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David Paul Appell

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Fluff, Loathing, and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in Travel Journalism

Posted: 04/25/08 07:16 PM ET

I started migrating into travel journalism 20 years ago for reasons both selfish and altruistic: call it naïve, but besides my own innate wanderlust, I truly felt it was a kind of public service to, in some small way, bring the greater world to readers in a country where only a small percentage bother to get a passport, learn a foreign language, or even give any hoot at all about what happens beyond these borders unless it literally ends up crashing into our skyscrapers.

And I, like every travel writer, can tell you that one of the most common reactions when people find out what I do for a living is the inevitable, "Wow, what a dream job!" Now, I'll grant that a gig that requires one to go on safari in Botswana, rate ice cream parlors in Rome, or tour Australia's wine country for an article is obviously far from a candidate for Dirty Jobs. But beyond the idealism and the flashes of glamour, there's travel writing and there's travel writing - and except maybe for a small coterie of elite glossy magazines and well-connected or marquee-name writers, the Pico Iyers, Bill Brysons, and Jan Morrises, turns out that mostly this is an industry that's about mass-production, with plenty of drudgery and not infrequently pay that's abusively low. And as with many other industries, take it from this veteran: sometimes if you delve too deeply into how the sausage is actually made, you risk losing your appetite.

With that thought in mind, perhaps in the past several days you've caught mention of the kerfuffle in some quarters surrounding this week's publication of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? (Crown Publishing), a 272-page paperback by 32-year-old former Lonely Planet scribe Thomas Kohnstamm; 'twas especially amplified in Australia, where LP is based, and in Britain, because LP's now owned by the BBC, but you may be seeing it in the coming days in places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times.

Adorned with a cartoon of a Tintin-ish fellow sitting in a bar amid beer cans and shot glasses, a hot redhead draped over him as she scribbles on his notepad (presumably giving her number), it's the story of a twentysomething who bailed from Manhattan corporate dronedom in 2002 to take an offer to update northeastern Brazil for the upcoming edition of the LP guide covering that country. Usually entertaining, occasionally it does get a bit bogged down in the excruciating minutiae of guidebook gruntwork (once or twice I wondered, would anybody really be interested in this stuff were it not for all the booze, blow, bonking, and barfing?).

Kohnstamm elaborates on how his early idealism soon hit the wall of a cold, hard disillusionment: that the time and money the publisher provided for him to collect an enormous amount of information in an enormous territory was vastly inadequate (as a guidebook author myself, been there, done that, couldn't afford the T-shirt). So corners were cut and freebies were accepted from hotels and restaurants - the latter being standard operating procedure in the guidebook biz, by the way. At one point, he claims, he was so low on funds he even partnered with a drug dealer and peddled Ecstasy pills to finance a leg of his trip.

But what really got some people's knickers in a twist even before they read the book were British and Australian press reports that asserted Kohnstamm had updated LP's Colombia guide without actually visiting Colombia, quoting him as saying, "They didn't pay me enough to go to Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating - an intern in the Colombian consulate." Add to that a widely publicized outtake about him having sex on a restaurant table with a waitress, then reviewing her establishment as "a pleasant surprise" where "the table service is friendly."

Sounds like quite the putz, eh? Well, reading through the book, I found he comes off much more sympathetic than his advance billing suggested -- an impression reinforced when we finally chatted by phone. He stressed that he was hired not to do legwork for the Colombia guide but only backgrounders such as history, culture, and food/drink; the waitress anecdote, meanwhile, was meant as a comedic touch (albeit one that some could certainly find offensive), not to imply that the restaurant's good review wasn't merited. "I made some mistakes," he told me "but I did many things right. I worked my ass off for Lonely Planet, and I was regarded as one of their star writers covering Latin America."

This memoir-cum-quasi-exposé comes in the wake of an even more dyspeptic opus, freelancer and former travel magazine editor Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying (Henry Holt), published this past December. In between travel anecdotes, Thompson makes some good, even excellent points about travel, the travel industry, and media coverage thereof. He proclaims himself "suspicious of almost all travel writing" and dismisses most of it as boring, overheated, clichéd pablum dictated by the need to please advertisers (whoah, now there's a shocker...); he also takes a dig at Lonely Planet for at times waxing too preachy and PC.

He lost me though, by implying that nobody wants to publish what we should all really be reading: warts-and-all along the lines of several chapters he kindly provides, detailing his seedy, sometimes pornographic misadventures in Thailand, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines. But there's a time and a place for everything - what works nicely in Maxim or Men's Journal isn't, well, appropriate in Condé Nast Traveler.

Thompson also doesn't fully understand some parts of the world. His claim, for example, that "shortly after the turn of the twenty-first century, the travel media began touting Eastern and Central Europe as a paradise of rock-bottom prices, undiscovered villages, and empty beaches" had me scratching my head (oh, those fetching strands of Poland and Romania!). I was living in Prague in 1992 and along with plenty of others was even then cranking out reams about the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the region. He adores the Philippines yet slams the Caribbean as a "miasmic hellhole" with "an artificial culture." Huh? Sounds like he's been hanging out in too many all-inclusives. Sure enough, in a piece in this month's issue of one of my old employers, Caribbean Travel & Life, Thompson admitted he'd been to the islands only "four or five times."

Finally, after complaining about most "travel tips" articles being useless retreads, Thompson offers his own - and high on the list is bribing and making up whoppers for reservations agents and airline employees ("female counter agents are suckers for wedding stories, and details about things like rehearsal dinners establish your credibility"), along with stealing toiletries from hotel maids' carts. Hey, I guess you gotta do what you gotta do...

Of Sweatshops and Freebies

Speaking of which, in my own career I've done a little bit of everything: penned lyrical narratives for hoity-toity glossies and compiled reams of mind-numbing service information; written about presidential suites and Third-World fleabags; gone the expenses-paid route and taken press trips, both group and customized; rubbed shoulders with cabinet ministers and movie people and dug my own bush toilet in Africa; covered Very Important Issues and the smallest, most insignificant fluff.

And, along the way, I've naturally been exposed to lots and lots and lots of travel writing. Yes, too much of what's out there is pretty mediocre - even in more than a few of the upscale glossies. But the original and even edgy are also out there - oftentimes, I've noticed, in magazines that aren't specifically about travel but rather something else, with a particular sensibility and point of view.

Some of the mediocrity stems from that need to soothe or appease advertisers, some from the hack factor, and some, I believe, from the fact that more than a few travel writers in my experience are overextended and overworked. For the most part, nobody goes into the field for fame and (heaven knows) fortune. And while some folks who aren't even particularly famous manage to carve out reasonably remunerative careers - especially if they specialize, in consumer issues, the Caribbean, air travel, budget travel, cruises, what have you - mostly travel prose is seen as a commodity rather than serious journalism or literature. So a rarefied few publications may pay $2 a word, but the norm is closer to $1 down to as little (for some web sites) as 10¢; in magazines rates tend to be lower than for other types of writing, and have in any case been stagnant for decades. I was recently asked to do a Spain guidebook that would occupy at least a year of my time and require extensive research in a country where the greenback exchange rate is in the stratosphere, for the munificent sum of $25,000 and no expenses - essentially the same deal I accepted for another guidebook back in 1995. As much as I love Spain, I simply couldn't afford the gig.

What that means is that for many, attempting to make a living at this kind of thing can amount to a constant hustle and grind. And that's one reason why press comps and junkets remain a ubiquitous necessary evil. "Sponsored travel" has been one of the big issues since I've been in travel journalism. In fact, I worked at Condé Nast Traveler shortly after it launched in 1987; one of that magazine's biggest claims to superiority was "truth in travel," spearheaded by a much vaunted "no-press-trips" policy. The argument was that paying full freight for its writers and editors equaled more impartial, higher-quality coverage without being beholden to tourism boards, airlines, and tour operators which would supposedly demand (or at least expect) glowing reviews in return for footing the bill.

In the years since comp-or-not became an issue, many of what might be considered the United States' "A-list" travel glossies - not just CNT but also Travel+Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and so forth - have trumpeted similar conversions, and many newspaper travel sections have followed suit. But plenty of outlets still accept "media fams," including niche and regional publications (such as travel-trade, extreme-high-end luxury, gay, and various web sites of all stripes), and many guidebook series, including biggies like Frommers and Fodors.

I recently polled various writers, editors, and PR folks about media comps and rates, and whether they influence coverage; the ones who weren't too skittish to answer were split. "Yes," snapped New York Times travel editor Stuart Emmrich (the Times won't use writers it knows have accepted freebies in the past two years, but such purism isn't observed for all articles sent out by the New York Times Syndicate). One friend, freelance writer Ed Wetschler, says "I don't blame them one bit, but every junket-accepting writer I've ever talked to will admit to having softened the blows in the interests of political survival," while AirfareWatchdog.com founder George Hobica counters, "the pros who write for major pubs wouldn't be swayed. In any case, when was the last time your saw a major travel mag slam a destination, hotel, or whatever? Most copy is a loving paean."

Now, it's true that some writers have become "junket sluts" who don't always have the right stuff. One friend who, as they say, will go to the opening of an envelope, once told me she just loves riding "the gravy train." At a fancy hotel chain party I once attended in New York, who should "happen" to win a business-card drawing for a trip to the Maldives, even though she wasn't even in attendance? Why, the editorial director of a glossy aimed at the private-jet crowd. And the Society of American Travel Writers is at this very moment conducting an online referendum among its members about instituting re-qualification every two years because of, explains president Laura Daily, "a growing concern is that SATW's credibility is compromised by having members who are no longer productive as travel professionals, but are able to ride on the organization's coattails to secure free or discounted travel."

Be that as it may, I've found that some publications' less-corrupt-than-thou stance can be a hypocritical smokescreen - sort of like most of the Lil' Bush gang, now that I think about it. It reminds me of when righteous old Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 told Spain's Jews to convert to Catholicism or vamoose, many hid their Torahs - only to keep worshiping under the radar, so to speak. Asserts Hobica, "The mags look the other way. I've been on press trips with writers for glossies with no-comp policies who I know did not pay for everything, got upgraded, etc. Even the editors of these magazines get special treatment and upgrades from media rates all the time. It's all BS." Unlike with Spain's Jews, however, there's no Inquisition to handle any real enforcement. I myself have never - not once - been asked about the issue by any editor, and the truth is, even when they do ask, they don't push it. "At some point, yes, we're left with the writer's word," admits an editor at Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel.

And that word sometimes isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit, as a friend who once wrote for the Times notes: "When the Jayson Blair scandal hit the fan, the Times sent around a questionnaire asking contributors if they'd accepted any freebies over the past few years. I can name a number of writers who lied, so they continued to write for the Times." Furthermore, observes guidebook writer and frequent magazine contributor Jordan Simon, "really, there's no such thing as objectivity, either on a personal or corporate level. Even the no-comps publications choose what they cover and how according to advertising considerations." Adds PR pro Dina Allende, "publications encourage hotels and tourist boards to buy 'advertorials' [paid articles], and that's not only misleading for the reader, but in my opinion more ethically dubious than press trips."

So what does it all mean -- is travel journalism hopelessly compromised as a result of all of this? Probably not, but ultimately that's a question that's also probably unanswerable. All I know is, "Don't ask, don't tell" is alive and kicking. Happy trails...

David Paul Appell's latest book is Pauline Frommer's Costa Rica.

 

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