liz: And when we Americans want to go abroad, well, we don't have that many vacation days to play with. So our trips are going to be less environmentally sustainable. And we're not going to get to know places as well.
Elizabeth: Flying around as if it's no big deal is totally wrong for the environment. People should take far fewer trips, and when they go someplace they should spend real time. Like, can you imagine Americans spending at least two weeks when they go someplace?
Liz: I would love to be able to take a month and just hang out somewhere, but...
Elizabeth: We're the only developed country that does not have federally insured vacation. Add that to the list of our exceptionalism.
Ben: Liz, can we get back to your time and Florence.
Liz: [In a cartoon accent] Si!
Ben: Okay, so you were talking about hitting Instagrammable monuments? When you're going to, you know, another country? Is that what you're looking for? Are you looking for, quote authentic endquote food, or an experience?
Liz: Well Ben I admit that whenever I go to a place, I do take a selfie in iconic places, such as the Chichen Itza a pyramid, the Rome Coliseum. Like, even though I know that these are not authentic experiences, I feel some kind of societal pressure to still prove that I was there with a selfie. However, I don't want my entire trip to be about that. And actually, over the past, I don't know, five or six years, I realized that whenever I travel abroad, I have the opportunity to meet locals through my university's Alumni network—
Ben: Just to remind the listener, Liz went to Princeton.
Liz: Thanks, Ben. So through Princeton alumni network, I've met a few different really amazing people who have taken me to wonderful cafes and restaurants that only locals know about in places like Florence. And you know, you get to meet somebody you've never met before, who lives in a place who can show you a little bit of the local culture.
Ben: Becker talks about this authenticity thing a little bit and her primary take on it was that people don't actually...go for it.
Elizabeth: When I started research on this book, I thought people wanted more diverse kinds of experiences, because that's what they say. And then I started research. And they don't want to go to that Chinese hotel, they want to the go to the Marriott. I had the hardest time when I did the research in China. I only did one Marriott... Liz: and she wanted to stay in local Chinese places the rest of the trip...
Elizabeth: It was so hard because all the travel agents presume that you want to go to your Marriott, because that's—all of them are.
Liz: Yeah, it seems like there's a disconnect between what people say they want and when people actually invest in when they travel.
Ben: And there are game theoretic terms for this kind of thing, for the "revealed preference" that people show by actually taking actions instead of, like, you surveying them, but I feel like this one doesn't need game theory. Yeah, if things are difficult, then people just kind of don't do them. At the end of the interview, by the way, Liz asked, what can people do to get an authentic experience. Here's the reply,
Elizabeth: Do some homework, I say read a book, a novel, history, I would like you to read one good novel, and one good history and make it—enjoy it, don't just make it into bad medicine. Learn some language, and then do a lot of preparatory work, because you're not going to do local if you parachute down and you don't know dibble from dabble. I think in their heart of hearts, people do want to local experience, but they don't do they don't make the effort. And then they just say, oh my gosh, I don't have time. And then that's it.
Liz: So then to wrap things up, what does this have to do with game theory?
Ben: I was hoping that things would be more strategic, that there would be more ways that individuals could sort of spread out and not all wind up going up the same staircase at the same time. And the big lesson I got from our interview was that there's sort of a limit to how far game theory can go. At some point, you just have so many people coming through that even the best of mechanisms isn't really going to work. And at that point, welp, you just got to sell tickets.
So we're closing out. And we don't do this every episode because we think it's kind of silly, but let's just do it just this once. Go ahead, Liz.
Liz: [Radio advertisement voice] If you liked what you heard today, tell two or three or ten of your friends to subscribe on whatever podcast platform they listen on. And give us a review. Give us five stars.
Ben: Thanks, Liz. So we'll get back to actual content instead of advertising next time on...
Both: Pod, Paper, Scissors.