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Travel media inspires and motivates people, but this doesn't always benefit the people or places negatively impacted by tourism. | Photo by Ksenia Chernaya

November 7, 2022

From full-page photos of the wildebeest migration across the Serengeti to expansive stories about road trips around Iceland’s Ring Road, travel content has sparked inspiration-driven wanderlust for countless travelers. But even as it has encouraged people to travel, that same content has played a proactive role in creating a harmful tourism ecosystem.

Over the last couple of years, the perfect storm of COVID-19, police brutality, and the climate crisis have forced a moment of reckoning on the tourism industry as a whole and consumer-facing travel publications in particular. During the global pandemic lockdown, publications like AFAR, Fodor’s Travel, and Conde Nast Traveller published articles about how COVID-19 was an opportunity to think about traveling smarter and more responsibly in the near future. Coming out of the Black Lives Matter resurgence, many of these same publications released diversity statements (AFAR, Fodor’s Travel, and Conde Nast Traveler).

What has been slow to materialize is the reconciliation by travel media to connect how more responsible travel practices and better inclusion policies are related. In general, many have not done enough to acknowledge the harm they’ve caused — to communities around the world and the planet on which we live — though we are seeing isolated articles starting to tackle these tough issues (here are examples from Adventure.com, New York Times, and AFAR).

This harm ranges from reinforcing stereotypes to falling back on harmful article structures that encourage a bucket-list focus or emphasis on last-chance travel. Such damage is enabled by an editorial model rooted in outdated funding sources, measurements of success, and power structures, instead of “travel as a force for good,” a tenet by which many claim to operate.

And that’s in large part why consumer-facing travel media continues to be problematic: Trying to fix what exists is nearly impossible when the entire framework upon which the industry operates needs to be reimagined and rebuilt.

The need for consumer-facing travel media to change how it operates within the tourism ecosystem is essential — but it is not an easy transition. Like most sectors, travel media works within a deeply flawed system driven by capitalistic forces. The dominant voices making top-down decisions often fail to take the people and places most impacted by published content into consideration. And, instead of empowering communities to leverage tourism to support regenerative well-being, travel media routinely exploits their stories to generate revenue, subscriptions, and web traffic.

Carefully considering and evaluating the triple bottom line — people, planet, profit — is urgent and essential if popular travel media intends to “do better.” 

This radical disruption requires not only a critical inventory of internal and public-facing policies but also dismantling travel media as it exists, rethinking travel media’s role and mission in an increasingly sustainability-focused society, and rebuilding it in a way that empowers local people and communities; amplifies diverse voices while avoiding exploitation; minimizes environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural damage; and incorporates responsible practices at every stage of the editorial process.

This includes:

Using contracts that allow for greater agency and content ownership by contributors.

Many travel media companies currently claim exclusive rights, which strip ownership from storytellers and allow media companies to use and alter content, including for promotional purposes. This means stories can be used to exploit the very people who wrote them — and media companies benefit financially from this exploitation. (And, given the legalese contracts are written in, most people don’t even realize what they’ve signed away.)

While some companies are willing to negotiate rights with writers who flag this in contracts, these should be written by default to shift power toward storytellers. Instead of opting out of exclusive rights, storytellers should have the option to choose the types of rights and ownership they’re willing to hand over to travel publications.

Hiring more diverse talent, including but not limited to contract writers, photographers, videographers, content strategists, social media managers, and other content creators and staff, especially in upper management.

Commercial travel media severely lacks representation from people with an expansive and intersectional range of identities. Importantly, there is a severe lack of “local” storytellers, who hold deep knowledge and are aware of complexity and nuance, which isn’t something fly-by journalists pick up on during short visits.

Establishing diverse advisory boards that offer more than business insight.

A lot of travel content is about places where publications don’t have a stake beyond a single article or two. Advisory boards should be constructed with the intention of bringing a wide range of representatives from around the world into the conversation about what to publish, how, where, and when. While business matters are important in these conversations, there should also be emphasis placed on developing relationships with people and communities impacted by tourism.

Acknowledging and empowering Indigenous Peoples.

Media companies have financially benefited from and exploited Indigenous lands for as long as they’ve been in business. Dismantling this process means actively investing in reparations, using Indigenous place names, and hiring and paying Indigenous Peoples to share their own stories about their ancestral lands.

Investing in mentorship and internship programs that actively recruit and provide training for historically underrepresented contributors.

These should be paid and not treated as opportunities for free labor.

Being transparent about finances.

Consumers need to know which advertisers fund travel publications, and how much money is being reinvested in social justice, environmental, and similar organizations travel media has committed to support.

Media companies also need to explore alternative business models and sources of funding. Many popular consumer-facing travel publications accept or are reliant upon funding from potentially harmful travel sectors and businesses, such as multinational luxury resorts and cruise ship advertisers. 

Implementing equal pay policies.

Staff salaries should be made transparent and publicly available. Similarly, writer rates should be transparent and equal, not based on where someone is from.

Developing payment models that benefit people and small business owners in destinations beyond tourism.

What is the benefit that consumer-facing travel media actually offers to the places about which it publishes articles? The argument is that it increases awareness, inspires, and motivates travelers to visit these destinations. However, we know that generating tourism business is not a sustainable solution in isolation (see the pandemic pause) nor that all destinations are eager to welcome travelers. Further, paying writers often doesn’t benefit those communities, since many writers do not live locally in the places about which they write.

This means travel media models shouldn’t be travel-centric in their assumed benefit to a community. Instead, there should be a hybrid payment model that financially benefits the writer and also funds a small business or initiative (such as with a microfinance loan) in the destination about which the writer has written. This supports empowerment and development through business generation or financial support dictated by the needs that people in the community have stated — a true benefit that doesn’t rely on tourism and might not have anything to do with travel.

Publishing disclosure policies.

Travel media companies should make it clear how potential conflicts of interest will be flagged across its publications and platforms.

Investing in sensitivity readers and editors who are trained in identifying discriminatory language, problematic editorial and visual choices, and deficiency narratives.

This responsibility shouldn’t fall on just one person or one part of the process. All writers, editors, and fact checkers should have access to ethical journalistic guidelines. (The style guide resource list is a helpful tool for this.)

Publications should not only avoid stereotypes but actively challenge them by publishing stories and imagery to provide counter-narratives.

Holding in-person events, such as conferences and retreats, that encourage place-based experiences and benefit local communities on their own terms.

This is the difference between event activation versus passive event participation.

Avoiding tokenism.

Consumer-focused travel publications that have put forth diversity and sustainability commitments have taken a step in the right direction, but ongoing action and accountability is essential. They need to explicitly state what their goals are, set timelines, measure, and publicly share updates. The goal is progress, not perfection, but many publications have shown little progress in any measurable way (especially in diversity and inclusion) since early 2020.

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We stand at a pivotal junction within the tourism industry. As a travel journalist, I have benefited from the status quo that underpins consumer-facing travel media today. But this is an opportunity for all of us — and especially those who have benefitted from privilege and power — to address what has gone wrong and put in the hard work to make it right. For travel media, this means critically examining what it means to represent “travel as a force for good,” and then embodying that value by investing in and supporting concrete action.

Dismantling and addressing the systemic structures that support destructive practices and corporate cultures upon which the current travel media model is built is essential. Only then — when the industry reflects the world that it claims to celebrate — can travel media be the space it has the potential to be: a space that promotes empathy, inclusion, empowerment, sustainability, poverty alleviation, and social justice.

About the author

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.

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