From the aurora borealis painted across the sky in northern Scandinavia to the wide-open spaces in Patagonia, travel writing has the power to transport armchair readers around the world.
Done well, travel writing can create awareness and inspire people to book trips. Done exceptionally well, it can encourage people to take action and make changes in their own lives that have positive environmental and social effects.
Done poorly, however, travel writing can actually do more harm than good. It has the potential to strip local people of their cultural identity and perpetuate the systemic problems that stem from colonialism. It’s been known to encourage bad behavior on behalf of travelers, and it can also accelerate existing environmental and social problems.
Written words wield a lot of power — and they need to be used with care.
With the enviable job of being a travel writer comes an incredible amount of responsibility. Written words wield a lot of power — and they need to be used with care.
If you’re a travel writer, here are five words and phrases you can cut from your work today that will immediately indicate your commitment to responsible travel writing.
Even if an experience is “inexpensive,” a person needs to have disposable income to travel. When an article notes something as “cheap,” it immediately excludes those who do not have ample economic means to afford travel experiences.
Additionally, the word “cheap” has the connotation of something that is poorly made or easily disposable. This flaunts the fact that this activity may not be accessible to the vast majority of people in the world, yet it is just a throwaway purchase for those who can afford it.
When people say FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, they aren’t joking. No one wants to be the person who didn’t get to do something … and that’s exactly the problem when it comes to using the term “last chance” (and, similarly, “go before it’s gone”) in travel writing. Whether it’s in reference to the final days of climbing Uluru or the need to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef before its coral has been bleached beyond repair, this kind of messaging can exacerbate damage.
The psychological response to this kind of terminology is known as a scarcity mindset. It essentially means that believing there isn’t enough of something (in this case, time) provokes stress and anxiety. If this truly is the “last chance,” travelers will be compelled to go now because they may never have the chance again, which can lead to further environmental degradation, an acceleration of the problem, and the inability to mitigate the strain placed on this particular destination or resource.
Instagrammable / Instagram-worthy
Nothing says “makes a perfect backdrop” like the words “Instagrammable” and “Instagram-worthy” … but that’s all it says. Travel writers (and destinations!) like to use these terms because people are searching for them, and who doesn’t want their content to rank with Google? But just because people want to know doesn’t mean travel writers should provide this information in this particular way.
The problem with something being called “Instagrammable” is that it — whatever the backdrop might be — is only a backdrop, void of any additional information. When people seek out sites simply to take photos of them, they strip those particular sites of their historical and cultural context. This is a parasitic relationship, where the Instagrammer gets a picturesque backdrop but nothing is received by the community, business, or culture in return.
Unless you’re encouraging someone to dive to the deepest depths of the ocean or blast off into space, chances are very high that the “undiscovered” destination being promoted in travel writing has, in fact, been “discovered.” Not only that, but it may have been stolen from people who lived on the land for generations.
“Undiscovered” — and its partner in crime, “discovered” — surface a question travel writers need to ask themselves a lot when choosing adjectives to use in their writing: “‘Undiscovered’ for whom?” Words like this have a colonial undertone when used in an authoritative, third-person perspective. People — and their music, fashion, food, traditions, and land — existed long before travel writers chose to write about them. Those travel writers can not — and should not — take credit for “discovering” something that belongs to someone else.
A caveat, however: Use of the words “discovered” and “undiscovered” may be appropriate when an experience is new to you, and you make that distinction by using a first-person perspective.
Generally, the bucket list is packed with “must see” and “must do” travel-related items that get checked off as a person runs through the list in an effort to finish everything. By its nature, the bucket list often tends to be a surface-level skim through popular sites and activities that is really only a selfish endeavor. Unfortunately, this kind of travel mindset fuels travel trends like overtourism.
The truth is that no one can do everything, and encouraging people to cram as much as they can into said bucket doesn’t leave room for spontaneity and the unexpected. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to visit certain destinations or do certain things, but reframing the visit encourages travelers to look beyond the list. For example, instead of “walking the Camino,” would hiking another path offer a better opportunity to learn about the legacy of pilgrimages from a local and support communities that don't receive as many travelers? Instead of “taking a photo of Horseshoe Bend at sunset,” how about learning about the Indigenous history of the surrounding area and sitting with those thoughts while the sun drops?
Rethinking the way writers approach their work can completely reframe the way travelers approach their experiences. Travel writers have the power to influence how readers think and act, which can have a ripple effect of benefits for people and the planet … all because of the words they choose.
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