I begin with this – something unimpeachably wise from someone irreproachably sagacious – in an attempt to ground what follows. You see, over many moons I have read and pondered your (my fellow travel scribes’) articles, blog posts and comments. Sadly, with each passing day, I shake my head and wonder how you’ve not read the writing on the wall: the travel terrain has changed, so why haven’t you?
Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be
Most mainstream newspapers and magazines today give periodic lip service to the evolution of travel, acknowledging that more and more travellers consider themselves ‘ecotourists,’ but not really giving their readers enough to feed their ethical penchants. Hamstrung by shrinking budgets, market-deaf advertisers and cumbersome bureaucracy, major travel media look like they’re being outpaced by the industry they’re supposed to support.
So why aren’t you, the new generation of penmen and -women, stepping into an expanding vacuum? Why aren’t more of you – buttressed by blogging skills and vocal in your frustrated desire to be recognised for your craft – helping to drive the kind of change that positions you as leaders? More nimble, more imaginative, more bold and less reliant on traditional revenue sources, you have little stopping you.
As one of the rank and file, I wouldn’t dare to guess at or pass judgment on your individual motivations as writers. And yet, banking on substantial personal experience, I feel justified in a Lincolnesque examination of the evil-good balance of advocating for the fastest-growing but most rough-trod parcel of the travel terrain and of wondering aloud why so many of you (travel writers in general, but bloggers in particular) appear to be shrinking from a perfect storm of a challenge.
What we see is mainly what we look for
Here’s what I see: an alternative marketplace that’s got many niche names: ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable travel, local travel, slow travel, community-based tourism, geotourism, green travel, pro-poor tourism, conscious travel, ethical travel etc.
This travel space continues to be alternative to the mainstream traffic of consumers who plan and shop for holidays guided principally by bucket lists and budget. That being said, high-minded considerations – worries about carbon emissions, ‘economic leakage,’ ‘cultural flattening’ and the like – are now increasingly asserting themselves as powerful motivators too. As early as 2007, Condé Nast Traveler’s “The Power of Travel” focus on “the impact of tourism on communities and the planet” revealed a whopping 74% of respondents who thought “that hotels should be responsible for helping alleviate poverty in their own communities.” This is just a small fraction of the 7% of the international travel market in 2007 that the UN World Tourism Organisation attributed to ecotourism, a number that has increased significantly since then. We’re beholding the mainstreaming of the fringe.
What we fight against defines us as clearly as all we embrace
As I consider shifting travel trends, though, what has surprised me most is the lacklustre endorsement for change from travel media. Catherine Mack wrote meaningfully about this last month. “After a plethora of responsible tourism conferences, conventions and codes of practice, so many travel writers, not just travellers, still think it is amusing that our industry is ‘responsible’ for so much damage,” she lamented. So do I. I also wonder why.
Now, I’m sure the proliferation of travel monikers has lent to confusion about what it all means. It may even have lent to some degree of exhaustion. There’s already a small but important weight of accountability (and sometimes culpability) associated with the cluttered mix of mindful compound-noun travel styles, but does “The lack of a precise, commonly agreed definition of ‘ecotourism’… cause… misunderstanding, argument and debate,” as Ron Mader asks in an essay about tourism definitions? Why else would each new entrant into the space feel compelled to come up with a new banner, right?
I nevertheless keep coming back to the same thought. Does the majority of travel writers and editors just not get it? Or not care? In a LinkedIn comment left in response to Catherine Mack’s post, one reader is understanding about the mix of priorities that influence travellers and travel providers, but he has no sympathy for the media. “They would only be interested in the reality TV show ‘I’m a Responsible Celebrity on Holiday, Get me out of here.’” Another reader derides “smug media apathy.”
“We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like” – Dave Ramsey
Not surprisingly, the circle-jerk of blame in the travel media space can be impressive. I try to avoid it, which means I am ignorant both of what powers it and of how to neuter it when it grows too rabid. Looking in from the outsider ranks, I see writers criticising editors criticising advertisers criticising PR firms criticising travel suppliers criticising tourist boards criticising what writers write. Working in such conditions, the pool of writers – a glowing (and growing!) cadre of exceptions notwithstanding – seems fundamentally ill-equipped to drive change.
Far too many of them behave like angry miners clawing at a passing flash of blood diamond. Do they not care about morality or changing consumer interests? Perhaps not. A writer I won’t embarrass by name once told me “I write for today’s traveler, not tomorrow’s,” which struck me as fundamentally wrong-footed. Everyone’s stuck in an engine coughing on dirty oil that soils the clean whenever it’s added.
We only grow when we step outside our comfort zone
If your comfort zone is exclusively surf, sand and sun in an air-conditioned, gated, foreign-owned resort that imports the foods you eat at home and staff who look like you, it’s time to expand your horizons. At a time of global warming, widespread economic and political upheaval, and irremediable cultural extinction, should you really be devoting energy to the promotion of bad practices and sorry stereotypes? Why do I even have to ask that question?
I’ve never yet heard a legitimate argument against being responsible when you travel. Burlap sheets and grass dinners are no more likely with ethical operators than they are with any others. And objecting to the sustainable use of resources or equitable sharing of profits with local providers would be like lobbying against kindness. By Lincoln’s standards, then, responsible travel is more of good than of evil, something to be embraced. Dipping your quill in support of it should also be a no-brainer.
“We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately” – Benjamin Franklin
If ever there was a man who was unafraid to try something new, it was Franklin. However, while he was always ready to go out on a limb by himself, he was also a convinced collaborator, banking (sometimes literally) on the shared wisdom and foresight of his colleagues.
Now, I’m no Franklin, but I do believe that travel writers (especially bloggers) are in a unique position today:
We could add oomph to the fair travel crusade by giving consumers what they want and, just as critically, rejecting what is wrong with irresponsible travel.
We could join forces with the mass of industry stakeholders who are making meaningful decisions about where they work and how best to present it to visitors.
We could stabilise the unsteady responsible travel stool by adding media – the missing third leg – to those above and finally propelling the travel industry into the next generation.
What do you think?
- 26 February, 2012 @ 13:25 [Current Revision] by Ethan Gelber
- 26 February, 2012 @ 13:22 by Alastair McKenzie
- 26 February, 2012 @ 13:18 by Alastair McKenzie
- 26 February, 2012 @ 13:15 by Alastair McKenzie
- 26 February, 2012 @ 13:05 by Alastair McKenzie
- 26 February, 2012 @ 13:05 by Alastair McKenzie
- 26 February, 2012 @ 12:54 by Alastair McKenzie