On the current state of travel writing
(Or, There's no such thing as a hidden gem)
One of those ghastly Instagrammers was last week claiming to have found ‘Romania’s secret city’. I knew it was clickbait, designed to attract visitors to his video, but I was intrigued to find out which ‘hidden gem’ he was referring to.
Was it Craiova perhaps?—a lesser-visited Romanian town whose kitsch Christmas market is causing quite the stir? Or was it one of those godforsaken Romanian cities that only intrepid travellers for whom life is one long experiment would ever visit, such as Vaslui or Galați?
None of the above. Instead, his ‘secret city’ was Sighișoara, for decades home to one of Europe’s largest medieval festivals and perhaps the most tourist-infested town in the country. It’s just about impossible to find a room in the upper, medieval city in June, July and August.
Another video then pops into my feed (Instagram really, really needs filters) with another traveller claiming to have tasted the best currywurst in Berlin and you won’t believe how good it is!
You know what mate, you almost certainly haven’t tasted the best currywurst in Berlin. You may have tasted some very good currywurst, but unless you’ve tried every currywurst in what is an enormous city that sells an awful lot of currywurst then you are in no position whatsoever to state so categorically that you have found the best.
Besides, even if you have tried them all, making such a subjective claim as I tasted the best would be slightly ridiculous.
This, however, is the current state of the travel writing sector. Or, what I guess we need to these days call the travel content sector. It’s full of charlatans and chancers looking for their 15 minutes of fame on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, or whatever distribution channel is currently in fashion.
Often young, with little to no understanding whatsoever of the places they visit, they travel the world producing superficial content for a market that seems worryingly eager to consume it. The content (to give these people their due) is usually well made and looks fabulous, but it’s all clearly staged, scripted and usually light on anything resembling detail, objectivity, or authenticity. It’s also far too often less about the destination being featured and more about what we are obliged to call the content creator him or herself.
The underlying theme of this kind of content is the rather childish notion that something new, something different, something revelatory, has been discovered. Or that the content creator is doing something nobody else could ever dream of. Every YouTube video, every TikTok, every Instagram post must claim to have either reinvented the wheel, or to have discovered a wheel nobody else can use.
The best travel writing is rather lacking in revelations. It’s not dull (not if it's well written) but it is often earthly—at least in terms of what’s being described. Bruce Chatwin wrote pages about Argentina’s endless empty plains in In Patagonia (and made them sound exhilarating) while my favourite travel article of the past five years is this piece from 2019 in the FT (which is these days home to some of the best travel writing in the business) about a hike to the Capanna Margherita (a mountain hut in Italy).
It gave me instant wanderlust (as good travel content should). Covid-19, alas, halted my plans to hike to the capanna in the summer of 2020. My schedule has not allowed for a trip since, although I still plan on taking the hike.
Travel writing is not about hidden gems (there’s no such thing), flowery language and carefully staged photoshoots in exotic locations. It’s about observing people and places and telling stories—and not being afraid to say when a place is a bit shit.
There are still good travel writers out there publishing long form stories. Besides the Weekend section of the FT, you will find them in other broadsheets (The Telegraph still has a good travel section), and journals such as Wanderlust and—despite the name—Hidden Europe, individuals such as Paliparan, as well as conventional travel guides. Indeed, I am looking forward to seeing what Lonely Planet do with their next round of guides, set to be more inspirational and narrative-based and less a directory of listings.
But the sad truth is that the audience for this kind of content is shrinking and I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do to address that. And perhaps of most concern is that this follow me/look at me/Instagram/TikTok trend is not just killing travel writing, it's killing travel itself. Everyone wants to recreate the same specific photo in the same specific places instead of just taking to the streets and enjoying the moment. The joy of discovery has gone. Whatever happened to finding your own beach, finding your own waterfall?
As such, the overall trend is deeply concerning—travel content is going the same way as just about every other form of content: it’s becoming meaningless drivel (albeit good looking drivel) for an audience that alas wants nothing more.
Should we have seen this coming? Could we have seen this coming? I have to admit that personally, I didn’t.
Some 15 years or so ago I did the rounds of the travel conference circuit giving a talk on the future of travel writing and what the internet meant for the wider travel publishing industry.
In those days, the internet was still referred to as just that—the internet; a monolithic whole that had yet to fragment into apps. The iPhone was still in its first couple of iterations (I still had a Blackberry in my pocket) and Instagram—never mind TikTok—did not yet exist. And, hands up, I completely failed to consider the emergence of those apps and others like them.
Instead, though I no longer have the slides/presentation that accompanied the talk (a brief search of my current and previous laptops, as well as a couple of external hard drives, was fruitless), the basic premise was that so much information (about destinations, sights, attractions) was now available online (almost all of it user-generated) that value would no longer be placed on merely producing content but also on curating it—filtering the good from the bad, as it were.
It was based on the (what now looks like a rather naive and utopian) idea that Booking, TripAdvisor and other vast repositories of user-generated content would be happy to hand over access to their APIs to curators for free.
Unsurprisingly, they weren’t.
Nevertheless, that minor (if mission critical) issue aside, it was—and remains—a sound idea. Guides to destinations written by everyone but put together by professionals who know how to filter good content from bad, who know how to see through bullshit and—most importantly—have experience of actually carrying out research.
At the very least, it would be authentic. Good travel content doesn’t need carefully directed, scripted, crafted and arranged photos and videos. But it does need the authenticity that the Instagram crowd has forgone.
Alas, I can’t see it coming back any time soon.
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