Why is travel writing so bad?

It is, a sad fact, that most travel writing is limp, regurgitated pap. Awful phrases from the travel-writer’s book of clichés: witness crashing waves on soaring cliffs. or that laziest of descriptions: ‘it was like a scene from [insert name of lousy Hollywood flick here]’. And if I see one more place described as the ‘Paris of the East’, or the ‘New Ibiza’ someone will get hurt!

A large part of the problem comes from the publications that actually run the stories. Magazine and newspaper publishing is a fantastically difficult way to make money. In the last year or so, two magazines in the UK have folded, and a third is wobbling it’s way into a ‘redesign’ – a magazine’s last desperate attempt at turning its fortunes around, but regarded by all in the media as the same as sitting down to write a good suicide note. Everything in a magazine or newspaper is down to advertising. You want to write a yarn about riding a beat-up motorbike on mescaline across the Mexican desert, they want a ‘Long Weekend in Paris’ piece as it will bring in more advertising.

Similarly, most travel magazines and sections work in an inane Prozac-overdosed happy world, where everything is cuddly, fluffy and so positive. Any criticism is bullied out of features. I remember once reading a restaurant review that was run over two pages. The gist was that this place was so bad, you had to go there. The reviewer assured me it was the worst restaurant in the world and even lampooned the other customers. I was hooked! I even tried to make a reservation, but they were full.

Restaurant and theatre critics can flex their acerbic wit, travel writers can’t – certainly not in print. The whole process doesn’t help. A writer gets a commission, then approaches an airline and a tourist board to help. They are hooked up with some boutique hotel and a local operator. They make friends – they owe people. Then if the place sucks what do they do? The magazine has been promised a story and doesn’t want anything negative that will annoy advertisers. All of the people who have helped are on the phone asking when ‘their’ feature will be out. The correct thing to do would be to email everyone saying the place is too crap to write about, but hell, even travel writers have to eat. So we act like unpaid PR reps and drag out the ‘book of clichés’ and perpetuate the myth that everywhere in travel-land is fluffy. In short, we sell our souls.

Then there is the celebrity travel writer. People who are utterly useless in their chosen career, but who have stumbled their way out of rehab and their agent has swung them a travel-writing gig. The travel pages of the UK are full of their ghost-written self indulgences.

This is why finding good travel writing is so difficult – especially in print! Yet there is good writing out there – much of it on the web where normal advertising pressures don’t apply. It does take a while to wade through a world of dross but that is why we are here – to guide you to some of the better examples of the art.

One such gem is Jon Ronson, who writes for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. The whole Guardian travel site is a haven of less obvious stories and Jon is someone who certainly doesn’t play the PR game and is prepared to make a few enemies in the industry. His story about the Gleneagles Hotel probably wouldn’t put me off visiting, although his experiences on a Ryan Air flight just might!

Words ©stevedavey.com 2007

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