The Truth About Travel Writing
Since there’s probably a good novel or two in this subject, I can’t divulge all the dirty secrets at the moment. But I can say summarily that spending close to 15 years as a professional travel writer exposed me to the weakest sense of ethics and the highest exchange rate of quid pro quo you’ll find in any realm of “journalism.”
Aside from sportswriters, travel writers are probably the poorest scribes in the business, best equipped to rewrite brochure copy and regurgitate the press releases of their public relations handlers, who dole out free trips and posh meals in exchange for glowing reports. There are exceptions, of course, and the very best practitioners, like Adam Gopnik and Nick Tosches, are rare delights who make us see a place with fresh eyes. The majority of professional travel writers, many of whom belong to an organization called the Society of American Travel Writers, are most adept at sponging up freebies.
Just today I received an invitation from a certain national tourism promotion council. They were inviting a “select group” (read: “able to get an editor at a large-circulation publication to sign off on a story”) of writers to fly first class to the country in question, where the ink-stained wretches would be treated to the kind of accommodations, activities, and gastronomic orgies that their readers would have to spend thousands of dollars to enjoy. Though it is tacitly understood by all involved that in return for the lavish gaiety the hack writer is expected to wax poetic about the destination, employing hyperbole whenever possible, the tourist council reminded the invitees that the invitation was contingent on “solid editorial coverage.”
Those who follow the perambulations of our elected officials, from local aldermen to the President of the United States, won’t be surprised by this cozy arrangement. Entire industries are built on mutual back-scratching, and if not for bribes cleverly disguised as “contributions” or “gifts” the insurance, drug, hospital, tobacco, food, and energy industries would be forced to compete on level playing fields. Which isn’t much fun when you’re accustomed to rolling downhill. Still, naive readers who assume the travel stories they read are the peripatetic equivalent of “Consumer Reports” might be surprised to know that the average travel writer is as trustworthy as the average politico.
The next time you read about “the hot new destination” or the “must-see” hotel or the “put-it-on-your-speed-dial” restaurant, caveat emptor. The place may in fact be as fabulous as the writer says it is. But even if it isn’t, the average travel writer will fulfill his obligation to make it sound as though it is.