To entice people with travel content, it’s common to see text that trumpets “beautiful beaches,” “stark landscapes,” and “mouth-watering cuisine.”
Phrases like those above are subjective, or not based in fact. They are opinions. These kinds of phrases are found everywhere throughout the tourism industry: in travel magazines, on service provider web pages, and throughout promotional materials.
Eager to share (and emphasize) those things that have moved us as individuals (either positively or negatively) — and often to encourage others to form their own opinions or take action — we use adjectives (descriptor words) to convey the way we perceive a place or experience.
But as with any aspect of storytelling, it’s important to understand why subjectivity shows up in travel content and how to use it more mindfully.
The Lens We Look Through
What we see and understand is unique to each of us as individuals. We each view the world through a unique lens that has been colored by personal biases and experiences. Your personal history and culture; your race, gender, age, and ethnicity; where you live and how much education you have — it all impacts the way you perceive the world around you.
And, the way you perceive the world is reflected in the words you use to communicate — whether in spoken or written content.
When you tell someone that a certain destination has a “stunning swimming hole” or a city has a particularly “interesting tour,” those statements are based on your personal perspective. Whether you realize it or not, your perception of that swimming hole is based not only on other swimming holes you’ve encountered (in real life and through other media), but possibly other landscapes and experiences within and beyond this particular destination.
The problem is that only you have this particular catalog of understanding from which you’ve shaped this conclusion. This means there can be confusion and disagreement, which we’ve all encountered. Has a friend ever told you that you must visit the “coolest music club” in town, only to find yourself repulsed by the excessively loud bass and smoky atmosphere — two details that completely escaped your friend’s notice because they loved the dance floor vibes?
Subjective Adjectives vs. Objective Adjectives
We use two kinds of adjectives when we communicate: Subjective adjectives are descriptors that reflect your opinion. Objective adjectives are descriptors that are factual
Adjectives are important in communication. They provide context and essential information that allows others to form their own understanding about a place or situation. These details can also encourage readers’ or listeners’ to feel certain emotions, based on their personal perspectives.
For example, in describing a day of hiking, you could say, “You’ll wander through a lush, rolling landscape,” which is subjective. It is your opinion that the landscape is “lush” and “rolling.” Describing this using objective adjectives, you could say, “The five-mile hike passes through a wide variety of local vegetation with few ascents and descents compared to other hikes in the area.”
Travel Content and Subjectivity
The novelty of travel naturally leads to content that is steeped in superlatives and subjectivity, and for good reason: We want people to be as excited as we are about travel experiences. We are eager to convey a sense of urgency. We want people to have the same visceral reaction and feeling about something. And, conversely, we want to warn people to avoid certain places and activities.
While subjective adjectives are meant to describe something, there is no shared understanding of what “mouth-watering,” “beautiful,” or “stark” mean. When we hear those words, we each imagine something different based on our personal experiences. Superlatives can be particularly tricky in that no single person is the definitive expert of deciding what is “best” or “worst” or even what is a “must-see.”
The good news is that, broadly speaking, travel content isn’t hard news. Its purpose is to inspire people and motivate them to visit certain places and participate in certain activities. We want to encourage them to think a certain way or make certain decisions. In these cases, content stuffed with adjectives can be a powerful tool.
However, as with any linguistic tool, it can reveal biases and inappropriately stereotype people and places. Given this, you should beware of when you use subjective language and how you can use it better.
Acknowledge Your Presence
One of the advantages of travel-related storytelling is that it may be appropriate to insert yourself in the story. In fact,a first-person story, where the storyteller is also a character within the story, often allows people to feel more connected. The situation isn’t far removed and hypothetical; there’s actually a person who ate this meal or walked that path.
Acknowledging your presence doesn’t mean you need to reveal everything that has shaped your story. However, it does provide readers or listeners with context for understanding and clarifies this is an opinion and not definitive fact. So, instead of saying, “this is the most beautiful beach in the world,” you might say “I have visited hundreds of beaches on two continents, and I think this one is the most beautiful.”
Similarly, if you amplify people sharing their own stories and using their own voices, then let them shine — subjective adjectives and all!
Part of the problem with subjectivity is that there are no borders around it. When we talk about something like a “stark landscape,” what is that being compared to? A tropical rainforest or Mordor from Lord of the Rings?
One of the best strategies tactics providers can use is comparing their itineraries (or experiences within itineraries) with each other. For example, a company offering several hiking trips might develop a “four-boot scale” that is clearly defined and applied across their experiences. In this case, one boot might mean the daily walks are no more than five kilometers, elevation loss and gain is no more than 200 meters, and/or the walk would be appropriate for families with young kids, while four boots indicates walks are at least 20 kilometers a day, elevation loss and gain is at least 1000 meters, and/or the experience is only appropriate for experienced hikers.
When this company assigns a trip a certain number of boots and then uses descriptive language to describe a day of hiking, this indicates the company’s point of view and provides additional context with a contained comparison for people reading the content.
Search for Sneaky Subjective Adjectives
Many adjectives are obvious: beautiful, stark, mouth-watering, difficult, dirty, pristine. But there are many others that aren’t as obvious, like “just,” “very,” and “only.”
These “sneaky” adjectives are conditional statements that imply the way you think about something. For example, if you say that the nightly rate for an accommodation is “just $50,” you imply that this is not expensive. If it isn’t used in comparison with something else (“every hotel in this city costs at least $200 a night, but this one costs just $50”), this is a value statement that shows a personal bias.
Cut Empty Clichés
While we all have different thoughts on what “stark” and “spicy” mean, we at least have a ballpark idea of what someone means when they use these words. They can be useful and used with the right context.
However, there are other subjective adjectives that are empty clichés that don’t mean anything. This includes words like “fantastic” and “unbelievable.” Empty clichés like these are generally used to fill space when you don’t know what else to say. They are also commonly used when travel content creators haven’t actually visited a place or had an experience, so they lack more meaningful sensory details.
Use Descriptive Language Instead
Subjective adjectives have their place in travel-related storytelling — especially when you are a character within the narrative. But often, the better option is to use descriptive language instead.
Lean into sensory detail to draw readers in: What does the trail feel like under your hiking boots? What is the texture of the beach sand? What colors are the sunset? What spices can you smell in the soup?
When you use descriptive language, you remove your personal beliefs and judgment statements from the text and you minimize the need for subjective adjectives. Plus, you help readers see themselves in that particular moment — and isn’t that the ultimate goal anyway?
This is a really interesting perspective on travel writing and the role of subjectivity. It's true that everyone experiences travel differently, and it's important for writers to acknowledge their own biases and limitations. The tips on how to write about travel in a way that is respectful and informative are really helpful. Thanks for sharing your insights!