Mere minutes after a recent Future of Tourism forum ended, I attended a conversation among travel writers about the need to rethink their jobs: Is fly-by journalism justified when there are local journalists who know a destination better? How can travel writers ensure that the work they put out into the world doesn’t harm local people? What is the right way to balance editorial constraints, press trip hosts’ expectations, and ethical practices?
Like everyone across the tourism industry, travel writers, influencers, and other content creators felt a swift and painful pinch when COVID-19 reared its ugly head in early 2020. They have spent the past year pivoting their businesses and reflecting upon their previous business practices.
Likewise, over the past several months, destination representatives, tour operators, accommodation owners, and other B2B industry professionals have been scaffolding plans for a more responsible and regenerative tourism model.
Two groups of tourism-focused professionals — content creators and service providers. Two gatherings grappling with how tourism should be shaped in the months and years to come. Two related conversations about the best ways to build back better.
Two discussions with minimal — if any — crossover in attendance.
These two events highlighted an ongoing challenge within the tourism industry: Content creators of all types have largely been left out of the discussion related to the tourism industry’s long-term vision and goals. And content creators, for their part, don’t consider themselves to be a part of the tourism industry.
This is a problem.
Not intentionally including travel media and content creators as part of the wider tourism community leaves an opportunity on the table that the industry can’t afford to overlook. Content creators’ have incredible power in influencing consumers. Their actions and public-facing content shapes the decisions and expectations for future travelers. Their reach and networks that touch potential consumers are expansive. They are the frontline communicators that put travelers feet on the ground in destinations around the world.
Destinations, tour operators, and other service providers indicate they are interested in centering local people and communities, dispersing travelers beyond popular sites, decarbonizing the travel supply chain, and avoiding leakage. If that is the case, travel media must be held accountable for its potentially destructive partnerships, questionable ethical behavior, and problematic editorial practices.
But, more importantly, travel content creators — from editors at popular print publications to Instagram influencers — need to be invited into collaborations and conversations about strategically building back better. They need to be acknowledged and embraced as pivotal players in actually manifesting the safer, more equitable, and more mindful tourism ecosystem that the industry’s been discussing for the past year.
And, for their part, content creators need to step up and embrace their role in this ecosystem. As a key conduit between travelers and the destinations where they travel, content creators must keep responsibility and intentionality top of mind throughout all aspects of their work.
Communicating the Sustainability Story
“Sustainable travel” can not be a niche; it must become the default. In the travel context, this hits on a host of issues from addressing the climate crisis to dispersing financial support throughout a destination (especially among marginalized communities).
Travel Service Providers:
- Explain your sustainability goals and climate actions in accessible terms. Help content creators connect with the people, places, initiatives, and storylines that demonstrate this sustainability journey. Do not sugarcoat shortcomings or lean into greenwashing; use this as an incentive to continue to improve.
- Model climate action. Press trips shouldn’t necessarily be eliminated, but make use of virtual events for interviews and introductory tours. Avoid giving out swag (or provide swag with a meaningful story), and remove excessive waste like single-use plastic water bottles from accommodations when hosting media.
- Stop promoting destructive activities like wildlife encounters and community-based tourism interactions that commodify people.
- State your sustainability expectations for content creators. Advise in advance if they should pack their own water bottles, reef-friendly sunscreen, etc.
- When discussing projects with destination partners and tour operators, talk about how to responsibly promote offerings. Ask if they have language, stories, or strategies related to sustainability that you should know about. Find out if destinations and tourism partners have declared a climate emergency and set science-based targets for decarbonizing.
- Humanize sustainability. Meet the people who are involved and impacted by the climate crisis. Avoid thinking in a “here vs. there” silo. Recognize how your actions impact the climate crisis and global sustainability as a content creator and global citizen.
- Look beyond “eco-resorts” as a stand-in for sustainability. While environmentally conscious accommodations are important, learn about what that means. Ask hosts about the environmental challenges in the destinations where you travel. Find out if there are locally focused solutions you should know about as well.
- Flag questionable or destructive activities suggested by hosts, do not support such activities on the ground, and refuse to mention them in your coverage.
The tourism industry and the travel experience have deep colonial roots. This colonial past has been propped up by a narrative that centers travelers’ comfort and desires, especially travelers who are white, wealthy, and from high-income economies. This narrative must be disrupted.
Travel Service Providers:
- Promote a wide variety of on-the-ground storytellers with a wide variety of perspectives and insights — yes, even if those perspectives bring out the imperfections of a destination.
- Avoid the dominant narrative. Identify the story that has been reinforced, then seek out the other narratives that have been buried beneath it. Invite content creators to ask hard questions, and don’t shy away from providing truthful (and uncomfortable) answers.
- Highlight a variety of storylines in promotional materials. Use social media and an online press room to introduce new ways of understanding a destination or travel experience.
- Recommend books, articles, movies, and other materials that provide historical and cultural context.
- Do your research before leaving home. Understand what the dominant narrative is before traveling, and seek out experiences that specifically do not reinforce it.
- Think carefully about taking “desk research” assignments. The dominant narrative will always float to the top of online research, and relying on others’ content to inform yours may perpetuate dangerous stereotypes and destructive narratives.
- Do not “sell” places simply because they are beautiful. Destinations are unique because of the historical and cultural context that defines them — so find out what that is and share it with your readers and followers. You must be willing to grapple with complicated stories, even if they make you uncomfortable.
- Avoid colonial language. Think carefully what you intend to say when using words like “exotic,” “discover,” “explore,” and “authentic.” Using terms like these without context can contribute to ongoing oppression and silencing of and violence directed toward marginalized communities, gentrification, and commodification of people and cultures. Push back on editors that want to insert this kind of language in content.
- Challenge travel partners that focus on volume over value and print/glossy publications over niche publications willing to tackle the tricky issues related to tourism.
Thinking Beyond the Destination
We often think about trips as starting when a person lands in a destination and ending when they leave. Yet, the travel experience can and should be so much more, and both service providers and content creators must consider what the new travel experience looks like.
Travel Service Providers:
- Develop relationships with local content creators. While there is value in the “fly-by” perspective that out-of-town media and influencers provide, cultivate relationships with domestic content creators as well. As local residents, they create compelling stories for other domestic travelers. Plus, there is a financial and environmental benefit to these relationships.
- Collaborate with other destinations and tourism partners to create door-to-door travel experiences. Help travelers integrate the actual act of travel into their experiences.
- Move from the macro-level destination story to the micro-level personal story. Highlight the people who make places the dynamic places they are. Bouncing from site to site results in “best of” lists that don’t uncover a more interesting, nuanced experience.
- Fly less and visit longer, if possible. When travel planning, bulk research trips and take advantage of overland transportation.
- Seek out stories focused on the journey. If there are opportunities to write about long-haul ground travel, such as long train rides, you introduce readers and followers to a new way of thinking about travel.
- Become a local specialist. Your backyard is someone else’s travel destination. Get to know your local tourism representatives and create content highlighting the awesomeness of your own community.
There can’t be a more sustainable future for tourism if it doesn’t integrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice throughout its framework. Embracing diversity is an essential step in decolonizing tourism.
Travel Service Providers:
- Diversify your content creator pools. Content creators bring unique perspectives into their experiences. Take advantage of that individuality by ensuring invited content creators represent a wide range of identities, ages, and abilities.
- Create accessible marketing and media materials and make them readily available. Be particularly mindful that photography doesn’t commodify people or perpetuate saviorism, and accurately represents a diverse array of visitors.
- Actively support and promote diverse on-the-ground storytellers, especially those who identify with marginalized populations. Make content creators aware of these storytellers.
- Hold trip hosts responsible for diversifying their content creator pools. Demand that editors diversify their mastheads and freelance pools as well. If you have to give up an assignment, recommend a replacement who identifies with a marginalized group.
- Put locals’ interests first. Everything you do in the course of your work should focus on this question: “Is this in the best interest of the people who live in this destination?” Take action from there, always keeping locals’ needs and desires in mind.
- Be an ally. As travelers, content creators are in a position of privilege. Be aware of how that privilege colors your perspective and bias, and always be mindful of power dynamics in the course of your work.
It’s easy to stay in silos. It’s comfortable because it’s the way we’ve already done things.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the right way.
And, if the tourism industry is committed to disrupting the system it's been operating under, then it needs to reassess who is part of that industry as well as how they contribute to and collaborate within the overall ecosystem.