INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY
Year 5-Issue 56, Jan. 2004
What makes a good travel-writer?
Insatiable curiosity. A perverse sense of humour. Determination and a willingness to go out on a limb. Sensitivity to local cultures and issues. The nerve to ask the tough questions - and the proper language skills to do so. The stamina to press on when the assignment calls, even after you have found the perfect spot to hang your hammock for a while. And the discipline to keep meticulous notes (and backups) during the worst of conditions. A limited appetite for sleep and a fondness for waking up in a different bed every morning are essential.
At times, travel writers are among the first foreigners visiting "unspoiled" locations and their writing must be influenced by this fact. Do you often revisit the same places to revise your reports? And what do you usually find that has changed?
For me, the myth that travel writers are often the first
to visit "undiscovered" places is greatly overstated. While
researching in so-called "remote" places, I often encounter
anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, bioprospectors, NGO aid
workers, Peace Corps volunteers, foolhardy wanderers, etc who arrived in
places long before my editors or I decided that I should go somewhere. This
situation has pros and cons. These early outsider arrivals are often
invaluable advance contacts, but their presence inevitably affects the way
that I am received and my impressions of a place. I try to re-visit my
favourite destinations as often as possible. My list of places to re-visit
is quite long and growing all the time (as is my list of places I never want
to hear about again!), since often I spend much less time than I'd like to
in places when I am on deadline.
With your vast experience, how viable and how authentic are community-owned tourism efforts in the places that you have visited?
Community-based tourism efforts are as diverse as the communities that get involved in them. The most successful community-directed tourism projects that I've experienced have all received outside assistance at some point. Several of the most successful of those projects are now approaching self-sufficiency. No community is an island. The most compelling projects that I've been involved with retain a large degree of decision-making within the core community. During the National Geographic-sponsored Maya Atlas community-based mapping project, a key component was the phase during which Maya elders visited California from Southern Belize to gather and exchange information. Wisely, the final decisions - about what to map, how to map it, and how to share it with the world - were made back in Belize in community-run workshops. I don't see outside start-up assistance disappearing as a vital part of successful community-based ecotourism ventures, but I'd like to see more reverse exchanges, where the hosts are able to come to visit the visitors, as it were.
Green Certification for Tourism: Is it of any use to you or to travellers? And, based on your organisations research, how interested is the average reader of your guides in social and environmental issues?
Lonely Planet is very fortunate to have well-travelled, well-informed, socially- and environmentally-conscious readers. The demands of this loyal, growing audience constantly shape my research and writing. Through various feedback channels, readers express that they want to support and volunteer with responsible community-based organizations, that they want to patronize responsible businesses. These criteria and interests definitely influence how I allocate coverage and how I evaluate places. As far as certification goes, I see it as a niche market that has much potential but that is fraught with potential downfalls. In many ways, independent assessments of ecotourism projects (in guidebooks, on personal weblogs, bulletin boards, etc) already provide this type of information, without passing along additional costs to communities or consumers. There certainly is a percentage of the population that's willing to pay a premium for certification - the same folks who buy certified organic food and don't always have time to chat with farmers at the market to find out exactly how their food is grown. I'd welcome certification, as long as ecotourism operators don't end up spending more time dealing with an onslaught of certification-induced paperwork than attending to their customers, businesses and communities.
Is the Internet constantly becoming more useful in your research, or has it peaked? or are you not using it at all?
Email, FTP and the web are all indispensable tools for the work I do. Ninety percent of the feedback I receive arrives via email. Most of my correspondence is, at least initially, online. It's also the best way for me to track travel trends and stay in touch with current events in far flung locales. That said, I also look forward to escaping high technology while researching in the back of beyond.
With recent increases in travel warnings (even Australia has issued one for New Zealand), as governments and travel companies want to cover their backs, is travel writing becoming dangerous territory legally? is it becoming a dangerous activity literally?
I almost always feel safer while on the road than I do, say, while bicycling between my writing cottage and my publisher's office here in Northern California. As more countries issue safety advisories against travelling to the United States (Mexico recently countered a US warning about the number of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US with a press release detailing the number of US felons who are hiding out in Mexico), I find myself gravitating towards less-touristed places that are closer to home. But I wouldn't say that safety or security fears has affected any of my post-9/11 travel plans or aspirations. As far as liability goes, editors and lawyers definitely seem to be scrutinizing manuscripts more closely than ever before. Libel laws are still libel laws. The disclaimer in the front of LP books that reads in part "We accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone using this book" pretty much covers everyone's back on the publishing side. My assignments certainly thrust me into harm's way, but no more often than when I was a bike messenger in San Francisco. It really depends on the destination. During the past year I endured hurricanes, earthquakes, catastrophic flooding and a couple tense moments before coup attempts. Let's just say that I'm very happy to be home, even though I live in a cottage straddling a major earthquake fault!
I notice from your writing that you are rarely disparaging. Is it possible to write honestly about the world without offending anyone? Do you simply edit out the more unpleasant bits?
One of the few positives of the tight word counts imposed
in guidebooks is that there is little room for negative commentary. There
are too many worthwhile things out there that deserve positive coverage to
waste precious space on disparaging remarks.
With your ability to make or break a company or a destination, do you base your choices on some basic, solid criteria, and what are these?
Travellers and their word-of-mouth recommendations make or break businesses and destinations. Travel writing may often put places on the map, but they will only enjoy 15 minutes of fame if subsequent visitors don't enjoy themselves and share positive reports of their experiences with fellow travellers. Value is the primary criteria I use during evaluations. Secondly, I always ask: How true to their propaganda is a business? It's my goal to paint as realistic a picture as possible, to help readers decide how to best spend their precious time and money. Reader feedback plays a large role in what criteria I impose and in how I divvy up my research. If readers disagree with assessments I've made in the past, I make it a priority to re-visit those places, to sort out what all the fuss is about.
I have heard people say they will buy one of the famous guidebooks, but only to find out where not to go, as to avoid the crowds, do you believe them?
Sure. I do the same myself when planning a vacation or a research trip. Guidebooks are invaluable tool for sorting out when high, low and shoulder seasons are, when fares are the cheapest, or when the weather is at its prime. Conversely, the best books will tell you when places are deserted and eager for your business. Another unfortunately myth is that every place that makes it into a guidebook eventually becomes "spoiled." During the last decade, my research has taken me to several very remote places (all previously written about), and even though I've written about them, I can't imagine that any of those places will be overrun with travellers anytime soon. If I had a euro for every time I've met a self-professed "guidebook hater" who asked me to photocopy a map or bus/train/ferry schedule from a book I was carrying, I'd be able to retire tomorrow.
Do you travel incognito when you're writing to preserve your impartiality and the accuracy of your work, or is this impossible for cost reasons, and you need to occasionally accept complimentary trips and services?
My approach varies depending on a number of factors. Travelling incognito has distinct disadvantages, especially when dealing with government officials. I prefer the honest approach, since I'd prefer that people are honest with me. More often than not, I travel incognito. Since my research time is precious and deadlines are always tight, I often will not identify myself to avoid receiving "VIP treatment" - eg, meeting everyone in an entire village or spending an entire day on a guided tour of one hotel or attraction. My personal policy regarding complimentary offers is in line with Lonely Planet's policy, which appears prominently in the front of every book (in several languages): "Writers do not accept discounts or payments in exchange for positive coverage of any sort." When I do identify myself as a travel writer, I always go out of my way up front to make it clear that there will be no pro quid pro, and that all reviews I write provide independent opinions.
Guidebooks, do they have a future in print form? or will they be soon replaced by portable electronic guidebooks, by the same companies?
There's something irreplaceable about holding and reading a newspaper in the morning. Similarly, I believe that print guidebooks will endure indefinitely. Digital media certainly has its place in the travel information world, especially for travellers exchanging feedback about their experiences. In a prior life, I enjoyed working as a webmonkey, developing Webby-award-winning travel websites and mobile digital city guides. I've yet to see anyone fully realise the potential of real-time travel information delivery. I hope that the day is coming soon. And I hope that travellers will continue to pack their guidebooks to compliment whatever they discover in the digital realm.
Which place that you have not yet visited, would you like to write about, and why?
I'm fascinated by exploding population centres like China and India, and by the effects that their citizens will have on the world as they travel overseas en masse. After 10 months on the road in Mexico and South America in 2003, I'm now interested in writing about places closer to my home here in Alta California, unique places that people (and endangered native species) are re-inhabiting in creative, environmentally-conscious ways. And then there's a little-traversed backcountry corner of Yellowstone National Park (the lower 48 US state's largest, most wild wilderness), which didn't make it into my recent book. I'd like very much to spend some extended time there soon.
Do you wish to say anything else to our readers?
Readers can look forward to expanded ecotourism coverage and new socially- and environmentally-responsible travel sections in the new editions of Lonely Planet's Bolivia, Mexico and South America on a Shoestring titles, all forthcoming in mid-2004.
Thank you very much
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