Why Aren’t More Bloggers Writing About Responsible Travel?

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 21 March 2012

This article was first published by Travelllll.com, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article.

Before the US Civil War, while Abraham Lincoln was still just a US state representative ignorant of the great occasions to which he would rise, he uttered a remarkably prescient maxim: “The true rule in determining to embrace or reject any thing is not whether it have any evil in it, but whether it have more of evil than of good.”

I begin with this – something unimpeachably wise from someone irreproachably sagacious – in an attempt to ground what follows. You see, over many moons I have read and pondered your (my fellow travel scribes’) articles, blog posts and comments. Sadly, with each passing day, I shake my head and wonder how you’ve not read the writing on the wall: the travel terrain has changed, so why haven’t you?

Tourist showing Indian women pictures of themselves

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Johnnia Utah

Vision Is Not Seeing Things As They Are, but As They Will Be

Most mainstream newspapers and magazines today give periodic lip service to the evolution of travel, acknowledging that more and more travellers consider themselves ‘ecotourists,’ but not really giving their readers enough to feed their ethical penchants. Hamstrung by shrinking budgets, market-deaf advertisers and cumbersome bureaucracy, major travel media look like they’re being outpaced by the industry they’re supposed to support.

So why aren’t you, the new generation of penmen and -women, stepping into an expanding vacuum? Why aren’t more of you – buttressed by blogging skills and vocal in your frustrated desire to be recognised for your craft – helping to drive the kind of change that positions you as leaders? More nimble, more imaginative, more bold and less reliant on traditional revenue sources, you have little stopping you.

As one of the rank and file, I wouldn’t dare to guess at or pass judgment on your individual motivations as writers. And yet, banking on substantial personal experience, I feel justified in a Lincolnesque examination of the evil-good balance of advocating for the fastest-growing but most rough-trod parcel of the travel terrain and of wondering aloud why so many of you (travel writers in general, but bloggers in particular) appear to be shrinking from a perfect storm of a challenge.

What We See Is Mainly What We Look for

Here’s what I see: an alternative marketplace that’s got many niche names: ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable travel, local travel, slow travel, community-based tourism, geotourism, green travel, pro-poor tourism, conscious travel, ethical travel etc.

This travel space continues to be alternative to the mainstream traffic of consumers who plan and shop for holidays guided principally by bucket lists and budget. That being said, high-minded considerations – worries about carbon emissions, ‘economic leakage,’ ‘cultural flattening’ and the like – are now increasingly asserting themselves as powerful motivators too. As early as 2007, Condé Nast Traveler‘s “The Power of Travel” focus on “the impact of tourism on communities and the planet” revealed a whopping 74% of respondents who thought “that hotels should be responsible for helping alleviate poverty in their own communities.” This is just a small fraction of the 7% of the international travel market in 2007 that the UN World Tourism Organisation attributed to ecotourism, a number that has increased significantly since then. We’re beholding the mainstreaming of the fringe.

Tanzanian farmer with drought-affected maize

Photo courtesy of Anne Flickr/Wangalachi/CIMMYT

What We Fight Against Defines Us As Clearly As All We Embrace

As I consider shifting travel trends, though, what has surprised me most is the lacklustre endorsement for change from travel media. Catherine Mack wrote meaningfully about this last month. “After a plethora of responsible tourism conferences, conventions and codes of practice, so many travel writers, not just travellers, still think it is amusing that our industry is ‘responsible’ for so much damage,” she lamented. So do I. I also wonder why.

Now, I’m sure the proliferation of travel monikers has lent to confusion about what it all means. It may even have lent to some degree of exhaustion. There’s already a small but important weight of accountability (and sometimes culpability) associated with the cluttered mix of mindful compound-noun travel styles, but does “The lack of a precise, commonly agreed definition of ‘ecotourism’… cause… misunderstanding, argument and debate,” as Ron Mader asks in an essay about tourism definitions? Why else would each new entrant into the space feel compelled to come up with a new banner, right?

I nevertheless keep coming back to the same thought. Does the majority of travel writers and editors just not get it? Or not care? In a LinkedIn comment left in response to Catherine Mack’s post, one reader is understanding about the mix of priorities that influence travellers and travel providers, but he has no sympathy for the media. “They would only be interested in the reality TV show ‘I’m a Responsible Celebrity on Holiday, Get me out of here.’ ” Another reader derides “smug media apathy.”

“We Buy Things We Don’t Need, with Money We Don’t Have, to Impress People We Don’t Like” – Dave Ramsey

Not surprisingly, the circle-jerk of blame in the travel media space can be impressive. I try to avoid it, which means I am ignorant both of what powers it and of how to neuter it when it grows too rabid. Looking in from the outsider ranks, I see writers criticising editors criticising advertisers criticising PR firms criticising travel suppliers criticising tourist boards criticising what writers write. Working in such conditions, the pool of writers – a glowing (and growing!) cadre of exceptions notwithstanding – seems fundamentally ill-equipped to drive change.

Girl in Pre Rup, Cambodia

Photo courtesy of Flickr/McKay Savage

Far too many of them behave like angry miners clawing at a passing flash of blood diamond. Do they not care about morality or changing consumer interests? Perhaps not. A writer I won’t embarrass by name once told me “I write for today’s traveler, not tomorrow’s,” which struck me as fundamentally wrong-footed. Everyone’s stuck in an engine coughing on dirty oil that soils the clean whenever it’s added.

We Only Grow When We Step Outside Our Comfort Zone

If your comfort zone is exclusively surf, sand and sun in an air-conditioned, gated, foreign-owned resort that imports the foods you eat at home and staff who look like you, it’s time to expand your horizons. At a time of global warming, widespread economic and political upheaval, and irremediable cultural extinction, should you really be devoting energy to the promotion of bad practices and sorry stereotypes? Why do I even have to ask that question?

I’ve never yet heard a legitimate argument against being responsible when you travel. Burlap sheets and grass dinners are no more likely with ethical operators than they are with any others. And objecting to the sustainable use of resources or equitable sharing of profits with local providers would be like lobbying against kindness. By Lincoln’s standards, then, responsible travel is more of good than of evil, something to be embraced. Dipping your quill in support of it should also be a no-brainer.

“We Must Hang Together, Gentlemen… Else, We Shall Most Assuredly Hang Separately” – Benjamin Franklin

If ever there was a man who was unafraid to try something new, it was Franklin. However, while he was always ready to go out on a limb by himself, he was also a convinced collaborator, banking (sometimes literally) on the shared wisdom and foresight of his colleagues.

Now, I’m no Franklin, but I do believe that travel writers (especially bloggers) are in a unique position today:

* We could add oomph to the fair travel crusade by giving consumers what they want and, just as critically, rejecting what is wrong with irresponsible travel.

* We could join forces with the mass of industry stakeholders who are making meaningful decisions about where they work and how best to present it to visitors.

* We could stabilise the unsteady responsible travel stool by adding media – the missing third leg – to those above and finally propelling the travel industry into the next generation.

What do you think?

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Ethan Gelber

In addition to his freelance travel writing (Lonely Planet author, ex-AFAR Ambassador, Huffington Post Travel blogger and more), Ethan has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, family travel, keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. Among many other things, Ethan is editorial director of the Family Travel Association, a co-founder of OutBounding, and tackles content projects for HomeExchange.com and RW Social, which produces the NY Trav Fest. Previously, Ethan was Chief Communications Officer of the WHL Group, for which he founded and edited The Travel Word (this now-independent blog); publications manager of the French government tourist office (Atout France) in NYC; and helped manage a Paris-based bicycle tour operator.
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media, opinion, personal experience, responsible travel, responsible travel news, RTFeat,

5 Responses to “Why Aren’t More Bloggers Writing About Responsible Travel?”

  1. couponmoz says:

    Quality content is the key to invite the users to go to see the site, that’s what this website is providing.

  2. @Inge. I’m very pleased that this post struck a chord with you. As I’m sure is very evident to you, I feel very strongly about a practice of travel that places a strong emphasis on respect for the local. If you haven’t yet found it, I encourage you to take a look at the Local Travel Movement (http://www.localtravelmovement.com), a not-for-platform started by people from companies founded on a passion for Local Travel and commitment to Local Travel values. I think you might find a lot that will feed your passion.

    @heather, thank you for your very kind remarks. The experience of travel could be so much richer if travellers were making more educated choices about where to go and what to do based on the wise journalistic decision of well-informed travel writers. This is an appeal to the latter to learn more about what they’re missing.

    @ron, belated thanks for your comment as well. Like you, I believe it should be an inherent part of travel. The goal is for all travel product to be responsible, sustainable and local. And there are many wise and able writers who integrate it into their work seamlessly, guiding travellers without the latter knowing it. But in order to pull along the resistant, we have to call things what they are and show how easy, relevant and vital it is for them to do the right thing. When we’ve reached that critical mass, then we won’t need labels any longer.

  3. heather rath says:

    Pleased I caught this article as a rerun since I missed the original. Food for thought, Ethan, and a philosophy that embodies the real traveller’s experiences. Well written. Thank you.

  4. Inge says:

    I’m glad I found this article. Well written. I was looking for a description of my favorite travel style and this article hits the nail on the head. Ecotourism sounded always to big to me. Like those luxury eco lodges in the jungle that nobody can pay for.
    The whole journey is so much more authentic when we go local, eat local, take the local bus, talk to local people, lend a hand to a local organization.

  5. Ron Mader says:

    Good to see you reblogging this, Ethan. It’s one of my favorite essays of the year.

    The only point I would add is to issue a challenge — how do we call out and give kudos to the bloggers and authors who embed ‘responsible travel’ in their work without saying ‘this is responsible travel.’ My favorite guidebook writers, tweeters and bloggers do this all the time. Responsible travel, like indigenous tourism, like eating local food, like slow adventures is the tourism experience. It’s a must-have, not an add-on.

    Many thanks for Travel Word’s support for Responsible Tourism Week in February. We’re continuing the dialogue using the #rtyear2012 hashtag. Details online the Planeta Wiki http://planeta.wikispaces.com/rtyear2012

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