Commentary: Travel Writing

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a travel writer. When I discovered my passion for writing some eight years ago, it was the very genre that prompted me to make a career out of it. Grandiose dreams of travelling the world and writing about it sprang to mind, and I pictured myself at the foot of the mountain I was about to climb — the Mount Olympus of the writing industry, where National Geographic and Lonely Planet await at the pinnacle, the resting place of the gods. Eight years on, I pause mid-climb to reflect on my journey so far.

I remember my initial excitement when I landed my first freelance writing gig for a local travel publication. I could hardly wait to pitch my ideas and start writing. My first piece was about Jemaa el-Fnaa, Morocco’s most renowned bazaar. I chanced upon it on an episode of The Amazing Race and wanted to write about it. Having never been there, I turned to videos to familiarise myself with the sights and sounds in the bazaar. I wanted to translate the emotions I felt into words as accurately as I could. It took me an entire day, but I eventually completed it, and I was satisfied with the final product. Nevetheless, I was also slightly apprehensive as it was my first time submitting an article that I had pitched for and written. To cut a long recount short, while my editors were pleased with my work, it did not do well in terms of readership. I started browsing through the rest of the online publication and began to realise why.

Most of the articles that did well were not necessarily well written, but they usually had: a catchy, click-bait title, an enthusiastic and energetic writing style, a persuasive call-to-action, and vibrant stock photos. Basically, it was the literary equivalent of an “As Seen on TV” commercial (This probably turned out a little more spiteful than I had intended). Digesting this was my first real lesson as I ventured further into the industry, a culture shock that would later come to chip away at my naive, star-stricken perspective of what I thought could save me from a lifetime of mediocrity.

Growing up, I was never really good at anything and resigned myself to remaining a good-for-nothing for the rest of my life. Writing gave me hope; hope that I too, could make a difference in my own little ways.

I soon learned about the role of travel articles in the grand scheme of things, at least in Singapore’s context. There are two kinds of travel articles. The first are sales pitches whose calls-to-action often involve forking out money to purchase anything from tour packages to plane tickets, to hotel stays, all of which can usually be found on the publication’s website itself. The second act as support — they help the former by sprinkling destinations with gilded confetti of glitz and glamour, and you can bet your bottom dollar that there is either a related travel product at the end of these articles, or on the website itself. As I write this, I realise they are very much one and the same, the only difference being the level of subtlety. 

This gradual discovery disheartened me, and the idealist in me, greatly, but it was only a few months later that I started to question my journey, specifically, after writing several more articles about destinations I had never been to tipped me over the edge. I remember being in the middle of drafting up article pitches when I stopped right in my tracks. This isn’t right. This feels fabricated. In addition, the publication I was working for had tasked me with writing an article about a certain destination in conjunction with flight deals that it was featuring on their site at that time. As much as I was trying my best to ensure my articles were accurate, I eventually concluded that no amount of research could ever match the authenticity of a travel piece written by someone who was physically there to live those moments. I sometimes wonder if readers are even aware that the “well-informed” travel piece they came across was actually heavily aided by Google and Wikipedia.

I also found myself with a bitter taste in my mouth whenever I would read about places that were deliberately spruced up, accompanied by titles ridden with superlatives. This, I feel, is woefully misleading. Regardless of how one chooses to travel, each destination has two sides, and to bury the negatives under layers of honey-glazed words is essentially false advertising, which is evidently acceptable as long as there is money to be made. I once received a seemingly tantalising offer — an all-expenses-paid trip to Turkey in exchange for content collateral. The catch? it was right in the middle of a period of turbulence, 2016 Ataturk attack, 2017 nightclub shooting and all. My task? Write about how safe Turkey actually was.

I turned it down.  

Above all, I found myself mourning the overall state of travel writing. With each passing day, more travel publications enter the fray, eager for a share of the enormous cake that is the tourism business. Even people who are trying their hardest to distance themselves from the tourist label buy into carefully packaged products that will supposedly enable them to “live like LOCALS“. The irony is that if enough people thought the same and visited the same local attraction, would its uniqueness not weaken in the eyes of the rest of the world? If Natsumatsuri for instance, were jam packed with tourists, would it not eventually lose its novelty, only to be known as ‘that Japanese festival with too many tourists’? Worse still, these attractions could well ditch tradition, instead deviating in order to draw a bigger tourist crowd, because the money would be too lucrative a prospect. I am also willing to bet that a good number of tourists patronise them for the sole purpose of appearing capable enough to appreciate culture.

There are probably hundreds of thousands of travel articles out there, one copying another save for a tiny tweak in the angle. The essence of travel — of discovery, of embracing the good and the bad in every place; all of that has been diluted and concealed behind cheap articles endorsed by a whole army of attractive social media influencers who probably show more skin than any semblance of constructive thought. Whatever happened to honest content? Whatever happened to letting one’s writing do the talking? The deeper I venture, the more uncomfortable truths I stumble upon. I find myself in an unfamiliar territory, where merit is earned not by the power of one’s writing, but by how wide one’s smile is.

Alas, I’m in too deep to back out. The realist in me tries to justify distasteful industry practices, but it doesn’t matter; none of that is why I started writing in the first place. Even if it means a more arduous climb ahead; even if it means I will never be a successful writer in the eyes of the industry; none of that can ever take away the voice I’ve found, and the intent behind every word, written by a mind cloudy with emotion and a passion clear as day. 

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