The column that follows this post antagonized some of Vancouver's travel writers. As a result, CBC Vancouver's Early Edition invited me onto the show to debate the topic with travel writer Andrew Renton. To listen to that interview, link to
you set off on your summer vacation this year, there are a couple of things you
need to know about travel writers. That travel guide you’ve combed like a head
full of lice, marked up like a philosophy exam, and intend to consult as often
as Billy Graham thumps his bible? It was probably written by a fraud.
you bought it, you doubtless assumed it would present to you an unvarnished
view of your destination, written by somebody who had dined in all the oom-pah-pah/schnitzel
houses in Aha, Germany and longed to share his worldly knowledge. You supposed
that the author had tested out each of the b & bs that he (or she) had
liberally festooned with star ratings.
if you’re a fan of the Lonely Planet guides, as many people are, you likely
took it for granted that your cheerful on-paper host had hiked each exotic
trail about which he raved, and soaked in each hot spring, and sampled each food
kiosk so delectably jammed with seared snake heads.
would that it were so. But as a book called Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? makes clear, it is almost impossible for one writer
to do all that stuff for the appallingly meager wages most publishers are
prepared to pay. How does the author know? He once wrote the Lonely Planet
guide to Brazil, much of it without venturing anywhere near the sites he
depicted so lovingly.
book, intended to be a shocking exposé of the travel writing game, largely
fails in its attempt to amuse. Author Thomas Kohnstamm tries to portray himself
as a kind of Hunter S. Thompson figure – 30-odd years after Thompson first did
and wrote it all. As he tells it, on his travels, Kohnstamm was far keener on
indulging in the drugs and booze and sex constantly presented to him than he
was on completing the task at hand. (Of course, that’s if we can believe a word
he’s written.) We are meant to be shaking our heads as we chortle over
Kohnstamm’s youthful hijinks. Me, I kept thinking, “I would have thought the
real Brazil was a lot more interesting than this.”
should have expected pure self-indulgence from Kohnstamm – I’ve done travel
writing myself. The profession, if you could call it that, is over-run with penniless
hedonists. My husband Stanley could not contain his mirth at a recent event
that was packed with travel writers. He knows how badly we’re paid, and how
severely we’re compromised, so my colleagues’ zippy hair-dos, discount leather
jackets and boasts of having ballooned over the Panama Canal didn’t impress him
a bit. He understands how cheaply they sold their souls just so the owner of
Panama’s Balloons’R’Us could get a little “free” editorial ink.
an outsider, mind you, travel writing sounds like a great gig. It’s certainly a
fabulous way to get the royal treatment on a scullery maid’s wages: somebody (with
an agenda) invites you somewhere, usually with other members of the media, and
then puts on the dog. Your digs are free, the chef makes you special meals. Of
course your experience is tremendous – how can you say otherwise? And so you
don’t. You probably won’t overtly lie; if something goes amiss, you just won’t
mention it. (In the next few weeks, watch for features on the wonders of
Beijing that mysteriously skirt the issue of air quality.)
travel writers work for publications that don’t allow freebies, though those
are becoming harder to find in these days of dwindling newspaper fortunes and
iffy newspaper ethics. The New York Times, for instance, supposedly doesn’t permit its freelancers to accept
hotel rooms or meals gratis. I’m not sure how well the Times can police its writers, however. Its contributors may
be accepting free rooms or meals and just not admitting it. After all, we know
that even the sainted Times has
occasionally hired reporters who’ve made up the news.
professionals, such as the pair who wrote the excellent guidebook Maui
Revealed, claim they have accepted no
favours and have checked out everything in the book themselves. I happen to
believe them, but there’s really no way to disprove their boast.
dilemma for newspaper and magazine travel writers is that unless the
publication buying their piece pays for accommodations and meals, which few do,
those expenses must either be absorbed by the host/provider or come out of the
writer’s own pocket. I have no idea what the Times pays for a travel story, but Canadian newspapers pay
peanuts; nor do they spring for the trip. The writer is therefore faced with
the options of seeking freebies outright, accepting freebies if they’re
offered, or squandering the entire fee to be received for the article, and then
some, on transportation, rooms and meals. Since the journalist then spends time
researching and writing the story, often taking the accompanying photos as
well, that leaves him or her in the hole financially, just so the newspaper can
fill up the editorial space between the travel agency and airline ads.
result of this problem, many travel stories appear to be written by people who
were going somewhere anyway and want to be able to write off their holiday, or
are accompanying a spouse on a paid-for business trip. For a few hundred bucks
or less, they’ll concoct a story and get the rare experience of seeing their
name in print.
you’d catch few of these dilettantes slaving over a guidebook for the pennies
it might bring in. Travel writing is surprisingly labour-intensive if, unlike
Kohnstamm, you’re doing it conscientiously. It’s not enough to simply describe
the joys of paddling a kayak up Indian Arm for a day. For any worthwhile
guidebook entry, the exhaustive research required might include local flora,
fauna and history, directions to the rental shop, hours of operation, up-to-date
prices on kayak rentals, meals available in the area, disabled access
information, and so on. It’s irksome, low-paying work and, as Kohnstamm’s
approach proves, lazy writers cut corners.
be skeptical of your travel guide. Cross-reference it with its competitors.
Consult the online site Trip Advisor, where actual tourists, spending their own
coin, weigh in. Consider the source of your information – scum of the
travel-writer pond, conscientious observer, or regular Joe? Proceed with
caution. And, oh, by the way, have a happy holiday.