I’m becoming more selfish about places I love the more I write about them. Is that so wrong?
There’s a line all travel writers must walk when covering a given destination’s wheres, whats, and whens. It’s our job to inform and to inspire. To lay a foundation of awareness, to provide answers and directions, and to steer travelers towards–or in some cases away from–those experiences which we have gained informed opinions of. Essentially, it’s our job to share. I really enjoy doing it (especially when I get paid to do it).
Sometimes, though, I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to share. Sometimes, I want to keep a local bar, well, local, instead of writing it up and potentially opening the door for all those things that made it so special to be compromised by the bottomless appetite of tourism. Sometimes, I want to write about places in my private journal, and only in my private journal. I want to keep them secret and keep them sacred. Nothing personal, but sometimes I don’t want to see you there unless I bring you or invite you. (Don’t worry, though, I know another great little bar you’ll love. It’s on page 254 in your Lonely Planet guidebook, and… )
I know these places might make for a memorable, sell-able story, or would greatly enrich a listings section, or would help prove that yes, I really do know this destination well enough to discover a place as wonderful as this. The varying levels of restraint that we do (or do not) exercise in these instances, and the editorial filters through which we choose to work are, I think, things all travel writers grapple with from time to time. To share or to not share, that is the question. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
Of course, it’s not just about me.
Guidebook listings are insanely influential and can obviously have a profound impact on an establishment’s bottom line. For example, there’s a row of restaurants located just outside the main entrance of the Sukhothai Historical Park, in Thailand. The menus at each one are fairly similar and the restaurants themselves all look fairly alike, but on the day I visited one of them was absolutely packed, while the ones on either side of it were nearly empty. After pulling up a table at one of the empty ones, we whipped out our guidebook and, sure enough, the one that was packed was the one that had the featured listing.
The food was delicious and the service exceedingly friendly at the place we chose: all the difference in the world came down to the somewhat arbitrary decision by that writer to eat at that one place and list it. (If you’re the writer in question and actually ate at each one of them before deciding which one to list, hey, more power to you.)
To that end, where do the travel writer’s responsibilities lie, and who is our allegiance to: ourselves, our readers, or to the places we love (or the commissioning editor)? Probably all of the above, to varying degrees and based on the situation. Is it selfish to decide that a favorite local bar is too precious to risk tourism contamination, and thereby my personal enjoyment, and to not write it up? Maybe.
I assume that a listing in the right book, or a mention in the right article, helps keep some places from going under that otherwise might struggle to stay financially afloat. What if that favorite local bar I’ve kept to myself doesn’t catch on with the backpacker crowd–but simply closes down? What if I’m the break the friendly owners needed so desperately? (I’m not actually insinuating that I have that much pull or influence, because I don’t; this is strictly hypothetical.) I think about this a lot; that is, the power my words can potentially wield, and the tenuous line travel writers must walk. There’s no right or wrong answer here.
I had some amazing experiences this week in Bangkok, and I’d love to tell you about them, someday, maybe. For now, though, I admit it: I’m feeling selfish.