Travel writers often get free travel, meals and flights, but that doesn't mean they always have to write glowing reviews. Nick Boulos outlines the need for honesty and putting readers first.
When you look at it at its most simple, a big part of the funny business of travel writing for newspapers and magazines is reviewing holidays. Of course, educating, entertaining and inspiring travellers, whether actual or armchair, is part of any great travel article, but so, too, is giving readers a real, accurate and truthful account of what they can expect on their hard-earned hols.
With that comes real responsibility. Whether it’s an all-inclusive week in St. Lucia, a city break in Helsinki or white-water rafting in Nepal, travel writers – who are nearly always hosted by a tour operator, tourist board, airline or hotel - have a clear and compelling duty to be objective regardless of the hospitality received.
It’s a question of ethics; you’ve either got them or you haven’t. It’s an issue I’m often confronted with. “Well, you’re naturally going to say everything is brilliant because you’ve been sent for free,” people have said on countless occasions. Absolutely not.
For me, it’s quite simple: if it doesn’t make the grade, it doesn’t make the feature. For every bar, restaurant, gallery or hotel I include, I discount two or three. In Hong Kong last month to research a city guide piece, the tourist board arranged a dinner for me in a swanky, newly-opened restaurant. The management and chefs knew I was a journalist and clearly expected coverage but almost everything about it was terrible (although, admittedly, the grilled duck breast was quite tasty). Yes, I had been hosted and the four-course meal hadn’t cost me a single Hong Kong dollar but there was no way I could direct my readers there and let them shell out for an mediocre meal just because I’d enjoyed a freebie.
Some time ago, I read a city guide to Rome by a fellow travel journalist, who shall remain nameless, and later asked him why he included a sushi restaurant. Who goes to Italy to eat Japanese food? “They gave me a free meal,” he said, simply and unapologetically. Enough said.
Equally as grating is when you read a piece that includes an odious line along the lines of: ‘I arrived feeling rested following my business class flight with [insert name of airline here].’ #sellout.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I live in almost constant hope that the upgrade fairies will sprinkle a little of their magical dust on me at check-in and have gleefully accepted being bumped up on countless occasions but it’s always on my terms. If some lovely airline PR wants me to have a horizontal snooze at 38,000 feet or sit a glass of champagne at the onboard bar, then who am I to argue? But the moment they expect additional editorial coverage in exchange then I always politely decline. There’s simply no justification for it and such inclusions are there only to serve the writer, never the reader.
It’s very rare that a hotel, tour or experience is so bad that you can’t write about it. But it does happen. A few years ago I journeyed up to Nunavut in Arctic Canada to write a newspaper story on a cultural canoeing and camping holiday run by a local Inuit family, an assignment that still ranks as my most stressful to date.
I had already spent some time in this part of the world and was familiar with Inuit history and heritage, and I'm respectful and accepting of the fact that hunting is a part of their lives and integral to their survival, certainly in centuries gone by. What I didn’t expect, however, was for it to form such a dominant part of the trip, particularly when there was no mention of it on the company’s website or pre-departure literature. So for three torturously long days, we cruised through glacial waters, setting up camp on shores criss-crossed with polar bear tracks and didn’t see a single other soul.
A floating ice shelf went from blinding white to bloody red in the blink of an eye.
My surly husband and wife hosts clearly saw it as nothing more than a good opportunity to stock up the larder. My presence barely registered with them. Every time I picked up my camera to take a shot of a seal, they did the same. With a rifle. Bang! Seal carpaccio coming right up. Delicious.
On one occasion, they harpooned a large adult and dragged it onto a floating ice shelf that went from blinding white to bloody red in the blink of an eye. They gutted it there and then, before hunching over its body and feasting on the raw meat , blood dripping from their chins while the poor animal’s innards still pumped away. “You want some?” they offered.
I simply stood there dumbstruck at the scene unfolding me. How was I supposed to write about this, particularly for a British audience? I couldn’t go into such graphic details, as I’ve done here, but equally I couldn’t just ignore it. This was a trip that cost several thousand pounds and if even one person read my piece and stumped up that not insignificant amount of cash to be presented with such gruesome displays then I had failed spectacularly.
In the end, I gleaned that, as suspected, these practices weren’t commonplace on trips with paying clients but I acknowledged it nonetheless. ‘Hunting is a way of life up there,’ I wrote, ‘And like it or not, there’s every chance you will experience it.’
And that’s all you can do: take the reader there, present the facts honestly and responsibly, and let them make up their own mind.
Follow Nick on Instagram and Twitter: @Nick_Boulos
Main photo: tourists watch a bearded seal in Arctic Canada (Dreamstime)