Numerous blogs, microblogs, magazines, and individual careers are all about travel. Now that travel is so heavily restricted, how does one write about it in a meaningful way?
The first inspiration for this post came from an instagram account that promotes tourism to Malta. Since 21 March, Maltese authorities suspended commercial flights, making leisure travel next to impossible. So if that account is all about promoting consumer travel, should it stop posting, or should it find new ways to keep its followers engaged? The account painstakingly sought out hashtags like #thankstotravel, #moretoexplore, #staycurious and others – and many travel bloggers and ‘influencers’ jumped at them too. Many of them desperately struggle to stay relevant as people ease into the new normal, but these promises of delayed gratification (‘you will be able to consume travel destinations in the future – meanwhile, please, please consume these promises of future consumption’) sound out of place and tone-insensitive.
Still, making snarky remarks about the struggles of these people and businesses to stay relevant as their livelihood is threatened would not be helpful. I believe that amid this crisis, we should use even stronger filters of kindness and helpfulness before we publish or post anything. Social critique of systemic flaws in the travel industry is helpful, because it is necessary for improving our societies, but picking on individual ‘influencers’ and businesses is not. Instead, I would like to invite them to critically reassess what’s helpful and kind in their business model.
Here’s what the travel storytelling industry looked like just before the pandemic. As a veteran travel journalist told me some years ago, he has seen pay rates for professional travel writing plummet about tenfold since the 1980s. I do not have any figures, but the trend I have observed is that travel shows and travel writing gradually shifted from storytelling about distant places to informing future consumers (or allowing past consumers to compare experiences and see if they missed out on anything).
Various internet forums and how-to blog posts for aspiring travel writers tell them that to ‘make it’ in this highly competitive industry, one must take ever higher risks and wander ever further off the beaten path. Nowadays few editors would pay someone to write about cafes in Paris. An editor can quickly cook something up from numerous blog posts, a few industry magazines, and social network accounts of these very cafes, filling any gaps with CC-licensed images from Flickr. To get published as a professional travel writer, one would have to describe something like bungee jumping in South Sudan, the advice goes.
So a person who wants to make a living telling stories about travel (in words or visuals) while focusing on areas somewhere between cafes in Paris and bungee jumping in South Sudan would turn the income-generating model on its head. Storytelling is no longer a generative activity – instead, it’s a ‘passion’, it’s a liability of sorts, in business terms at least. Although the story is the product the audience consumes, the user is not the buyer. Industry actors, such as hotels or travel agencies, buy the audience’s attention. When a travel storyteller does it as a hobby, they are rewarded in social capital only, which they may or may not aspire to convert into financial capital or barter for freebies. This model allows the storyteller to be rewarded for guiding their audience to consume travel destinations. Using my hypothetical example, (a) most followers feel little need to be guided to cafe culture in Paris, (b) most followers will not experience bungee jumping in South Sudan, so they would read it out of curiosity or to get inspired for slightly less off-the-beaten-track adventures, and (c) most storytellers find something between these two, such as mountain hiking in Cambodia, where they feel they can add value by guiding their audience.
As millions of people stay put, some travel storytellers are reenacting travel photos at home to entertain their followers, others post photos from their past with hopeful messages that the freedom to consume travel will return soon. There have stories of ‘influencers’ until recently trying to go on as usual using their archives. After a phase of public and highly visible denial, there will be some mostly private panic, and then acceptance and adaptation should follow.
As most people stay put, storytellers are no longer needed for guidance. So those nearly identical bloggers’ tips for experiencing a certain place are of no value. This is an opportunity to refocus attention to stories rather than tips, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. As much as travel-promoting social media accounts pressure (or beg?) us to believe that there is any value in ‘dreaming’ of a destination before going there months later, we will be making travel choices very differently when leisure travel reopens.
Another strategy to stay visible is the non-travel ‘travel’. Experience a place virtually, they say. The problem is, there is a huge gap between the explorer type storytelling and the consumption-promoting storytelling. The detailed narrative or visual immersion needed to transport someone into a place they are unlikely to experience requires completely different skills than projecting a ‘look how much fun I’m having’ image, which inspires jealousy and desire to book a holiday. Many travel storytellers would object and say that they are not promoting a consumerist lifestyle. But any post that, at its heart, says ‘this is what this place has to offer‘ is doing just that. The explorer style storytelling (‘this is what I was lucky to experience at this time, in this place’), albeit not innocent at all when it comes to exploitation, requires completely different skills and radically different framing. I believe it will be easier for travel ‘influencers’ to start marketing some other things than to tell stories of other places in such a way that would make one feel they don’t need to physically go there to relate to them. Those storytellers who focused on bungee jumping in South Sudan will have an easier time, but if all they have to say is ‘look at me bungee jumping in South Sudan’, their audience, with more time on their hands and little chances of booking an exotic holiday any time soon, will be more likely to ask, ‘Why should I care that you had fun?’ Most travel bloggers I’ve seen/ read are much better versed in branding than in immersive storytelling.
People will enjoy non-travel travel, but this will come from artists rather than brand managers or marketers. I recently watched Ingrid Kristensen Bjørnaali’s captivating video piece Con Fusion, where she blends her own travel videos with Google Earth and Google Street view (see the rest of this interesting digital art exhibition here). Also, when my trip to Jordan got cancelled, I picked up a collection of Jordanian short stories and enjoyed exploring the country without environmental impact of flying there. If we want virtual non-travel exploration, we might as well learn about places from locals.
I have used this website as a public diary, with some posts ending up quite consumerist, others full of sociological reflections by my younger, academically minded self. I never monetised my blog and never aimed to be a travel ‘influencer’, but the kind of how-to travel writing seeped into my habits anyway. I will critically revisit some of my past writing during this slowdown and think about how to return to immersive storytelling. But more importantly, I will try to seek out and support those storytellers who do it well and who inspire joy and admiration rather than FOMO.