We’ve all seen photos of snorkellers exploring the Great Barrier Reef, gondolas navigating Venice, and victorious climbers reaching the top of Everest. We see less of dead sections of marine reefs, Venice flooding multiple times a year, or the long lines to Everest’s summit causing life-threatening wait times.
It’s undeniable that tourism and climate change are modifying travel forever — something journalism is already reflecting with articles about places to see before they’re gone for good. For those of us writing about travel, is it even possible to do it ethically?
The Impact Of Travel Journalism
“Through my desire to travel, I ended up in situations where I was learning that human impact is huge,” says Karen Edwards, the author of The Responsible Traveller, a guide encouraging people to explore while also limiting their environmental and social impact. “It made me think, ‘What is my impact of being here? It’s beautiful… but is this something you’re actually enjoying?’”
Karen Edwards and her book on responsible travel.
For Edwards, the implications go much wider than the destinations seen in glossy magazines. “Whether we’re walking down the street, jumping in a car, or taking the tube, we’re having some kind of impact,” she explains.
“A lot of travel isn’t really bad, [it’s] just travel. It’s not necessarily causing a lot of harm, it’s just potentially having quite an impact. As a travel writer — as any writer who has any kind of platform, big or small — you have a platform to say to people, ‘We need to do better.’
“The whole point of a travel piece is to help your readers broaden their knowledge and inform them. When I’m writing and researching what’s going to go into an article, I always look at what I’m recommending, and make sure that it is responsible,” she says.
As overwhelming as it might seem, these are vital areas to communicate to readers and can be just as interesting as sumptuous food pictures.
“As consumers, we want to know that our food and fashion choices are sustainable and ethical — and that’s increasingly true of our holidays as well.”
Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel
According to Justin Francis, CEO of Brighton-based Responsible Travel, this kind of information is now a requirement for many travellers. He tells Journo Resources: “As consumers, we’re growing much more conscious of our impacts. We want to know that our food and fashion choices are sustainable and ethical — and that’s increasingly true of our holidays as well.
“Look at the shift around veganism in food writing. Meat-free is becoming mainstream in the media because the consumer demand is there. Well, it’s there for travel too. There’s a responsibility not only to include information but to call out the marketing ploys.”
For writers worried about overstepping in their article, Edwards advises: “You’re writing a feature based on experience and based on genuine advice. If that involves […] saying, take this electric train across the country instead of a flight […] that is a genuine recommendation. So why not? The whole point is to educate people.”
From the carbon footprint of flights to over-tourism destroying communities, society understands the impact of travel. As writers, it’s our job to give people responsible alternatives to how they travel the world.
The Responsible Travel Reading List
Check out these books for more inspiration on how to make your travel writing more sustainable, responsible, and aware.
Sally Guillaume began Undiscovered Mountains, a sustainable tour company based in France, following her love of the outdoors. Originally a science teacher and then a BBC journalist, she believes in using local experts and investing the benefits of tourism back into the host destinations.
“If locals are not benefitting, there is jealousy and corruption. If the area is overused, it damages its authenticity, natural habitats, and ecosystems — and also ceases to be attractive. It is a negative loop from which there is no benefit to anyone. For me, the only way to run a tourism operation is to do it sustainably.”
It goes without saying, this principle extends to travel journalism as well. YouGov research found 57 per cent of adults wouldn’t mind paying more if they knew their holiday was sustainable — so it’s up to us to share the knowledge of locals, explain the benefits of travelling off-season, and why you should swerve mass tours.
Sally Guillaume on her adventures.
Guillaume also recommends finding responsible agencies that will do the work for tourists, taking away the burden of making many complex choices. When people go on holiday, they tend to think the normal rules of life, including sustainability, are no longer applicable. A subtle shift in tone that applies sustainability as inherent to travelling, can change the way people think about travelling and take care of those time-consuming details.
“Just as they might talk about how good the food is or not, they should talk about how sustainable the operation is or not,” she adds.
Objectively Viewing Press Trips
It’s also an ethos that journalists should stick to when it comes to press trips. While they’re an amazing perk of the trade for writers who have a solid portfolio, good relationships with editors, and a certain knack for being in the right place at the right time. It can also provide the hardest dilemma for travel writers — a complimentary trip is very alluring but can include a full schedule that goes against responsible and sustainable travel.
“By writing about the issues in an engaging, entertaining manner, we can not only influence how people travel, but we can also make the industry sit up and take notice.”
Francisca Kellett, travel writer and editor
But, remember, by being invited you also have a certain amount of power to show your support for responsible travel and inquire about it. Ask those organising for their sustainable travel policy, or if they can tell you more about the work they do. If you come across practices that directly contradict responsible travel, ask them about it
Do they source food locally, and give back to the community to cut down on food waste? Do their excursions respect the area and provide more unique, off-the-beaten-track experiences? Sustainability isn’t a new way of thinking, so this line of questioning isn’t confrontational. If anything, you’re bringing their attention to the sustainability conversation, and signalling that it is an important aspect of travel to their target market.
Should you feel that sustainability has been omitted or under-valued, Edwards advises you shouldn’t be afraid of turning the trip down. “Your duty isn’t to be a marketing tool. As a writer, you are there to be impartial and to impart information to your readers. They are your focus.”
It can be daunting to turn down a press trip, but at the end of it all, it’s your name on the piece. You have to know where you want to draw the line before accepting a free press trip. Will their business class flight cancel out their sustainable choices, and can you honestly recommend the trip if you know it promotes irresponsible travel?
Make Responsible Travel Accessible To Everyone
No matter how you choose to include sustainability in your piece. Desmond Kirwan is an energy analyst at VEIC and former researcher at the University of Michigan, whose lightbulb moment came after his mother told him she had no idea what his research papers were actually saying.
He explains: “Climate action is a ‘yes, and’ proposition — yes, corporations and the wealthy have an outsized impact on emissions, but that doesn’t negate me from acting for the good of all.
“We need to convey the severity of climate change so people understand the importance of action, but still meet them with kindness and acceptance wherever they are in the process of change.”
"We need to convey the severity of climate change so people understand the importance of action, but still meet them with kindness and acceptance wherever they are in the process of change.”
Desmond Kirwan, Energy Analyst
In his article, ‘We Need to Change the Way We Talk About Climate Change’, Kirwan explains how positive emotions around sustainability open us up to new opinions, unlike doom-and-gloom shaming. After all, when was the last time you felt so angry that you were inspired to do good?
He suggests a positive, encouraging tone to exploring new options, as well as ensuring suggestions are realistic and achievable.
Similarly, writer and editor Francisca Kellett adds: “By writing about the issues in an engaging, entertaining manner, we can not only influence how people travel, but we can also make the industry sit up and take notice.” She confirms that these days, editors are usually happy to include sustainability information in articles, whether in the form of a sustainability rating at the top or bottom of a piece, or information that is woven throughout.
Reaching Out To Smaller Organisations
The fact is, sustainable options exist and they’re getting more accessible every day. In many cases, smaller enterprises that don’t usually get coverage can be the most ethical. It’s part of our job as journalists to uncover and highlight these options.
It’s also important to remember that progress is better than perfect, says Trine Richter, managing director of Green Solution House, a hotel and conference centre in Rønne.
“There are many who believe that you should only ‘commit’ to certifications when you can do it 100 per cent. I find that people like that you do the best you can and that you are evolving instead of believing that you can do it all. It becomes too overwhelming and slows down one’s own and society’s development. If you make mistakes, you have to learn from them and share them.”
It’s an approach worth taking into travel writing too. Just like we don’t have to be perfect citizens to make a difference, we don’t have to be flawless travel writers. We’ll most likely make mistakes and overlook aspects of responsible travel — but it is a learning process. The important bit is that we keep trying to normalise sustainable options and advertise creative, positive climate-friendly solutions as doable parts of a trip.
Responsible travel has thousands of solutions in all shapes and sizes: it’s not telling people what to do, it’s giving them the knowledge to make an informed decision. The key is to keep informed, provide credible research where needed, and to make those facts feel positive.
As journalists, our words inspire travel. With some small changes, that travel can be extremely sustainable. As Kirwan put it, “Everywhere in the world has some beauty to enjoy — let’s start to find that.”
Header image courtesy of Manny Moreno via Unsplash
Part of the Journo Resources fellowship class of 2022, Kate Hammer moved from Canada to Glasgow to study for a Masters in Television Fiction Writing.
A playwright, script editor, and comedian, she is now working as an entertainment trainee at STV Studios. Despite it all, Kate never loses touch with her goat-farming roots.