I’m a Traveler and a Writer, But I Have a Serious Problem With Travel Writing

By Dana Ter July 25th, 2014

For many people, travel writing is a dream job. Who wouldn’t want to be paid to write while sipping mojitos on a white sand beach? Yet every time I read an article about this year’s top 10 honeymoon destinations, or the 25 best surf spots in the world, I can’t help but cringe.

I’ve lived in 10 different countries on four continents and traveled to many more. I’m a traveler and a writer, but my experience growing up abroad has only made me skeptical of some overly simplistic yet popular travel writing trends.

Of course, travel writing covers a lot of ground, from destination-specific guidebooks to introspective personal journeys, but the industry has remained exclusive for a long time, and stories are often oriented towards “luxury travel.” Every place seems to be described as “beautiful,” “pristine,” and “unique,” and, apparently, white sand beaches are all that matters. Don’t believe me? A quick Google image search of the phrase “travel magazine” will generate dozens of pictures of women in bikinis sitting on said beaches of white sand. Who knew there were so many?

Traveling is supposed to break down barriers, whether they are cultural, linguistic, or gastronomical. Traveling is supposed to help make people more open-minded and aware, but a lot of travel writing has achieved quite the opposite. Publications like The Literary Bohemian only accept 5 percent of poetry submissions and 2 percent of prose. In case readers do not fully understand the message, their website spells it out: “This means we are picky.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there are travel blogs written by backpacker types, foreign exchange students, and expatriates. Of course, some of these blogs contain great content. But the reality is that you don’t need to be a journalist or even a good writer in order to blog, just like knowing how to use filters on Instagram doesn’t automatically make you a professional photographer.

Competition to become a freelance travel writer, let alone a staff writer, is fierce. A friend of mine wasn’t able to get his work published in National Geographic until he had racked up 10 years of experience. On the other hand, all you need to start a travel-oriented blog is a laptop and Internet connection.

There needs to be more of a middle ground in the industry, especially for young writers seeking to break into the field. Forbes reported that millennials are traveling more these days, but I have yet to see a cool, savvy travel magazine aimed at our demographic. Millennials wouldn’t be able to afford the hotels in Travel + Leisure or Condé Nast Traveler, and expat magazines like Expat Living or InterNations are aimed at an older demographic. What’s really lacking in travel journalism is a focus on in-depth story-driven articles, especially those that young travelers in their twenties and thirties can relate to.

I would not be interested in reading another listicle as someone gawks over cute little foreign coffee shops. I would, however, find it intriguing to read about what those coffee shops tell us about a particular culture. In Seoul, for instance, it is common for young women to spend hours sipping a $7 cup of coffee in one of the city’s many posh coffee houses. This is because coffee shops are a status symbol, and being seen in one is similar to sporting a Louis Vuitton handbag. When understood alongside other South Korean cultural trends, such as the rise in plastic surgery, it becomes clear coffee is viewed as another accessory women can use to try to look beautiful and desirable.

While these complex issues are usually overlooked, little backstories are often what make a trip so memorable. I can recall a beautiful castle I once visited in Prague, but I distinctly remember my conversation with an American tourist who had quit his high-paying corporate job to travel the world. There’s also the German filmmaker in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who was producing a documentary film about the Cambodian genocide. And I’ll never forget the time my friends and I were nearly stranded on a deserted beach in Yilan County, Taiwan, and hitched a ride from a nice family who owned a surf shop and took us out for dinner.

I’ve considered pitching these stories to travel publications, but I do not feel that my stories fit any particular mold. Conversely, I am hesitant to write about these experiences on a blog because I would rather concentrate on finding an established outlet that will publish it.

So instead of trying to pitch “travel” stories, I’ve learned how to leverage my “insider” knowledge to dig deeper into popular or seemingly bizarre topics. For instance, I’ve been writing articles inspecting why Taiwan is obsessed with Hello Kitty and examining the phenomenon of “couple t-shirts” in South Korea within the larger context of the country’s dating culture.

I feel like I’m able to convey my message better through writing articles like these than I could in a piece about white sand beaches. If travel writing ever wises up to the reality of travel, then I might consider pitching.

My entire life has been defined by travel and it has undoubtedly influenced who I am as a writer. But for now, at least, travel is the one thing I am most skeptical of writing about.

Image by Jirka Matousek
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