The future of travel writing is forever in flux, but more so given these tumultuous times for the industry. Robin Catalano spoke with a plethora of experts who commented on the past, present, and future for travel writers.
The predictions about post-pandemic travel are many. Wary travelers will stick to close-to-home experiences. Travel “seasons” will last just weeks or days, as governments turn lockdowns on and off like a faucet to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. Family and multigenerational travel will be all the rage.
While there’s little certainty about which of these forecasts will come true once we’re able to travel freely again, one thing is clear: the way we write about travel needs to change.
Some of these changes are in direct response to how COVID-19 has altered the way we live and move in the world. Others are long overdue in a genre born of colonialism, and that has often favored white men and people of privilege.
To take a deeper look at how travel writing has evolved—and should continue to develop—we asked a variety of experts to weigh in on a series of questions.
Editor’s Note: Given the extensive insight offered by these experts, we will simply relay the questions and share select answers, adding no additional commentary.
- Pauline Frommer, author, co-president of FrommerMedia, and editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebook
- Rana Good, travel writer and founder of Naïra NYC, an editorial platform for women of color
- Stephanie Elizondo Griest, award-winning travel author and associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
- Amar Grover, freelance writer and photographer
- Tim Hannigan, award-winning narrative history author, guidebook author, and travel journalist
- Tracy Kaler, travel writer, blogger, and co-author of New York: 48 Hours
- Tim Leffel, author, blogger, and the North America Conference Director of TBEX
- Laurie McMillin, professor of rhetoric and composition at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, and editor of the literary travel journal AWAY
- Carrie Miller, award-winning travel journalist and author of 100 Dives of a Lifetime: The World’s Ultimate Underwater Destinations
- Ashley Rossi, travel writer and editor
- Robert Stock, freelance writer and former editor of the New York Times Travel section
- Ketti Wilhelm, journalist and sustainability travel blogger at Tilted Map
The Evolution of Travel Writing
In some ways, travel writing has changed significantly, and in others, it has stubbornly stuck to old techniques and tropes. What have been the biggest changes to travel writing since you’ve been in the industry?
Griest: When I started out, it was completely a white male club. Now it’s mostly a white male club. [laughs] You don’t have to look any further than Best American Travel Writing as early as 2010 to see it—there are hardly women in it. And the Norton Book of Travel [1987; one of the definitive anthologies of travel writing]: of 50 or 60 essays, women only wrote four or five of them.
McMillin: The evolution is a bit uneven. The critical literature on travel writing has raised a lot of questions about the male voice and gaze of travel writing.
When I look at the popular writing in the US, it tends to be mostly consumable and not very experimental. I find in the UK, there’s a lot more innovative, mixed-genre, literary travel writing.
Stock: I think one good development is that there’s much more of a service orientation. It’s more helpful to the reader.
Miller: For a while we saw these compilations—“I traveled to 100 countries” or “I climbed a dozen peaks.” It got a little oversaturated. We’re seeing less of that.
I miss long-form pieces. There’s a real craft to it and it’s difficult to do, but it’s the form I think highlights travel writing the best. I think there’s an opportunity to tell really good stories with pieces that are 2,000 to 3,000 words. I abhor listicles, but I write them because that’s what clients want. I think it’s a tremendous disservice—like sound bites of travel writing.
Alternative Travel Stories
As travel writing has evolved, one narrative has dominated: the intrepid man (and sometimes woman) going out into the unknown on a physically demanding adventure. What place to “smaller” stories of cultural or personal exploration occupy in today’s travel writing landscape?
McMillan: The types of travel writing people are being encouraged to consume comes out of the popular magazines. It’s a masculinist approach. I’m interested in stories beyond adventure—stories of displacement, immigration, exile. Then it really begins to complicate the privileged nature of travel.
Grover: I’ve always thought good travel writing can fuse these elements, but I don’t think they’re of equal value. At heart I believe travel writing’s most useful focus should be cultural—to explain places and peoples in the spirit of understanding, under the guise of curiosity.
Miller: Some of the best stories I’ve written have been these slower-paced explorations—studying Venetian glassmaking, learning to knit in a Scottish community. This is the point of travel writing—to introduce yourself to something you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Leffel: When I launched PerceptiveTravel.com in 2006, I originally was going to call it “Small Travel Stories” because I wasn’t seeing any of those stories in the print publishing world. I wanted to publish the homeless travel stories that mainstream editors wouldn’t touch, the more intimate personal stories, the destinations with no commercial appeal, the local people behind the scenes who don’t make the glossy pages where we see celebrity profiles and $2,000 suitcases. While we’ve won stacks of “best travel writing” awards and gotten lots of stories into book anthologies, our traffic is anemic compared to those focused on listicles and “48 Hours in X” roundups.
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Over the past few years, several publications have distanced themselves from the first-person narrative. For example, when the current New York Times Travel editor, Amy Virshup, took over the section in 2018, she wrote, “In general I want to take the word ‘I’ out of our coverage.” Atlas Obscura’s current writers’ guidelines include travelogues under the category “things we can rarely use.” What are the advantages and disadvantages of relying on third-person narrative?
Stock: Third-person stories have a feeling of authority about them. They read like a news stories. But travel is immensely personal experience. I have always felt it was more accurate and fairer to the reader if it was first person.
Leffel: While third-person narratives can work well—look at the great ones in Outside, Men’s Journal, or Wired—done with less intensity and research time, they can seem detached and kind of clueless. I think of all the terrible travel reporting I’ve seen in major magazines where the article was clearly written by some junior editor sitting at a desk in New York who has hardly been anywhere. There’s no personality to them because the person has to revert to very basic third-person reporting.
Hannigan: I’m actually very uneasy—as a reader and a practitioner and an academic—about travel writing that doesn’t use the first person. Traditionally, travel writing of all types—guidebooks, journalism, literary travelogues—has tended to try to accrue authority, to say, “Trust me, I’m the expert here.” And this is where it can often be ethically problematic. Hoary old tropes, fragments of colonial discourse and cultural prejudice, or just persistent practical inaccuracies—all get reinforced when delivered in an obviously “authoritative” voice.
For me, travel writing’s potential redemption lies in the first-person voice. It’s a way of foregrounding its subjectivity, writing more honestly, making it clear that this was all done by one person, who arrived from somewhere else, carrying all sorts of cultural baggage, and probably didn’t stick around too long. To me, asking for third-person narratives in the interest of “authority” is a deeply conservative and nonprogressive approach.
Parachute Travel vs. Local Writers
In a similar vein, many publications have expressed the desire to move away from so-called parachute travel and toward deep reportage by local or embedded writers. Should only writers who have lived in a destination be the ones to cover it?
Miller: Absolutely not. There’s validity to having both voices in the conversation, but I think that seeing something with fresh eyes is hugely valuable. It comes down to the craft.
Frommer: For the last six years, the vast number of travel writers we’ve hired are journalists based in the destinations they cover. This gives readers a deeper understanding of the destination and culture.
Grover: Knowledge and experience should be the guiding lights, and these don’t necessarily flow from simple residence. To some extent this might depend on the story’s depth.
Rossi: If you’re a travel writer, your natural inclination is just to absorb everything around you. These are things you probably wouldn’t be doing if you lived there. You have a different purpose when you’re a tourist.
Stock: A travel section isn’t for people who are going to live in a place; it’s for people who are going to visit. The experience of a visit is going to be very different.
Pay Rates and Reporting
The push for deep reportage raises a more complicated question: considering the falling pay rates for writers—it’s not unusual to see rates of $75 to $400 for a 1,500-word “deeply researched” story—is deep reportage a realistic expectation?
Hannigan: Not really—but then it hasn’t been for years, to be honest. Travel writing has been dominated by the fly-by-night hack and elite drifter with a “private income” for decades.
Grover: Well, to borrow an expression, if you pay peanuts you get monkeys! As rates head south, deep reportage gets increasingly unrealistic. This really is a problem. It may be that the old exclusivity that some publications required even for really quite unsensational features may have to be reconsidered.
Miller: If they want quality writing and quality pitches and quality fact-checking and reporting, they’ve got to pay well. If you only pay someone $200 to write the story, you’re only going to get $200 worth of research and work.
It’s part of a larger conversation about fair wages. Just as an example, I used to get royalties for reuse. I’ve seen one of my pieces republished 18 times, and I’ve only gotten paid for the initial writing of it. But if you start to put too many clauses in your contract about requesting royalties for digital reuse, you get labeled “difficult to work with.”
Pay rates are part of the discussion around diversity in travel. Learn about Wanderful’s Moving Forward events
Press Trips & Travel Writing
Some publications won’t publish a writer’s work if was part of a press trip, or included any other form of compensation from a DMO or brand. Should press trips be prohibited for travel articles?
Stock: [In the 1970s at the New York Times,] many travel writers were affluent housewives and people of independent means who were just in it to be comped for trips. When I took over the travel section, all of the stories were positive. The Florida stories would be placed with the Florida ads—you follow me. I took the job with the conditions that there was no comping, and the stories had to be warts and all.
Kaler: I don’t think any publications should ban press trips. Travel is expensive. Travel writers generally don’t get paid very much. To make a trip you pay for worthwhile, the number of articles you have to write just to break even is off the charts. You might have to write four articles just to pay for a flight.
Miller: I am much more suspect of travel stories written by writers who didn’t visit the destination at all and researched the location from their desk, rather than stories by writers who accepted tourism board support to visit a place. Most of the writers I know and respect, especially experienced writers, can write independently from any proffered support. In an ideal world, sure, I think travel publications should fund writers’ travel; that’s the cleanest approach. But it’s also unrealistic, especially with travel publications operating on ever-tightening budgets.
The Future of Travel Writing for Print Publications
Print publications are folding at an alarming rate, and many of the survivors have cut back on content. In a post-COVID-19 world, does it seem possible for travel writers to make a living solely in the genre?
Leffel: I personally think it’s going to be a very tough slog trying to be a travel writing freelancer anymore without a lot of steady online gigs or another vertical you are writing about as well. There will just be too many freelancers going after fewer and fewer content slots at fewer and fewer travel publications. . . . We’ve seen this death by 1,000 cuts taking place for two decades now. This pandemic just sped the end up a bit.
Rossi: I think it’s smart to diversify. Whether it’s topics like travel gear or things you can do at home to recreate a travel experience, lifestyle is a great middle ground that you can relate to travel.
Wilhelm: I also do content marketing, communications, Italian translation.
Good: I’m also an SEO consultant, which is more lucrative. The only travel writers I know who make a really good living have a grandfathered-in column or they hustle constantly. You have to go really big with volume, but I don’t know how original or creative the work is.
Travel brands and content creators: Check out the Women in Travel Summit
Women Travel Writers
Women have been writing about travel since the fourth century, but are still at a disadvantage in traditional publishing. Surveys show that publishing houses submit more books by male writers for literary prizes, and book reviews more often spotlight the work of male authors. Of this 2020 list of the 86 greatest travel books of all time only one-sixth are by women. How should women approach their roles in the travel-writing landscape post-COVID-19?
Xi: What I’ve found with my students is that they often don’t ask for assignments or are quick to take rejection. If you get a rejection, you go back again. Men are more likely to go at it again even if they get knocked back; they don’t take it as a personal criticism. And men talk louder. You have to talk louder if you want to be heard.
Wilhelm: I’d like to see more travel books written by women, not just blogs. Is it because women aren’t getting the attention they deserve, or because they’re focusing on other topics? Do they think travel writing isn’t serious, or that they don’t have enough clout? Being self-critical is wonderful, but it would be nice if we weren’t the only ones being self-critical.
Frommer: I’ve found that the quality of the writing has plummeted over the years. I’ve gotten pitches where I’ve seen sentences that don’t have a verb in them. It’s cliché ridden, it’s grammatically incorrect, is not done with an eye toward history and culture and accuracy. More than 50 percent of our writers are women. Regardless of gender, writers need to focus on the craft.
Stay tuned for part two in our series, which will look at how the digital world has shaped travel writing, the role of influencers post-pandemic, how to make travel writing more inclusive, and how we as storytellers should guide the conversation on safety and environmental sustainability.