Travel Journalism

Suzanne Dundas. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

Travel is a common topic for writers, yet travel journalism has a rather ambiguous definition. Though it appears at first glance to be fairly self-explanatory, the field as a whole is complex, broad, and lends itself to many different forms and styles of journalism. Indeed, it is difficult to pin down a single representative example of travel journalism, because it can be tailored to suit almost any literary need. In the sense of being any communication about a voyage outside one’s immediate vicinity, travel journalism can be found in almost every type of publication or periodical. Magazines are devoted to the subject, newspapers have weekly columns, and popular travel destinations readily provide their own literature.

Why, then, is travel literature such a gray area if it is such a popular subject? The genre is certainly well known to almost everyone—whether in the form of a guidebook on a vacation hotspot, an exposé on political unrest in a foreign country, or a restaurant review from an out-of-town diner. Indeed, the average person comes across this form of journalism quite often. Many people fancy themselves to be amateur travel writers, imagining an Indiana Jones style of adventuring and coming back to tell tales of exotic locations. However, this glorified view does not accurately reflect the actual profession.

Development

In the broadest sense, travel journalism has been around since the written word began. Explorers, after surveying new land, would come back with tales of new cultures and places. Marco Polo’s Il Milion was widely popular among thirteenth-century Europeans, and publications from missionaries and explorers were published for those who remained at home (and who often financed the voyages). In later centuries, tales came back to the old country extolling the beauties and abundance of the new American continent. Early-nineteenth-century writers became famous with tales of their voyages: notable authors like Herman Melville gained fame with his chronicles of voyages as a sailor (A Narrative of Adventures on the South Seas), as did Robert Louis Stevenson (In the South Seas), James Cook (The Journals of Captain Hook), and Paul Theroux (The Happy Tales of Oceana).

As technology expanded during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making faraway destinations less expensive and quicker to reach, greater accessibility allowed travel writing to rapidly develop. Early publications like National Geographic (first published in 1888) began as research journals but slowly changed to allow armchair travelers—those who read for entertainment value with no intention of traveling to the destinations covered—to go to remote, foreign locations. Although the magazine was published irregularly for the first decade of its existence, it had become a monthly magazine by the late 1800s. Initial readership was low but quickly escalated with the introduction of photography—most notably color photographs of the natural world by 1910. The boost that color photography, maps, and in-depth articles gave to National Geographic as it lengthened the magazine in the 1950s indicated that the thirst for travel coverage among the public was large. Many other publications stepped into the growing market. Travel and Leisure (introduced in 1971) targets budget-minded travelers, while Conde Nast Traveler (introduced in 1987) caters to higher-end travelers, although both claim to appeal to both demographics. Travel and tourism is ranked as the third largest retail-sales industry in the United States, so it is no surprise that the travel writing featured in books, magazines, and newspapers is so popular.

By the 1990s, travel journalism was further aided by printing developments including digital typesetting and inexpensive color printing, which enabled publications to easily and instantaneously publish at a minimal cost. Technological advances have yielded everything from travel blogs, which provide a venue for anyone to post photos and stories from vacations, to multimillion-dollar companies, such as the cable Travel Channel. Inexpensive flights and the tendency for most households to own at least once car has also made travel and short vacations more affordable and accessible, increasing the interest in travel writing. Travel is presented as an affordable respite, not an unattainable luxury reserved for the wealthy.

Forms of Travel Writing

There are four major kinds of travel journalism, most of them familiar to the average reader.

Destinations

The most-well-known style of travel journalism is the destination piece, which is usually a feature article in a magazine or and newspaper focusing on a specific journey. Such pieces are intended to appeal to both armchair travelers and avid world explorers. Although National Geographic offers a mix of destination pieces and (more recently) exposes, these pieces are often included in magazines that are mainly devoted to coverage of other topics like politics (Newsweek), fashion (Maxim), or music (Rolling Stone). Major dailies such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have weekend travel sections featuring destination pieces. These articles require little previous knowledge, allow for escapism, and provide insight (to the reader) on new cultures and people. These pieces are often produced by freelance writers and can cause controversy when the derivation and possible bias of the piece is unclear. For example, celebrity magazine People may feature an article on a resort a famous person just visited, but readers may not know if the destination advertises in the magazine or made a financial deal with celebrities in order to be featured. The destination may not be all that the article promises, but as the magazine is not for travelers, it has no expectation of providing unbiased reviews.

Exposés

A popular style of travel journalism related to destinations is exposés. These are usually investigative stories focused on a serious issue (illegal diamond smuggling, minority oppression) in a location foreign to the intended audience. These pieces are not intended to encourage travel but, rather, to inform readers of what is happening somewhere else. They are often political in nature and may make judgments on the social or humanitarian acceptability of the problem covered. Pieces falling into this category are usually aimed at consumers of hard news and are more likely to be found in news publications like Newsweek or Time rather than niche or entertainment magazines and papers. Exposés are a very popular type of story for television travel journalism as they are both informative and entertaining.

Guidebooks

One of the oldest types of travel journalism is the guidebook, or travel guide. Created for travelers planning trips to specific destinations, they come in many varieties. Guidebooks are produced by both freelance and staff writers who work for such publishers as Fodor’s and Lonely Planet and include (sometimes) candid reviews of hotels and restaurants, cultural advice, tips for pretrip planning, maps and local information, and suggestions of what to do and see. They can cater toward youth backpackers (MTV Travel Guides), or older, more experienced travelers (the Rand-McNally series. These publications, which are intended to be used day-to-day, include specific information rather than anecdotal or emotional perspectives that are often found in shorter destination pieces.

Guidebooks have a built-in conflict of interest in that they are usually positive in tone, as the publisher benefits when tourists choose to travel (and thus purchase the guidebook).

Novels and Travelogues

Another mass-consumed style is the travel novel. These are intended for audiences reading at home, not for readers desirous of a step-by-step guide. They may be long and often share more about the author and his or her life experience than they do the location being visited. Famous examples of this genre of writing include John Steinbeck’s 1961 novel about traveling with his French poodle, Travels with Charlie, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which follows a group of American and British expatriates living in France and traveling to Spain. Modern-day popular authors have achieved notoriety via this genre of journalism, such as Bill Bryson with titles like In a Sunburned Country, recalling his travels in Australia. Whether pensive, humorous, thought provoking or morose, travel-based novels are intended to contribute to the reader’s literary repertoire, not necessary encourage visitation.

Multimedia

The most recent travel journalism format is one that encompasses many of these genres of writing, but presents them via a different platform. Multimedia travel journalism combines television and online venues to present travel stories with video and sound. Such journalism can be found in destination piece form, such as programs on the Discovery Channel and Travel Channel cable networks; in exposé form, as in programs like 60 Minutes or Anderson Cooper 360 that cover world issues; and in travel guide form, such as Ecoluxe on the Travel Channel, which offers advice on the best hotels and travel deals.

Online travel journalism has become ubiquitous since the turn of the twenty-first century and the increase in travel blogging, which allows anyone to post photos and reviews of his or hers travels. Independent-minded blogs operate on a small scale, usually for friends of the creator, and can complement larger media operations, such as online or print travel magazines. Broadband video is increasingly available online, with almost any city, country, or travel-related organization featuring video tours on its website. Guidebooks and audio books are also available for download online.

Issues

Although travel journalism is a popular style of writing, it is not without controversy.

Objectivity

Objectivity arises in all facets of travel journalism, but especially with regard to guidebooks. There are many pressures to create positive travel pieces. often, in order to be featured on television or in a publication, resorts or other destinations (especially newer ones) will offer the writers free or heavily subsidized trips to encourage coverage of what the location wants to see featured. Naturally, this raises issues of bias and objectivity, especially with freelance writing and program producing. Among these issues is whether the end user will be given a valid picture of the destination if the report is only providing a positive view and if it is fair to accept such perks (many newspapers and some magazines ban them) and then report negatively. The only regulations on these issues are those decided by the publishers and broadcasters.

Moreover, the issue can take on important diplomatic or trade relations. If a country encourages travel with luxury resorts, yet fails to mention a thriving drug trade, is that a reputable practice? Because business and tourist travel revenue looms large for many cities and nations, how accurately travel writing portrays such places assumes a larger importance.

Ecotourism

The American approach to travel has increasingly become “green,” with earth-friendly products and services becoming more important to the American consumer. Included in this “green” lifestyle is a desire to explore so-called off-the-map destinations that are not traditional tourist attractions. Ecotours and vacations that put the traveler close to nature have become increasingly popular, but raise another controversy: the potential spoiling of natural habitat due to increased tourism.

Many spots around the globe face a difficult dilemma—balancing increased revenue from tourism with the ecological destruction such tourism can bring over time. In the context of “green” tourism, travel companies must consider the ultimate well being of the destination—writing a guide to Easter Island, for example, may gain new business for the publisher, but easing the difficulty of traveling to that area only serves to bring new human strains on the environment, like pollution, new noise and light patterns, and human waste on the island.

This creates a very modern-day problem for travel authors and publishers. The public demand for “eco-friendly” lifestyle choices—including travel—means that ecotourism articles are very popular and lucrative. However, publishing these articles encourages travel, which can have harsh environmental consequences. All players in the travel journalism industry—writers, publishers, editors, and consumers—must be aware of these issues. Currently, some individual ecosystems (again, Easter Island) regulate visitation, but time will tell how the industry handles this growing concern.

Cultural Blending

A major controversy that has grown with the advent of cyber communications is cultural blending. Heavy visitation into a culture that is unfamiliar with foreigners can lead to dramatic change to the original culture. Languages, traditions, and cultural values can be lost or blended into dominant foreign cultures as more outsiders come. This poses a potential problem for travel journalists, who must decide whether or not to publish what could be a unique article, but could also result in the destruction or dissolution of a private society. Like ecotourism writing, a balance has to be found between in-demand articles and the ethical and moral concerns of forever changing an established culture.

Associations

With a field as large and diverse as travel writing it can be difficult to distinguish the professional from the amateur. The major organizations for travel journalists are the North American Travel Journalists Association, and the Travel Journalists Guild, though membership in these is by no means a prerequisite for making a living as a travel writer. However, members can gain a network through which to find writing assignments, and companies seeking writers may feel more confident in one who is part of a reputable organization.

Travel journalism is a broad, well-rounded field offering many different styles of writing. With such technologies as high-definition television and online photo sharing, anyone can access, or even create, a wide variety of travel journalism pieces. Travel journalism, arguably the first kind of journalism created, has evolved into a thriving business, found in many forms of publication, photography, television, and web presentations.