You may remember us announcing back in June that we'd be landing in your inbox monthly, instead of fortnightly, but—to make things more digestible for everyone—we're also planning to theme each issue around a certain topic or issue.
This month, we're focusing on travel writing and the meaningful changes we can all make. We hope it's a good read (but you can email us to let us know, either way!)
As travel journos seem to love a Mark Twain opener, let’s start with one of his most hyped: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts...” For context, those things were the foundation of our ‘oeuvre’—travel writing has roots in helping colonisers break new ground—and tourism is largely still about consumption and profit, with too little regard for the destruction it leaves behind.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the positive impact our industry could make. But at a time when everyone’s wanging on about ‘building back better’, I’m yet to be convinced that it isn’t business as usual behind the scenes. So, I’ve come up with my own traffic light system—something that, I hope, will be a springboard towards cultivating inclusive and anti-racist habits. And this one, unlike the English government’s, won’t leave you up the creek without a paddle.
1. We need to stop centring ourselves in our travel writing; individual ideas of consumption and exploration often stray into toxic Empire nostalgia (and can bounce off racialised, gendered and classist tropes). There’s also a troubling tradition of rugged-looking white men ‘othering’ foreign cultures and trying to tame the exotic, particularly in broadcast. If communities are not given agency to decide how they want their cultures to be consumed, their environment to be treated by tourists, and so forth, the travel industry will just keep propping up those imperialist structures. Remember that the ‘sense of place’ we try to evoke is someone’s home, not an endless resource.
2. Time to sack off the ‘voice for the voiceless’ thing, once and for all. As Arundhati Roy once said, “There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” That means, especially during our travels, it’s time to listen more than we speak.
3. Don’t use ‘colonial’ in conjunction with superlatives—there’s nothing ‘pretty’ or ‘elegant’ about colonialism and careless suggestions to the contrary are triggering for many. If you’re referencing colonial-era buildings, such as former slave plantations, you’d better believe we’re looking for accurate historical context beyond the architectural descriptors.
1. ‘Sustainable’ does not just mean ‘green’. Protecting the planet is only one pillar of sustainability. Without equal effort on the others—profit and people—it’s a bit like trying to row a boat with one oar. In fact, given that people of colour and countries in the Global South are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, it’s as much about decolonisation as it is about being eco-friendly. Perhaps it’s time to examine what ‘local’ means (particularly, given that it's a word that seems to be bandied around the industry at will) in the same way we home in on greenwashing.
2. The Global South is not ‘poor’, it’s exploited—so be wary of trips where Westerners ‘find themselves’. What are they looking for, exactly? Discovery and gratitude for individual privilege should come without the need for comparison or cultural commodification. In the same way Black and brown people should not be used as photo props, they should also not be used as vehicles to make white people (or similarly privileged folk) appreciate what they have.
3. Thoughtless photojournalism can break a piece; pictures, particularly of the marginalised and oppressed, are rooted in cultural, economic and political power—and many subjects are in no position to refuse them. When on the ground, think about the concept of informed consent, i.e. when you ask a source to sign a release form, are you actually giving them the option to say no? Make sure any images of people of colour don’t uphold damaging tropes—for example, those that depict Black Africans as poor and helpless, in need of the West—and, for heaven’s sake, make sure all names and captions are accurate. GREEN
1. Representation matters in travel writing, yes, but so does access. That means actively seeking out and hiring marginalised talent for roles or commissions that aren’t specifically about racial discrimination or ‘diversity’—and paying them. It means doing whatever you can to create a way in and a way up, whether that’s mentorship or looking outside your usual pool of contributors. It also means, at the very least, not having an all-white panel discuss diversity and inclusion practices in travel (you know who you are...)
2. Factor in different groups within the publication’s target audience and be specific about each one. Black women, for example, tend to get their travel intel from Black-led companies or Instagrammers, because they have to consider different factors when they travel—such as safety and racial profiling (there’s even a dedicated hashtag, #travelingwhileblack). This is despite Black spending power, in the US, reaching $1.3 trillion. Our audiences aren’t homogeneous, so an understanding of the spectrum should be standard practice.
3. Support and promote BIPOC-owned companies, whether that’s in your copy or trip itinerary—this helps celebrate culture, amplify businesses and tell the stories that are often left out. If tour operators or hotels aren’t doing this in earnest, don’t be afraid to ask them why; ultimately, it’s supply and demand, and your voice matters.
‘Diversity of voices’: Not just a box-ticking exercise. This is exactly why it matters
The other week, I read a new book called Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe. The travelogue follows the author, Tharik Hussain, and his family as they explore the Muslim communities of six countries in the western Balkans; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania, that are home to the largest indigenous Muslim population in Europe. It’s the first English travel narrative by a Muslim writer on this subject. I found it incredibly refreshing to read and here's why.
I already knew of Tharik as he’s a fellow member of the British Guild of Travel Writers and I’d heard him speak at Asia House a couple of years ago, talking about creating the UK’s first Muslim Heritage Trails near Woking, Surrey. I remember him saying he wanted people to know that Muslim heritage is accessible and present; not untold and hidden.
That the book revealed new places to me was, to some degree, expected, but that Tharik, a Muslim living in 21st-century Britain, was also surprised to discover his own European heritage as he travelled around it is another. I suppose, though, that’s what happens when selected stories have historically been moved to the proverbial ‘Other’ section—you have to seek them out. But what’s particularly refreshing about this book is it ‘decolonises’ without becoming a long history lesson. It’s warm, insightful, amusing, and informative; my kind of travel non-fiction.
Travelling with his wife and two daughters (in the summer after the Brexit vote as it happens), Tharik writes about how empowering it felt to wander through busy, lively European Muslim cities—we're talking ancient cities founded by the Ottomans in the 15th century such as Sarajevo and Serbia’s Novi Pazar. Or to learn that in 1492, Sultan Bayezid II sent his ships to Iberia to bring over Sephardic Jews about to be expelled, and how he learnt Jews were often protected by Europe’s Muslims. One surefire way to diminish a sense of ‘othering’ is to tell these stories of a shared humanity; to show the tolerance and community in a region that endured a terrible war in the 1990s, and to know that the fractious relationships we often see portrayed aren’t the only story.
As a reader, I felt involved, invested and desperate to visit... isn't that what we hope most travel writing will do? I could feel Tharik’s pride on the page as his own daughters, of mixed heritage, saw with their own eyes that the Ottoman Empire brought art, poetry, and architecture to many places too—it wasn’t only the Romans who built great bridges. At the Ali Pasha Mosque or Painted Mosque in the city of Tetovo, North Macedonia, Tharik admits he too never expected to find such a fabulous example of Muslim art.
Another story stands out, that of the iconic Stari Most bridge in the city of Mostar. In 1845, after an Englishman called G. Wilkinson completed the first technical research of it, he concluded it 'must have been' Roman workmanship—who else could have created such a bridge? It was, in fact, commissioned by 16th-century Ottoman Kayser-i-Rum (Caesar of the Romans), Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But this isn’t a book that lacks nuance. It recognises that both empires were also cruel and barbaric, as well as great builders and innovators, and that people are people; good, bad and everything in-between, across all the party lines.
Take Albania, one of Europe’s three Muslim-majority countries, along with Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina, in the region. While 'Eastern Europe' is often ‘othered’ at the best of times—the very fact it’s even separated from 'Western' Europe—Albania in particular is perceived as a ‘scary’ place, historically and culturally. Tharik himself admits his own biases when he arrives, assuming something dodgy about the apartment he booked, but subsequently goes on to find his biases squashed. Confronting your own version of the narrative is in many ways the key to great writing.
Travel writing is such fertile ground for telling these fresh stories and effecting change, and in a way that isn’t rammed down your throat, that we should capitalise on this. These are communities have been living here for half a millennium; they’re as European as any Christian, Jewish or pagan culture, and yet we know so little, which is what compelled the author to do something about the fact that six centuries of his religion's history in Europe had been ignored, if not erased. We all need to question more, and read around the history and stories we know.
It's a great example of what we need more of in travel publishing. With my travel editor hat on, Minarets in the Mountains is the book version of a winning travel feature: Exciting, revealing, fascinating, under-told, and a great place to book a trip (when we all can).
If you want to support our newsletters, you can always buy us a digital cuppa! Read on for more UMB...
Writing Tip of the Day
Writing more ‘consciously’ and being sensitive about the way we express ourselves or refer to different groups has taken a front-row seat in the past few years, and rightly so. But as writers, we also want to write freely and confidently, be playful with language and expressions, and enjoy the creative part of the process. So how do we reconcile the two?
One of the easiest ways is to be watertight in your research, and have all the fact before you start writing. We're talking simple things too, such as asking for people’s names in full at the time or the correct name for an indigenous community or group, and noting the exact spelling. If a guide shares information about a historical event, factcheck and cross-reference it. If a company gives you percentages or shares a report, do the same.
If we’re to call ourselves travel journalists, we need to be impeccable on this score. It’s far harder to research-and-write as you go (and we know many of us do this, due to time constraints) or worse, to receive a heavily marked-up document from your editor with track changes and comments... shudder. But when you’re confident about the facts, the names and the history, the writing can flow, and that's probably when you'll produce your best work.
Correction and apologies: In our last newsletter, we talked about ‘person-first’ language for disabled people e.g. saying ‘people with a disability’ as opposed to a ‘disabled person’. However, following an email we received, we want to acknowledge that for many in the disabled community and disabled activists, their disability is part of their identity and how they interact in the world. As such, many disabled people prefer not to be referred to as ‘people with a disability’.
We’ve always said we are not experts and we too are learning as we go. The sender of the email reminded us of not just the importance of talking to people who fall within the groups we’re writing about, but also that there’s rarely one, singular group-wide preference. As she wrote, “If we are not part of the group, we should not decide how to describe them.” Bottom line: always ask your interviewee/profile subject/quotee of their preferences, and if writing more broadly, to include the different terms that might apply.
The Sense Check
I've recently discovered that voluntourism is connected with white saviourism, but is there such a thing as positive programs for people that want to give back on holiday, particularly with all this talk about helping to build back communities back post-pandemic? Where does it cross the line?
Zina Bencheikh Managing director of travel's largest global B Corporation, Intrepid Travel, gender equality advocate and lobbyist
“Tourism is one of the world’s greatest tools for wealth distribution and for people that want to give back, they need to focus on how they travel.
It’s important to support locally owned businesses and seek experiences that create resilient and sustainable communities. At Intrepid, we design every itinerary to include experiences that empower communities and focus on exploring without exploiting–which is where it can cross the line.
On the surface, volunteering may seem a great way to combine your desire to give back while experiencing a different culture. However, voluntourism can create a dependency cycle, which limits a community’s ability to meet its basic needs, let alone thrive.
The pandemic was a great example because when tourism came to a halt, so did the volunteering. There were no tourists to build houses or preserve wildlife. That’s why we need to focus on projects that encourage communities to thrive and become resilient.”
"Legitimate voluntourism programs should emphasise matching travellers with a deep knowledge of a particular skill with people who want to learn that skill.
This means placement companies should actively reject people who do not have appropriate skill-based experience. Ultimately, people should be able to actively use the skills acquired from volunteers, and they should be able to teach these skills to others long after travelers are gone. Volunteer work should not replace local jobs.
It’s also important to remember that volunteering isn’t the only way for travellers to have a positive impact on the communities they visit and people they encounter.
For example, do not litter, and actively pick up trash you encounter. Support locally coordinated projects already taking place in communities, such as collecting recyclables, participating in beach clean-ups, and repairing trails. Buy from local business owners, and show support for existing community initiatives."
Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away with our new Google form (no email required) and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. You can also email us—we always welcome feedback, suggestions and comments.
Did You Know?
In India, there are significant numbers of tribes and tribal communities. Many are collectively known as ‘Adivasi’—a term coined in the 1930s, from the Hindi words 'adi' (meaning ‘from the beginning’) and 'vasi' (meaning ‘inhabitant’ or ‘resident’)—and have managed to preserve their centuries-old traditions and customs.
The Adivasi are not a homogeneous group; there are over 200 tribes (speaking more than 100 languages) and some 105 million people, with different ethnicities and cultures. However, there are similarities in their way of life and oppression within Indian society. The majority live in mountain and hill areas, where they are dependent on agriculture. They are ignored and persecuted by the country’s ruling government (as well as large swathes of society) and their rights are contentious in modern Indian politics.
During the British rule of India, the Adivasi’s forests were seized under colonial laws that simultaneously declared the communities to be illegal and identified them as ‘savages’. The British went on to deforest large parts of their land for profit and allowed outsiders, such as feudal landlords, to permeate Adivasi society. After Indian independence, in 1947, the Adivasi were then controlled by the Indian government through the country’s residual colonial laws. They were shut out of decisions that directly impacted their communities—many were also forced from their homes, poorly compensated for the evictions and made to wait years for meaningful resettlement.
Survival International say these practices continue today; that many Adivasi are regularly threatened by violence and displacement at the hands of the Forest Department—who want to create socially palatable protected areas, like national parks—as well as some environmental NGOs.
According to Amnesty International, “Adivasi communities, who traditionally have strong links to land and forests, have suffered disproportionately from development-induced displacement and environmental destruction in India. The domestic Indian legal framework does not fully recognize the rights of indigenous peoples.”
We're in a resource-rich world when it comes to improving how we operate in the travel industry, or any, for that matter. So we wanted to highlight some (by no means an exhaustive list) of travel organisations with great articles, events and tips on how we can actually #buildbackbetter.
Another one is Wanderful, a community for women creators, but their equity toolkit is full of tips and insights for anyone. Companies like Black Girls Travel Too and the Black Travel Alliance are also addressing the imbalance when it comes to how the Black community is (or isn't) represented in the industry.
If you missed these British Guild of Travel Writers webinars (chaired by Meera, Shivani on second panel), you can buy recordings for both the first and second debate.
"When we critically notice our surroundings and ask questions about how systems of power confer advantages for some and difficulties for others, we practise the first steps toward interrupting unfair systems."