I often look back on my days as a commercial travel writer and cringe.
I swam with dolphins. I ate luxurious, multi-course meals that, simply by sheer size, mostly ended up in the garbage. I took dutiful notes about cruise ships’ “recycling” programs. I watched other writers demand the impossible from hosts, literally driving them to tears.
And then I wrote about these things with glowing praises. Or, I stuffed them into a deep, dark corner and chose not to acknowledge or call out harmful behavior.
After all, I was only following in the footsteps of travel writers who came before me. I was doing what my editors asked of me. I couldn’t jeopardize my job because countless other aspiring travel writers stood right behind me, eager to pounce on the opportunity if I disrupted the status quo.
It’s easy to dismiss travel media outright: It’s considered a “soft” form of journalism often relegated to the “lifestyle” section of newsstands. Travel content is surprisingly inexpensive and easy to produce as editors lean on an established well of writers who can churn out listicles and cookie-cutter, marketable copy.
But let me ask this: How seriously can we take the glossy images of palm trees, elegantly plated meals, and perfectly lit urban landscapes that simply perpetuate the dominant narrative when the world is on fire?
I admit that, at times, I am jaded by my past experiences and skeptical of business-to-consumer travel media even today. It’s easy to see which fossil fuel-guzzling airlines, destructive cruise lines, and multi-national chain hotels are funding the pages of travel media just by browsing the advertisements.
But, as of late, I feel a spark of hope that travel media is starting to turn a corner. That publishers are starting to question their operations. That editors are starting to consider more nuanced writing. And that writers are pitching more “controversial” pieces, pushing back on destructive editorial choices, and taking more responsibility for their actions and content.
In a recent edition of Talking Travel Writing, Sophie Lam, travel editor of i, admitted that she’s been guilty of using a trusted pool of writers because “they know the publication and can write to (the) brief.” This approach has led to a lack of diversity, and she’s committed to diversifying her writers so that features meet the expectations of diverse readers.
Helen Coffey, travel editor of The Independent, has signed the Flight Free Pledge two years in a row and has committed to doubling down on coverage that prioritizes sustainability: “I believe we have to start doing things differently if we’re to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem: to prioritise coverage of trips whose net positive effects outweigh the negative impacts; to champion companies that started taking steps to cut their carbon outputs and change the travel industry for the better long before ‘sustainability’ became the latest trendy buzzword; to inspire and excite our readers to try something different when booking their next getaway, whether it’s adopting the slow travel ethos and taking their time, or intentionally frequenting local hotels and businesses to put their tourist pounds into the pockets of people who need it.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that quote, but basically Coffey is committed to using editorial space to introduce readers to a new, more mindful, more responsible approach to travel.
There are also noteworthy developments at Atlas Obscura, where a massive “decolonization project” is underway. The team is currently crawling through its archive of 20,000+ entries created by community members and staff to add appropriate historical and cultural context so they contain more complete and accurate information.
And Euronews recently announced its intention to prioritize editorial coverage of tourism companies that have signed the Glasgow Declaration for Climate Action in Tourism. Those travel-related companies that have clear climate actions in place will be bumped to the front of the line, meaning readers are more likely to be exposed to those committed to sustainability.
These are all much-needed and welcome changes in commercial travel media, yet there’s still a lot of work to be done.
I recently happened upon the news of a new editor at a travel trade publication, who expressed an interest in stories related to sustainability and social impact within the tourism industry while also encouraging pitches on “bucket list adventures.”
It’s also worth noting that editors are gatekeepers for what ends up being published, but they, too, must answer to someone else. “I’d love to see publishers investing more in travel journalism,” Lam said. “It would allow writers to do more research than sending someone to report on how lovely a place is. We need to elevate it to an art form that’s revered again.”
And that’s really at the crux of how we start to write the wrongs out of travel media. We’ll never embark on the much-needed evolution in travel media if we continue to package travel as a checklist and don’t move beyond cheap content to serious journalism.
Travel media has not only an opportunity but a responsibility to reimagine its mission, rethink its approach to content, reconsider its funding models, and widen its writer pools. Instead of bowing to advertisers, pushing unpleasant stories into back corners, and putting a pretty polish on everything, it should be holding travel companies accountable for their inaction and greenwashing. If travel media only covered companies, destinations, and initiatives committed to climate action, sustainability, and social responsibility, it would accelerate the ability for the tourism industry to become sustainable by default.
Now is the time for this paradigm shift: More publishers need to increase funding for travel journalism and treat it as seriously as it does the other sections of the masthead. More travel editors need to come forward and publicly state their commitments to doing better. More travel writers need to stand up, speak out, and be part of the solution rather than perpetuating the problem. And, for its part, the rest of the tourism industry needs to hold the media accountable as it begins to make this long overdue transition.