Is the future of travel writing just about being more honest?
Every day brings a new rumour, rumbling or re-routing to the ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown. As travel journalists, we follow these updates with the same eagle eyes that once followed those unattainable canapés as they travelled around the room of a work event.
All of this against a grimmer backdrop of a travel industry that’s been reeling for 12 months. Some people (as in other industries), have received no or limited support, and some publications and travel companies have folded, resulting in lost jobs, financial anxiety and career upheaval. Yet despite the pandemic, travel writing has not taken a back seat. Between news articles and travel corridor updates, inspirational armchair travel, destination features as corridors opened—as well as nostalgia and think pieces—travel desks, at many publications, have been as busy as ever.
We’ve been asked a few times, ‘What’s going to change when it comes to travel writing after the pandemic?’ Between us, we’ve chaired panels, presented talks and written many a piece about decolonising travel writing. We’ve talked about the importance of levelling the playing field: of challenging the narrative and providing context to a place, its history and land; of viewing the world through a more honest lens; and the importance of images in travel media.
Now, as talk of vaccine passports heightens, we’re once again aware of the focus on ‘us’. Where can we travel? Where can we go? Yes, people want holidays and many want to support tourism across the world—we can’t wait to get back out there either—but given that global vaccine roll-out is in its early days, it’s more complex than that. So perhaps one of the first things we can change when it comes to travel writing—which is, ultimately, an industry of movement and exchange—is to think about what we can give, rather than what we can take. And, that doesn’t mean ‘voluntourism’—it’s about amplifying other people’s voices and about a hand up, rather than a hand out.
Providing context isn’t limited to going abroad either. We’re far more likely to talk about the social and economic shortcomings of former colonies, to support international projects that promote ‘travel-for-good’, and think about our impact when we’re off home turf—but much less likely to, when it comes to writing about domestic travel.
Take Cornwall, as an example. Fishing villages, rugged coastlines, pasties, fish and chips, pubs, surfing and Poldark are all lovely—but do we provide perspective and context on what life is like for people who live there? That this is the second-poorest region, in the sixth-richest country in the world? Or the effects of rural isolation, limited and expensive public transport, rising housing costs and low wages? Where many children within a few miles of the sea have never been to the sea?
Don Gardiner who runs the food bank (before he retires in April) in the Cornish town of Camborne, said in the BBC radio documentary, ‘The Patch’, “Camborne has had its guts blown out of it.” Camborne is the story of old industrial Britain, where a loss of manufacturing, mining and other industries was not sufficiently replaced, this lack of reinvestment failing an entire community.
As travel journalists—not marketeers—we can balance writing joyfully about a destination, without shying away from the realities of life there. An honest take is always a more interesting one—BBC’s Cornwall with Simon Reeves is another example. Just as ‘historical guilt’ prevents some writers and editors, for example, placing a few lines of ‘uncomfortable’ colonial history into a feature, which only makes it more pertinent and leads to a better understanding, the same can be said of providing socio-economic context to a place that’s a popular tourist spot in the UK. Facts, like history, are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’; they just are.
Local website Cornwall Live’s ‘Unseen Cornwall’ project is another example of going beyond the sheen; revealing stories that lurk behind the second homes, art galleries and beach cafés. One article explores St Ives, which has the largest percentage (36%) of children living in poverty in Cornwall—and one of the highest percentages in the UK—just a few streets back from the famous beachfront. Conversely, tourism marketing and rural stereotyping often glaze over the fact that Cornwall is also a hub for creators, innovators and entrepreneurs, that there is a modern, real and less 'romanticised' Cornwall too. As ever, there is never one story.
Just as we’re encouraged to ‘read around’ the destination before going to Peru or Nepal, we can do the same when we travel closer to home by looking to features like the ones in Unseen Cornwall. There’s a tendency to assume a level of affluence when we are in the UK, or even Europe, but that does a disservice to the people who live ‘around’ our holidays. We have to be honest to everyone if we are to call ourselves travel ‘journalists’. And, we have to move away from the idea that this means taking the pleasure and fun out of the experience; it just means we’re not ignoring the very people whose communities we’re visiting, no matter where in the world we are.
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Writing Tip of the Day
If you’re writing a feature with a sensitive angle or where certain points or quotes just can’t be excluded (for example, if they provide cultural context), flag this to your editor. This could be in your pitch, during the email discussion, or even when you file—the important thing is that you highlight anything that's non-negotiable.
Many writers talk of feeling intimidated by editors—and yes, writers, editors, picture editors come in all forms, we know—but the vast majority simply want to do a good job, just as you do. And one of the things that makes a good working relationship great is trust.
Ultimately, if you’re happy with the edited, published feature, you’re more likely to share it, which editors often appreciate. If something meaningful is cut that then manipulates the feature, not only might it attract negative commentary, but you’re less likely to promote it and engage with it too.
The Sense Check
“Is it disrespectful to Islam to use the word 'mecca' (lower case 'm') when referring to a place that attracts a particular group of people, rather than the actual holy city? I would guess yes, but maybe not, now that Makkah is often used for the city name.”
"This is an interesting one, given there's a debate as to whether Mecca should continue to be used to identify the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia. The name is deemed archaic and a wrongly transliterated version of Makkah, which is how the name is pronounced locally.
‘Mecca’ or ‘Meccah’ was the preferred spelling of historic, colonial-era writers and adventurers such as Sir Richard Burton and Charles Doughty; the widespread popularity of their works is probably the reason the spelling become so normalised across the English-speaking world and is now part of the ‘house style’ for most publishers.
Given Mecca is widely considered by the Muslim community as an incorrect pronunciation of the name of Islam’s holiest city, it's unlikely using ‘mecca’ to describe a place that attracts lots of people for a specific reason will be deemed as offensive."
Tasneem Aliewi Tasneem Aliewi is an Associate Partner at Albany Beck. She advises COOs and CTOs from mid- to large-size global corporations on building out their 'People Strategy', while ensuring diversity and inclusion processes are in place, creating an environment where all can thrive.
"This question definitely made me think, and it prompted several conversations with my Muslim friends.
I personally don’t think it’s disrespectful to Islam to use 'mecca' in that way. Growing up, I felt seen when people referred to 'mecca' to describe a place positively. It was as if Islam was suddenly normalised in Western society and everybody knew the significance of Mecca in Islam, the same way they knew the significance of Bethlehem in Christianity.
If anything, it took me by surprise. As a Muslim woman, I’m quite used to Islam, and places associated with Islam, having a negative connotation attached to them, when referred to in mainstream media."
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Did You Know?
Some of you may have heard of Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013), the Indian writer, astrologer and mathematician who became known as ‘the human computer’ for her ability to quickly perform complex calculations in her head. Often quicker than electronics, Devi holds the Guinness World Record for ‘Fastest Human Computation’, awarded in 1980, when she correctly multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds. But did you know about Devi's lesser-publicised achievement?
In 1977, she wrote what's considered to be one of the first studies in India on homosexuality, titled ‘The World of Homosexuals’, after learning that her husband, Paritosh Bannerji, was gay. Instead of ostracising him, in line with colonial-era laws put in place by the British that criminalised homosexuality, she decided to confront widespread ignorance on the matter.
Her book demanded the decriminalisation of homosexuality over three decades before LGBTQ+ rights became part of the discourse in India—the ban was overturned in 2018) It also challenged the narrative that homosexuality was immoral—suggesting instead that those who discriminated, disrespected or mocked people on the basis of their sexual preferences were themselves immoral and should examine their prejudice.
In advocating for Indian society to fully embrace the gay community, Devi wrote, “On this level, nothing less than full and complete acceptance will serve—not tolerance and not sympathy.” While the book and Devi’s activism were never erased from history, they've also never been given prominence in her list of achievements.
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