The editors of hidden europe, Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, reflect on the current state of English-language travel writing.
We very much like Matthew Teller’s writing. Whether it be his mainstream work for Rough Guides (Switzerland and Jordan, each written by Matthew, are both excellent guides in the series), or the way in which he delicately unpicks issues of politics and culture in the Middle East for various media, his prose evokes a strong sense of place — a quality that is often a hallmark of good travel writing. So when Matthew spoke up earlier this year about the current state of travel writing, we were naturally attentive. Here’s what he said:
Under the twin pressures of commercial sponsorship and user-generated content, travel writing has lost much of its credibility… [it is] too often channelled into how-to guides or PR-driven advertorial.
We are inclined to agree. The overwhelming bulk of travel writing that nowadays appears in English in mainstream media is promotional rather than discursive in character. Many of those who style themselves as travel media professionals have relations with tourist boards, tour companies and public relations agencies that their readers — if they knew of those relationships — might judge to be far too close for comfort.
The popularity of places as favoured destinations waxes and wanes. And when a reputation is on the rise that is, more often than not, because it has been nudged along by PRs who co-opt travel writers into the business of promotion. Oman secured considerable visibility in the UK media in 2011 and 2012 because travel writers were gently persuaded to write about it. We have a hunch that Lithuania is about to go through the same promotional mill.
There was a time when travel writers were fearlessly independent. The early Baedeker guides carried no advertising, with the editor advising readers that his interest in fair reporting was “the sole passport to commendation.” Such noble independence has nowadays been cast to the winds by many travel writers who are happy to write glowing reviews of any resort that offers them a complimentary stay. Good repute can now be bartered.