August 21, 2021 (Updated )
Images of journalists jetting off to white-sand beaches, with a cocktail in hand, no doubt spring to mind when imagining the career of a travel writer. It is often considered a ‘dream job’ and thanks to Instagram, it does sometimes look as though we do very little work for maximum perks.
In reality, travel journalism requires a lot of planning, discipline and a genuine love for writing and being on the road. It means missed birthdays and frequent periods away from loved ones. As a seasoned writer, you may get to enjoy those eye-blinking moments in a dreamy setting – but for many of us, our primary role is to inform readers about the world around them.
Sadly, with 18 months of pandemic restrictions, the travel and tourism industry has suffered greatly. In June, London’s Heathrow Airport reported that fewer than four million people had travelled through its terminals in the first six months of 2021, “a level that would take just 18 days to reach in 2019”.
With two severe lockdowns and many countries placed on a traffic light-style watch list, it has been a difficult time for travel writers, who have had to develop editorial content without being able to explore and research themselves. However, this downtime has given all of us who enjoy travelling the opportunity to reflect on the privileged position we hold, as both a writer and traveller.
How Can You Be A Responsible Travel Writer?
Each time you write a travel article, bear in mind that your readers may not have the time or the inclination to research their chosen holiday destination any further than your article. This means, it is vital to provide up-to-date and responsibly-sourced information about a country or region – as well as providing an accurate and honest background to that place.
According to the British Guild of Travel Writers – an independent community of accredited writers, photographers, bloggers and broadcasters – such careful and considered reporting is essential in a good travel piece.
“The Guild is well aware that, through travel, everyone can gain a greater understanding, appreciation, and respect for other countries and the diverse cultures and ecosystems found around the globe,” reads their Responsible and Sustainable Travel Policy. “Understanding and respect should not be an entirely one-way occurrence.”
• Respect and promote the respect of local indigenous people, their customs, traditions and beliefs,
• Contribute to the local economy by supporting local businesses,
• Learn about local customs, cultures and cuisines,
• Reduce our carbon footprint where viable, both while travelling and at home.
Travel writing should be a process of enlightening, informing and storytelling about a place, its environment and its people. Forget the notion that travel articles are simply to ‘sell’ a destination – because that is advertising. Instead, your story should delve beneath the obvious hooks and find a tale worth telling.
As you find your angle, remember that the places we visit and write about, aren’t just ‘destinations’ for journalists and their readers. Every ‘destination’ is a home, a place of comfort and familiarity to the people who live in the region. As a result, your article should aim to inform readers of the entire identity of a place, showing consideration to the history, land and environment – alongside culture and tradition.
Even if the article is angled around a particular type of activity or community, you should allow some space to include the surrounding story. These valuable insights, however uncomfortable or complex, are a part of storytelling.
When writing up the article, be sure to carefully consider the language used to describe people, culture, history and the setting – checking and double checking for unconscious bias. This edition of the Unpacking Media Bias newsletter breaks down the importance of language and perspective in travel writing.
‘No One Quite Knows A Country Like Its Inhabitants’
If you are an editor, give a voice to local writers when possible. Travel writer and podcaster, Pip Jones, explains: “In Wales, we have a Welsh word that has no direct English translation known as ‘Hiraeth’, which to us means a nostalgic longing for one’s home in Wales. To me, it beautifully encapsulates how many of us feel about our homelands, no one can really know a country in all its rich culture and context quite like its inhabitants.”
“I read so many articles about Wales, written by non-Welsh writers and the same tourist hot spots come up time and time again. I think this is why it should be common practice for editors to hire knowledgeable locals to write about a destination. Locals know the slang, the unspoken etiquette, the whispered stories in back-alley boozers that might pass an outsider by. We can use our local network of friends and contacts to get to the heart of the story in a way that perhaps visitors cannot.”
“We know these lands and we can use our voices to talk about places that deserve a little more attention, and direct people away from mass tourism sites.”
Travel Journalist, Jonathan Thompson lives in Texas and works predominantly as the US Travel Correspondent for The Times and Sunday Times. He is often commissioned for pieces because of his insider knowledge and access, not only within his home state, but also across the USA. “Commissioning local writers not only means that the service side of a travel piece will naturally be stronger (because they’ll be privy to all of the latest openings, the under-the-radar establishments and quirky local favourites that even the tourist board might not be aware of) but also the style side of the equation, as they’ll be au fait with all of the quirks and nuances of a destination, and its population,” he explains.
“[It isn’t always possible to] use local writers – and often a destination does benefit from a fresh set of eyes – after all, those are the eyes that the reader will see it with too – but when you can go local it’s often a smart way to get more engaging, textured and useful copy.”
At the same time, there is also a need for the travel industry to reckon with its environmental impact. In August 2021, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reaffirmed “climate change is real, present and lasting”.
Without more action, the planet will continue to suffer, and extreme weather events will be more frequent. As travel journalists, we have a platform to inform readers of these issues, honestly and factually. Lead the way and curb your own carbon footprint.
This means being more conscious when planning transport for trips. If you are able to take a train or bus to your place of coverage, then do – who knows, the experience may even add even more colour to the piece.
If flying is a necessity, look at airlines that pledge to offset carbon emissions, remembering that the taking off and landing part of the journey is most harmful in terms of carbon emissions. On the ground, research sustainable methods of exploring and include all of the above in your piece so that readers, too, can travel in a more sustainable way.
When writing about outdoor activities, be sure to research the operators that have a sustainable ethic – and write about them in your piece. Spend time asking questions around local conservation and community work and get to know which operators, hoteliers and tourist boards practise what they preach. Writing about wildlife experiences can be exhilarating for readers, and often lead to bookings – so sharing accurate information about sustainable experiences is important.
When putting together a piece on animal sightings, be sure to use and suggest ethical tour operators who put the safety of the wildlife first. Include a line or two about the value of conservation-focussed wildlife watching and why readers should consider the welfare of animals. Visitors are likely to have more interactive experiences when out with seasoned and experienced guides.
Respect The Value In Local Indigenous Culture
When in the field gathering information, travel writers should conduct themselves just like any other visitor to another country, showing respect to the place, the local people and traditions you come across. Being a journalist on a mission doesn’t mean local people owe you anything.
“Look out for opportunities to learn about indigenous cultures and local history, try traditional food and drink or, better still, learn how to cook regional dishes with a cooking lesson,” suggests travel writer Kathryn Burlington, a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers who devised the Guild’s responsible travel policy.
“Knowing a few words in the local language, even simple phrases like ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘good morning’, are always appreciated. Remember, respect isn’t just a one-way street. When we travel, we are ambassadors for our country.”
Tourism is a means of survival for many communities across the world, but tourist income is most beneficial to local communities when they are receiving it directly from the consumer. Writers can help with this by taking the time to visit shops, restaurants, attractions and hotels owned by local people and sharing community-based stories.
Remember that in many countries, government owned hotels and restaurants fill the city centre, and often look more attractive on the outside – yet the experience is less genuine than one offered by locals. Getting to know interesting or unique local business often then provide a more colourful and intricate story.
‘Resist The Need To Capture Iconic Images’
If you are including images with your piece, consider how your photography will illustrate the story you are telling. If this involves taking pictures of people, be sure to ask permission from the subject and explain to them who you are and why you would like to photograph them. Even better, learn how to ask for permission in the local language.
When considering the images needed for a piece, award-winning photographer and writer, Nori Jemil, advises to resist the need to capture ‘iconic’ images. “The most powerfully illustrated travel features are often those where a world we don’t know much about, perhaps in terms of culture or traditions, is illuminated,” she offers.
“Travel photojournalism, at its best, peels away the layers of what we think we know about a destination. Start by creating a sense of place, where a big, powerful double page landscape or environmental portrait opener can work well, and then home in on elements of the story that reveal what lies beneath.
“As the article develops, so should the photography, with a variety of shot types that allow the piece to flow, from wide and establishing to mid-shots and close-ups. Stay true to your story when editing, rather than over-saturating colours or trying to hang a feature on images that perpetuate old tropes.”