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Travel writers often turn a blind eye to reality

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Today is the debut of a media column by National Golf Editor Tim McDonald. The column will take a broad look at some of the ills of travel journalism, and future monthly columns will take a look at both the good and bad in the world of golf media, both in print and broadcast.

In journalism, there should be a note of skepticism between the writer and the source. Human sources often have agendas, sometimes hidden, sometimes in plain view.

One of the jobs of the journalist is to determine whether the source is trustworthy enough to override the natural skepticism. It's an ongoing war, one that reputable reporters deal with constantly.

There is one genre of journalism, however, that doesn't seem to understand there is a war going on.

Not only do many travel writers seem oblivious of this conflict, or willfully ignorant of it, they too often consort with the enemy. In nearly a quarter century in journalism, I have never witnessed such a chummy, journalistic relationship as the one that exists between most travel writers and the big, hungry PR machine.

Free trips and goodies

It seems all the PR people have to do is dangle a free trip and goodies in front of a travel writer and they are assured of glowing reviews.

Most good reporters treat public relations people politely, because PR people can be good sources of information, even if that information is necessarily one-sided. Most reporters also know to take PR people with a grain of salt: the PR person's very job is to "sell" the writer on whatever product, destination or service he or she has been hired by.

Travel writers too often treat PR people as ultimate sources. This is great - and easy - for the PR person and the travel writer, but, of course, the reader suffers because he or she is getting misinformation or, at the very least, incomplete information.

Travel writing as a whole has gone downhill over the last quarter century. An ethical debate grew in the 1980s over this very subject, with many newspapers axing writers who accepted subsidized press trips.

Still, not much has changed.

"Bad form" to criticize

"For starters, there's almost nothing negative," South Florida Sun Sentinel travel editor Thomas Swick wrote in The Columbia Journalism Review. "This is partly a vestige of the old days of free trips when it was bad form to speak unfavorably of a place that had treated you lavishly."

Swick also wrote: "A tone of uncritical approval crept into travel journalism that has yet to be eradicated...The irony is that in their mission to "inform" their readers, travel sections misinform them through their unrelenting good cheer."

Swick noted most travel writing is of the first-person variety and usually involves a traveling companion, spouse or friend.

"These two prim sojourners invariably stay in good hotels ('elegant' if in a city, 'rustic' in the country)," he wrote. "And eat in fine restaurants savoring the 'succulent regional cuisine.' "

It's even worse in travel magazines, both online and in print.

Mmmm, good

A random review of 50 online stories by 19 freelance travel writers, all members of the Society of American Travel Writers, found precious little "negative reporting." You want "unrelenting good cheer," find your local freelance travel writer.

A small sampling:

"Soon a silver tray with coffee and a glass of iced water, always served here with coffee, and the famous chocolate torte was set before me," wrote SATW member Tess Bridgwater about a visit to Vienna. "Does it deserve its reputation? The answer is Mmm."

Freelance travel writers who specialize in the Caribbean seem to be particularly guilty. This is partly because the Caribbean is such a great place to freeload, and partly because the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism, aggressively woos travel writers.

In 2004, travel and tourism in the Caribbean is forecast to generate $40.3 billion in economic activity, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

"Travel and tourism is without question the most important export sector in the region," WTTC president Jean-Claude Baumgarten said at a June 2004 conference. "It helps to diversify the Caribbean economy, stimulate entrepreneurship, catalyze investment, create sustainable jobs and helps development in local communities."

Awards to colleagues

The Caribbean Hotel Association even hands out awards to members of the media who CHA members feel "foster excellence in tourism reporting in the Caribbean."

It may come as no surprise the winners almost unfailingly put the Caribbean in a good light.

For example, Mark Meredith, one of the recent winners, wrote a story on the Asa Wright Nature Center under the headline: "Promoting Trinidad and Tobago."

Even non-winners are almost overwhelming in their "unrelenting good cheer."

What about the seedy side?

For example, Brenda Fine, another SATW member, wrote for bridalguide.com: "Who knew a tropical island could be so worldly? Islands in the Caribbean - aside from being superlatively romantic - are a mini-United Nations, each has its own mix of cultures blended into the island traditions. Immerse yourselves in Dutch, Spanish, English Scandinavian or French customs and food while you enjoy the bliss of a tropical paradise - the best of both worlds."

Or SATW member Barbara Radin Fox, with Larry Fox, on Miami, for romanticgetaways.com: "In this sun-kissed paradise, the center of action is South Beach, which has it all: a long and wide beach, beautiful hotels, excellent restaurants, and neon-lit streets that pulsate with Latin and rock rhythms."

A typical, if cliched, description of South Beach, but not a word of the 369 crimes committed on South Beach in 2003, including rape, robbery, felony assaults, auto theft and burglaries. Isn't that something you might want to know if you were planning a trip to South Beach?

Don't spoil a good thing

So why rock the boat? It's a good life, with free trips to exotic places, and free food at great restaurants.

"Are you itching to break into the glamorous world of travel writing," reads a come-on from freelancetravelwriters.com. "To see your name in glossy print and receive regular invitations for fabulous VIP press trips that cost you only the taxi fare to the airport?"

In today's economic climate, any number of publications are forced to accept subsidized trips - including TravelGolf.com - if they want to produce travel stories for readers.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that the resulting stories must be unrelentingly cheerful. We here at TravelGolf.com have been guilty of that in the past, and are working to be more objective and critical.

It may not always work - and we are sure to alienate some powerful PR moguls - but in the end, we want readers to have a place to come for good, objective reviews of places to go and golf courses to play.

One last word from Swick: "Why do the travel magazines, lavish with tips and sumptuous photographs, leave us feeling so empty?"

Hopefully, you'll be able to read TravelGolf.com and not feel that way.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • travel writers turning a blind eye.

    Mark Meredith wrote on: May 29, 2012

    I've come across this article a full 8-years after the event and find myself named as a guilty party in promoting "unrelenting good cheer" about the Caribbean.
    Your information is completely wrong. Yes, I won awards, but for articles extremely critical of the Caribbean's management of their natural resources. Not for promoting Trinidad and Tobago.


  • travel writing

    S. Lane wrote on: May 8, 2005

    I would like to see a story regarding the crimes committed on the golf course. If you want to be obective, be objective. When you can find a completely crime free area to visit, please let us know.


  • Travel Writers

    Dove Jones wrote on: Mar 15, 2005

    Tim & Chris - your own credibility might be enhanced if you knew enough to know that Lynn Seldon is NOT a she, he's a he & a well respected writer - not out for freebies- I suggest you spend less time trying to prove what rebels you are & a little more time on the real subject matter of golf- Everyone has an opinion & I'd like to think that others are as important as yours whether you agree with them or not- exactly what are your credentials to judge destinations and courses?- let's see if you are men enough to print your mistake - I realize the CIA manual doesn't cover profiles of real writers - but very little resarch would have shown you that Lynn is a man www.Lynnseldon.com would have done the trick - or don't you believe in researching the subjects you critize for doing the same- & just curious I also know that you have been known to accept a trip or two yourselves - there are many others in this industry that refuse all offers to remain obejective.


  • Travel Writers

    Mike Jamison wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    Being a former journalist (for 16 years) who now works on the PR side, I found your column very interesting. And while I basically agree with your theory, I found parts if it rather amusing - one statement in particular:
    "In today’s economic climate, any number of publications are forced to accept subsidized trips – including TravelGolf.com – if they want to produce travel stories for readers."
    FORCED to accept subsidized trips? Come on now.
    So you think it is OK to accept free trips from destinations or resorts, then rip them in print or on the air? Your friends and family must dread the holiday season. What do you do to someone who disappoints with a gift?
    May I suggest that your publication either pays its own way, or avoids the trips entirely. That way, nobody is disappointed: You, your readers or the gracious host.


  • travel writers

    gary slatter wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    Most travel writers are very helpful. A travel writer is not a travel critic. Unlike your editor before I travel I want to know about the good stuff a place has to offer. If I want the bad stuff I could read one of Tim MacDonald's early pieces.


  • travel writers

    carl o wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    Article about the poor state of travel writing was as tepid and shallow as the pieces the author was criticizing. Would it be as appropriate to mention, in a expose of crime in Miami, that there were beautiful beaches and lush vegitation nearby? I think not.
    There has to be an assumption that the reader is being entertained by these pieces and would not be foolish enough to expect that the articles would provide a true, accurate and comlete picture of what the situation is like as any given point in time and what their particular experiences would be.
    I maintain that travel writing should, on the primary level, entertain and be complete in that respect. As a bonus it would provide insight, ideas, and sources for finding additional information. If a writer were to write a piece that groused about a destination or service, it better well be funny or few editors will print it. And it is a curious that
    human nature is so warped that the trips most people mention or talk
    about, are the ones that go abysmally bad.


  • state of travel writing

    Allan Lynch wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    I just read your comments about the state of travel writing. I agree it's much too cheerful at times. As a freelance travel writer I have difficulty keeping up adjective for adjective with my colleagues. But shouldn't this sad state be shared or even dare I suggest be blamed on editors? Haven't they the final say regarding content?
    I write for a small stable of publications on a regular basis. One
    editor told me 'we don't do negative. If the property or destination
    isn't up to scratch, ignore them. We don't want to get sued.' It's a
    different form of libel chill.
    As for not being invited on press trips. I don't much care. If you're a
    producer, the PR people will swallow their annoyance and try to find a
    way to work with you. I don't think we have to be adversaries, but I
    don't have a lot of patience with people who don't understand who my
    readers are and expect me to make them look good. As for the perks, one
    national travel office told me I was
    the only writer they ever worked with who actually asked for a downgrade in
    accommodation. It was a non-brainer for me, the readers for that piece were
    travelling for leisure and wouldn't pay to stay in a business hotel.
    Not all of us are out there hogging it all in. Sometimes we think more
    about the reader than we're given credit for.


  • press trips

    Ann wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    Your column about travel writers and press trips had many valid points -- especially about writers forgetting that they can still tell the whole truth even if the trip was free. The obvious solution to this free trip controversy is for newspapers and magazines (and even web sites!) to pay travel writers a decent amount of money for their articles.
    It is fun work, but it is still WORK. How could I take a cruise, pay for it, take at least 4 days away from the office, and then sell a story to a newspaper for only $400 or a magazine for $800 or so?


  • travel writers

    J. Miller wrote on: Oct 19, 2004

    Yes, it's true. The travel writing that appears in most newspapers and magazines is downright boring. But travel writers simply give editors what they ask for. There is little demand for a piece describing the dangers of wandering through Naples, Italy, or even articles that give an insightful look at local life.
    Most publications simply want cheery fodder that helps out advertisors. And let's be honest here. Travel writing pays the LEAST of all writing professions. MAJOR newspapers pay $100-$200 per story (including photos). Who can travel ANYWHERE on that and make a living? If you pay that little, then you are forcing the writer to rely on subsidized trips.


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