The Digitization of Travel: Part 10 – Travel Writing

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As long as people have traveled they’ve written about it. The printing press brought an ability to transmit to a great audience and the advent of the internet has amplified that enormously. Nowadays the definition of a travel writer is itself changing. Anyone with a computer can post their musings about their trip but does that make them a travel writer? What is real, what’s accurate and what is up-to-date? The traditional barriers to entry of becoming a travel writer have eroded and its impact is being felt on numerous fronts.

“Every traveler is a potential travel writer,” says Come and Go founder Tim Russell. “And so every traveler should get special treatment, at least as far as we’re concerned. The rise of travel blogs, peer-to-peer review sites, and travel forums means that anyone who travels can write about it and, in many cases, get a lot of eyeballs. It’s also led to a sea change in where people get their travel information. People no longer trust journalists writing puff pieces about hotels who’ve given them a free stay in return for some publicity; they want to read real reviews and real experiences by real travelers.”

As a result Russell is very cognoscente of the fact that every guest is potentially a ‘travel writer’ and can broadcast their travel experience globally in no time at all. This is a profound change in the traditional view of travel writing and guides many of the business and marketing decisions he makes.

This abundance of information online has diluted the overall quality of content according to writer Greg Jorgensen but it’s not all bad news, “The future of travel writing mirrors the future of news/media/writing in general.” “Now that everyone and their dog can have a blog and a voice for a global audience, literally every single person not in their own town has, by definition, become a travel writer. But the market is self-correcting and the chaff will eventually be sorted out from the wheat. The good writers with something important to say in a quality, consistent way, will remain.”

The entire notion of who can be a travel writer and their self-assumed creative license to do so is something that irks Absolute Travel’s Leslie Overton, a regular contributor to travel publications. “I’m generally not a fan of travel writing and I think that technology has lowered the bar even farther for travel writing. Now every person who decides to take-off six months and travel gets a blog and decides they are writing the next Eat, Pray, Love. Travel writing can be really indulgent and self absorbed, a lot of “I did this so now I’m an expert and you should do what I did”, with very little respect or understanding of the cultures being encountered or the fact that everyone’s experience is individual or for the fact that there are travel professionals. There are some great travel writers who can bring dimension to what they are doing but you have to be a great writer to be a great travel writer, not just someone on a gap year with a blog.”

Turning to professional writers, guidebook author Trevor Ranges finds the electronic medium potentially more powerful than traditional print, “As a writer, the biggest challenge I face is the lack of word counts on electronic media.” “There is so much to say about so many different places. While I find it hard to edit certain things down to fit paper guidebook page-limits (for example, the first draft of my Angkor chapter in the National Geographic guidebook was 80 pages that needed to be honed down to 38), with electronic media I can talk about every interesting feature. Overall, it’s a good thing, as technology allows multimedia writing that can include more photos, videos, interactive illustrations, and perhaps traditional music that can play while you are exploring a temple. But it’s a lot more work to produce such content.”

Writer/photographer Lester Ledesma on the other hand feels the themes of travel writing have changed greatly over the last decade. “The ‘journey of discovery’ theme in travel writing might become less relevant in popular places like Bangkok or Singapore. I’ve covered Singapore for many years and the travel writing here has degraded into simply finding what’s new in the city: the hottest restaurants, newest boutique hotels, the art scene, etc.”

Even large travel publications have made a major shift in what they’re covering he explains, “I’ve noticed that National Geographic has already veered away from the classic travel writing that has influenced my work.” “Now they seem to focus more on current issues or technological/scientific advances instead of far off places. This could be because it’s easier to research places and go there, now that they’re no longer the eyes and ears of the world that they used to be – at least in the travel writing department.”

If it’s travel advice and reviews you’re reading, Ranges has a few tips to keep in mind regardless of the medium you’re consuming. “The biggest thing is perhaps finding the most up-to-date content that was written by a writer with similar interests. I find that books that have been in print for six or seven editions aren’t necessarily better as the content often gets diluted or less visited areas of a country aren’t updated well.”

While traditional print and electronic mediums both have their benefits, Ranges says there are a few important things to keep in mind before reading, “Certain books try to list everything rather than list only recommended hotels or restaurants.” “While it’s useful to know if a certain place isn’t worth visiting, in paper guidebooks the page limitations force comprehensive guidebook writers to only pen 10-20 word reviews, which are less informative. Online resources can provide more comprehensive information, including up-to-date user-generated reviews, particularly for off-the-beaten-path destinations that some writers are too lazy or busy to get to. Finally, readers/travelers need to find good sources that specialize in certain types of travel, such as community based tourism, which are a greater focus of some publishers and websites than others.”

Publisher and travel writer Mason Florence feels it’s crucial to keep in mind what the writer’s background, intent and level of experience is before putting faith in what they’ve written. “The quality of information is really in question nowadays. Everyone has a blog, there’re peer sites, a lot of people with a pure heart put reviews out there but they’re not qualified to review frankly. It would be like someone babysitting for a night and then try to tell you what it’s like to be a parent.”

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