(and the rise and fall of travel writing)
by Frank Bures
It was winter in Minnesota, and I was leaving the ice and snow behind. Everyone on our plane was giddy about this. In front of me, several women in sweatpants were heading south for weeklong cruises. They sang Beach Boys songs at the top of their lungs: “ARUBA, JAMAICA, OOOH I WANNA TAKE YA!!!”
But I wasn’t going to Kokomo. I was flying to Guyana, a small, poor country on the northeast coast of South America. As I settled into my seat, the woman next to me turned to chat.
“So,” she said, “have you cruised before?” She was middle-aged, with a family of five in tow.
“No.” I said. “You?”
“We have,” she said. “We love it, and it’s super cheap! Hang on…” She turned to the window and snapped a picture of a baggage car. “Gotta put the vacation on Facebook! So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“That’s neat. What do you write?”
“Some travel writing…and other things.”
“Oh, cool!” she gushed. “We love House Hunters International!”
I reached for the SkyMall. The engines roared and the white world fell away. Soon my seatmate and almost everyone else on the plane would get off in Florida to be whisked away for weeks of pampered drifting on the Caribbean. I would continue south. Guyana is a place, unlike Aruba or Jamaica, not on anyone’s list of dream destinations. A few months earlier, I’d gotten an email asking if I wanted to visit. The note was from a company contracting development work from USAID. One of its projects was to rebrand the tiny, corrupt nation and promote ecotourism. I knew the catch.
Guyana had an image problem. Its economy was in shambles. The population was shrinking due to emigration; there are now as many Guyanese living outside the country as the 700,000 or so left at home. The country may have given the world Eddie Grant and the Electric Slide, along with the man who inspired The Horse Whisperer, but the fastest-growing industries were widely thought to be drug trafficking and money laundering. The only thing Guyana was known for was the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978.
The idea of turning Guyana into an ecotourism mecca started in the mid-1990s as neighbors like Venezuela and Brazil drew in birders and other tourists with their much-needed foreign currency. In 1996, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development opened in the middle of a million-acre forest reserve to research sustainable ways Guyana could develop its 40 million acres of uncut forests. As one of the least densely populated countries in the world, perhaps it could leverage its lack of development as an attraction. In 2006, the Guyana Sustainable Tourism Initiative started bringing in travel writers and tour operators.
The world demands payment sooner or later, which is how we arrived at this uneasy nexus of reportage and promotion which is often referred to as “destination” travel writing, but which has one goal: to generate tourism.
The email I received was part of this effort, and the kind of solicitation certain travel writers get frequently. It was what’s known as a “press trip” or “fam trip” (or, more traditionally, a “junket”) geared to “familiarize” travel writers with what the country “has to offer.” These trips are the dirty secret of the travel-writing industry and a small part of what freelance writer Mike Albo (famously fired by The New York Times for going on one) called “a secret underground economy of promotion—favors and junkets and banquets and gifts that keeps [New York City] in motion, and keeps underpaid writers at work.”
I was underpaid too, and looking for work as usual. But I also had deeply conflicted feelings about press trips. I’d been on one years before. At the time, I’d been desperate for money when I got a call from an editor (and friend) asking if I wanted to go to Montreal. There, he said, I’d spend a week being taken around the city, write a short-ish travel story, and get paid $1,500. It sounded like a great deal.
Montreal was a beautiful, gritty, complicated city—exactly the kind of place I loved. But for some reason, after a day or two I found the press trip oddly depressing. Most of the other writers were from suburban neighborhood papers or industry publications no one reads. There was an interesting photographer who’d taken the only known photo (at the time) of Carlos the Jackal, and another guy in leather pants who loved ice wine. But the rest were older women with no interest in anything outside the free stuff on the trip; many were expert junketeers and went on as many press trips as they could each year. Together we were herded around like kindergarteners and given a weeklong, highly scripted sales pitch.
After I got home, I made a Herculean effort to look on the bright side, then dutifully ground out the required story, a rose-tinted facsimile of my actual experience and a piece of writing so turgid and contrived that even today I can barely think about it. It lies there lifeless on the page; next to it, if I look closely, is part of my soul.
Why did it feel so wrong? Travel, for me, is about exploration, risk, challenge, and growth. Travel is like art: It expands your sense of what the world is and how you can be in it. Travel writing, in turn, is about life and all the questions that moving through the world raises about love, death, fate, and so on. But the trip to Montreal wasn’t travel in this sense. It was tourism. It was a product to be purchased and owned. It was shopping for scripted experiences. Tourism was safe. Travel was not. Tourism was an escape from all that was messy and hard about life. Travel was an embrace of it.
The scale tipped. I decided to go. We had to chip in $300 toward our plane ticket, which seemed like a good deal, depending on what was being bought and sold.
It was near midnight when our plane landed at the airport outside Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown. A light rain fell. We spotted each other easily outside the arrival lounge: four writers, two birding guides, and two travel agents, all feeling slightly awkward and looking bewildered.
A thin young man named Kirk approached our group and showed us our van. Before this gig he too had been a travel writer, and had written an excellent guidebook about Guyana. He knew the country as well as anyone. When we were all accounted for he directed us to a van, then we drove to a small colonial hotel in the city that had once been someone’s Nostromo-esque estate. It had intricate latticework and heavy shutters that used to hold ice blocks to cool the air blowing inside. After dropping our bags, we met in the restaurant, where Kirk began explaining the unique charms of Guyana.
“You’ll have to spray around your ankles and thighs,” Kirk told us as we ate, “to try to keep the chiggers out of your pants. They like to crawl up to the warm spots. You’ll usually find them in your crotch.”
“How do they get up there?” asked a travel writer named Jen. (Due to industry taboos, names have been changed. I will let others decide whether to discuss having been on a press trip.)
“They crawl,” Kirk said. “And sometimes there is a problem with leishmaniasis.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s kind of a flesh-eating disease. It’s not that common. But it’s something to think about. It comes from sandflies.”
“Is it treatable?”
“Yes, but it can be painful and difficult and leave scars.”
“The sand fleas,” said a travel agent named Peggy, “do they burrow?”
“No,” said Kirk, “but the ticks do.”
“Does anyone have a tweezers?” asked Jen.
“I’ve got a tick remover!” said Tim, a veteran travel writer.
“Thank God,” said Jen.
The talk died down. We finished eating, then retreated to our rooms. I lay on the bed, turned on the TV, and watched an episode of House Hunters International.
We left early the next morning as the city woke. We drove past the razor-wired walls of the prison, past towering piles of trash, past the canals choked with brackish, toxic water. Georgetown was a city of low buildings and crumbling homes. I tried to read a newspaper, where I learned it was World Leprosy Day.
“Oh look, doggies!” squealed Peggy. She pointed to several feral animals with sagging teats and visible scars. As we drove past, two began fighting in the street.
I looked around the van at my fellow eco-tourists. There was Tim, the grizzled old hand who complained bitterly that his last book “sank like a stone.” There was Alex, a blogger from L.A., who planned to spend most of the trip shooting video for his vlog. There was Jen, a sweet person and extreme extrovert whom I didn’t necessarily need to spend a week with. Within 48 hours I’d learned about her trials as a vegetarian travel writer, the thyroid condition that caused her to put on so much weight, her failed marriage, and so on. By the end of the week I knew more about her inner life than my wife’s.
The impact of a press trip is measured in column inches, with the value of the resulting stories estimated at approximately three times the equivalent advertising rate for the space.
Nonetheless, I admired them. Freelancing—freelance travel writing in particular—is hard. The pay is terrible. The risks are high. Failure is always one assignment away. One travel editor I know called it the freelance equivalent of wing-suit diving. But we fell into it because we fell in love with the world, with exploring, and couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in an office, though most of us do other things to make ends meet—teaching, second jobs. The world demands payment sooner or later, which is how we arrived at this uneasy nexus of reportage and promotion which is often referred to as “destination” travel writing, but which has one goal: to generate tourism. To that end, editors typically want brochures masquerading as stories. They want what media critic Jack Shafer one called the “standard travel-section crap that could have been composed by the local chamber of commerce.”
The impact of a press trip is measured in column inches, with the value of the resulting stories estimated at approximately three times the equivalent advertising rate for the space. That means a one-page story will be seen as worth three pages of advertising in the same publication. By this measure, one press trip to New Mexico with 34 journalists produced $3.5 million worth of “editorial content” in the newspapers and magazines they worked for. In 2011–’12, the Australian island of Tasmania hosted 160 visiting travel journalists and counted a AUD$64 million impact. In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia brought nearly 1,500 journalists on trips that generated more than $1 billion in coverage. The return on investment (ROI) was estimated by one U.S. tourism authority to be $21.67 for every dollar spent. Some travel writers even go so far as to brag about their own ROI, though no one has done research into whether press trips actually lead to more visitors.
Sadly, most magazines and newspaper travel sections would barely survive without press trips. One prominent travel writer I know shrugged and told me press trips are a necessary evil. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you have to pay for the travel, and what freelancer can afford that? Press trips fill this financial chasm.
If this sounds like a huge advertorial circle jerk, that’s because it is. Companies and governments sell their locations to travelers. Publications sell ads to travel companies, which in turn sell them to travelers. Much so-called travel writing exists only within this vortex of sales. And while there is no requirement, no official agreement to write anything in particular, and while we tell ourselves we’re free agents, deep down, every travel writer knows the drill: sell the trip.
The answer is simple: It is no longer travel writing. It’s tourism writing. And tourism is boring.
In the past, this wasn’t the point of travel writing. Before the masses could afford to travel, it was seen as exploration on the readers’ behalf. Early travel writing was educational, edifying, which often made it tedious. “Enlightened” gentlemen in the 18th century wrote ad nauseum of journeys to the deserts of Egypt and high peaks of the Alps. But as the 20th century rolled on, the line between travel writing, reportage, and literature blurred. Magazines like Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Esquire sent literary heavyweights like Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck into the field to report on events or just to give their impressions of places near and far. One travel magazine, Holiday, built its business model on this premise, commissioning essays on places across the world from writers like Truman Capote, Mary McCarthy, Paul Bowles, and even Jack Kerouac.
It was in this period that travel writing became entertainment, even art, and when books like Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts redefined the genre. Later, under the influence of the New Journalists, it became even more persona-driven, as in the pages of Bill Buford’s Granta and in the work of writers like Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, Bill Bryson, and others. (This tradition lives on, but mainly in publications without “travel” in the title.)
None of this is to suggest there was a golden era, or that all that travel writing was good (it wasn’t). It’s just to say that boosterism wasn’t always the default mode, and the freedom to create interesting work wasn’t as restricted as it is now. The point is that curiosity was once at least as important as commerce, if not more so.
Today it isn’t, which is the dilemma every travel writer tries in some way to come to terms with. There is no easy answer. As Elizabeth Becker recently observed in her new book, Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, travel writing has essentially become a wing of the travel industry—a $7 trillion sector that employs 10 percent of the world’s population—with the “singular goal of helping consumers spend their money pursuing the perfect trip” by cutting out any criticism and negativity.
The real problem isn’t the press trips themselves, because even the handful of publications that don’t allow their writers to go on press trips still manage to publish the same mind-numbing prose about magical destinations. The issue is the ecosystem they’re part of—and the promotional logic that drives the need for an endless stream of sun-dappled stories that once caused travel writer Tom Swick to ask, in the Columbia Journalism Review, “Why is so much travel writing so boring?”
The answer is simple: It is no longer travel writing. It’s tourism writing. And tourism is boring.
Houses became scarce as we drove out of town, and I tried to think of a story I could write about this place. Chiggers and dogfights were what stuck in my mind. I tried to push them aside and see the country not as it was, but as a travel editor might want it to be: Undiscovered? Rustic? Lush? I tried to put myself in this mindset: If I were a tourist with enough money to come to Guyana, what would that be like? Would it be money well spent? What would I want from the place? What did Guyana have to offer for $300, let alone $3,000?
We drove until we reached a dock that led down to a wide river. It was pouring rain as we climbed out of the van and into a large motorboat. We piled in, then puttered up a small, winding jungle river like a bunch of low-rent eco-Kurtzes. As soon as we arrived at the lodge—a rustic log building perched on stilts above the water—everyone disappeared into their rooms to check their email and update Facebook pages. After an hour or two, we drifted back to the boat and traveled farther upstream, to where the Crimson Topaz—the world’s second-largest hummingbird—was known to linger. On our way we passed a gash in the forest where the earth was black from fire. Two shirtless young men stood beside a tractor and glared at us.
In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australia brought nearly 1,500 journalist on trips that generated more than AUD$1 billion in coverage.
“What’s that?” asked Peggy.
“Logging,” said one of the guides.
“Oh my gosh,” she said, “that can do so much damage to this kind of environment!”
“It’s the main source of income around here,” the guide said.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve traveled a lot in Brazil and the Amazon in the last 25 years and the difference I’ve seen with pollution and the damage…It’s disgusting.”
The guide shrugged. Around a few more turns in the river, our boat stopped and the hummingbirds buzzed. There were three of them, darting through the twilight after insects hovering over the stream. We sat still while they danced around our boat. They had long, forked tails and bright red flashes of color in their wings. Cameras rattled like machine guns. No one spoke.
The sky slowly darkened. The guide finally fired the engine and we turned downstream toward the lodge. As we rode along, we heard the slow creak and crash of a tree falling somewhere deep in the forest. We all pretended not to hear it.
Alex, the vlogger, looked up at the trees. “This is totally legit rainforest. Definitely old growth.” He pointed his camera at the canopy.
We’d come further south, to the foothills of the Kanuku Mountains, near the border with Brazil and one of the most biodiverse locales on the planet. The new “Eco-Lodge” we were staying at turned out to be more eco than lodge: A collection of planks assembled into huts, elevated a few feet above the ground. One of the birders found a foot-long centipede on her toiletry bag. Next to my shoe, I saw a wolf spider as big as my hand. A tarantula lived in the kitchen rafters.
We’d come here to hike to Jordan Falls in the mountains, a place that supposedly fewer than 100 tourists had ever seen. It was a series of cataracts that fell through the high peaks, and a place the local tribe wanted to turn into an ecotourism destination. The hike was supposed to take about six hours, and that was one of the highlights that had sold me on the trip in the first place: I figured it would weed out the whiners.
We started walking in the morning. The route was flat and easy, and we went very slowly. The forest was alive with the buzz of bellbirds and the wail of screaming pihas. After a while, we stopped to rest at a small river.
“Hey,” Alex yelled over to Guy, our Ameridian guide, “you should start a canyoneering thing.”
Guy looked at him, confused. He was from the village at the base of the mountain, but had spent years working in Brazil and knew a bit about the larger world.
“You know,” Alex went on, “you get a wetsuit, and you go upstream. Swimming around.” He made a swimming motion with his arms.
Guy said nothing, and it was hard to tell whether he thought this was ridiculous, or whether he had no idea what Alex was talking about. The effect was the same.
We moved on. The path angled uphill, and some of the group started complaining.
“Have you ever done anything this hard on a fam trip?” Jen asked.
“I don’t think so,” Peggy said.
“Even on Alaska adventure trips, you just go out and paddle for, like, a half hour tops.”
“I think it’s the destination,” said Peggy.
“This hike would kill half my clients,” said Jim, one of the birders. “And the paperwork on that is a bitch.”
We reached the summit late in the afternoon and sat on the rocks next to the waterfalls. Jen looked at the river mournfully.
“I wish I would have brought a more eco-sensitive soap,” she said.
I got up and sat next to Guy. He poured me a glass of rum. We watched the water tumble down the mountain. Across the valley, the evening clouds descended into the trees.
“You are really in nature now,” Guy said to me. “Even me, when I come here, I can feel it.” He clenched his fists to show how strongly he felt nature.
“Have you ever been here before?” I asked.
“No. Not until I started working in ecotourism.”
We sipped our rum. I considered the boilerplate phrases I could use to describe this spot: “untouched,” “pristine,” “remote,” “hidden gem.” I mulled the various epiphanies I could be having about lost worlds and whatnot. I wondered what would make tourists want to come here? Amerindian cultural exchange? Discovering deepest Amazonia? Chiggers?
Jen walked down the hill to take photos. Guy leaned over to me and pointed to her.
“You know what we call her in Guyana?” he asked.
“No.” I started to get excited. This was moment I’d been waiting for, the scene I needed to open my article. I was about to receive a piece of rare cultural knowledge from the heart of the rainforest. Guy leaned in.
“Fat girl,” he said.
The next morning we trekked down the mountain and sped on, cramming in as much eco-touring as possible. Experiences came so fast I could barely conjure up wonder before we moved on. We saw giant river otters. We tagged eight-foot long caimans. We saw the world’s largest fresh water fish, the arapaima. We marveled at the elusive, electric-orange “cock of the rock.” We sipped beers in a canopy walkway. We flew to the massive cascade of Kaiteur Falls where we saw tiny golden frogs that lived in special trees. The sales pitch was painful at times, but it was a fascinating place, and I was glad I’d come. The days raced by. The week flew, and before we knew it the trip was nearly over, and we found ourselves at a small resort in the middle of the Essequibo River, a waterway so massive that it has a thousand islands. That evening we gathered for dinner, and afterward we recapped the trip.
Kirk, the organizer, was there along with another contractor named Patrick. We gathered in a circle and Kirk told us he wanted to hear our thoughts on Guyana, its resorts, and on what could be improved for tourists: What did we think of the product? What would the market think of it? In other words: Were we buying what Guyana was selling? And if so, could we sell it?
A few kind words were exchanged about our guides, who we all loved. But after some tepid compliments about the country in general, the floodgates opened and week’s worth of pent-up tourist rage was loosed. The birders complained they needed more time to inventory birds. Peggy complained that the hike to Jordan Falls was too difficult for her and her clients. Jen complained she didn’t have enough alone time, and there wasn’t enough vegetarian protein. Someone else complained that the guides didn’t have laser pointers; that weren’t enough hooks to hang things on; that there were too many cassava demonstrations. Someone even complained that the guides weren’t actually “guiding.” They were just walking in front of us. In the whirlwind of discontent, I lost track of who hated what.
Peggy, who had remained fairly agreeable all week, turned into the customer from hell. “I’d like there to be more emphasis on sustainability!” she said. “Like recycling at the lodges. There is no recycling! And better motors on the boats, so I’m not inhaling diesel fumes. And you have to have backs on the seats of the boat. And life jackets! My clients are not going to be happy. You can’t have people paying that kind of money be uncomfortable.”
“Unfortunately,” Kirk tried to reason, “there is no recycling in Guyana....”
“Doesn’t matter!” she cut him off. “I’m just telling you what other eco-lodges in Latin America are doing.”
I felt blindsided. Guyana was a poor country, a rough county. What did they expect? As the complaining dragged on, my dismay deepened. I felt like I had been on a different trip.
The air left the room. Kirk thanked us, and we all returned to our beds. On the way, I stopped to look at the river. I thought about the woman on the plane from Minnesota. I scratched the chigger bites in my crotch (105 at last count) and wondered what she would have thought. All she wanted to do was sit on a deck, drink fruity drinks and forget about everything. Guyana wouldn’t allow for that.
Yet the more I clawed at my thigh, the more I realized that was why I liked Guyana. The sun wasn’t dappled. The chiggers weren’t exactly charming. And it wasn’t “magical,” unless you meant the dark shamans lurking in the jungle. But it was fascinating and hard-edged and rich with contradictions. Could I sell that? Who would buy it? Maybe I was too far out of touch with what people wanted from the world. Maybe Guyana did need recycling bins and life jackets. Maybe Guyana wasn’t ready for tourists.
And maybe that was fine.
The next day we drove back into Georgetown. The road was busier, the houses denser. The city seemed to press in on us. After a week in the quiet of the woods, the capital looked like a sad, rundown place. I watched as the car in front of us ran over a dead dog in the road—its head propped up as if there was still some life in it. Our driver swerved to avoid it.
We rolled on. We still had to see what the capital had to offer. First, we stopped at the African Liberation Monument where the “Battle of the Bartenders” was currently held. Then we went on to a statue celebrating the failed slave revolt of 1763 (celebrating the revolt, not the failure). Then we stopped at St. George’s Cathedral, where we had to step over several homeless men to get inside. Finally, we parked down the street from Stabroek Market. We climbed out of the bus while David, our city guide, gave us instructions.
“Inside Stabroek Market it’s very safe,” he said. “Outside…I can’t make any guarantees.”
Eyes wide, we hurried down the street. Along the way I looked over and saw a couple screaming at each other. They were playing tug-of-war with a child’s bicycle. A woman had a firm grip, and held tight as a man started punching her in the face. She went down with a death grip on the bike until another man came over and started beating her too.
“In Guyana,” David quipped, “We don’t window shop. We shoplift!”
We continued to the market, raced through its aisles, then hurried back to the bus. We had to get to the hotel room for a press conference. A few years earlier, a local newspaper had reported on a similar press event. The headline read: Canadian journalists to ‘market’ Guyana’s ecotourism.” The article went on: “Upon their return to Canada, Guyana will obtain free publicity through a 5,000-word feature article in the OUTPOST, which is also available in the USA and a 1,000-word article for the National Post, Canada’s second largest newspaper.”
Back at the hotel, we gathered in a small, sterile room. Seated in the audience were a handful of journalists so young they looked like they were in middle school. There were two TV cameras pointed at a table up front, where Kirk, Alex and one of the birding guides sat, along with several Guyanese tourism officials. There had been rumors the Minister of Tourism would be here, but instead we got a young woman three levels down. She stood at the podium and welcomed us.
“Fam trips,” she said, reading off a paper, “are an integral part of our marketing strategy. Our Minister is happy there are travel writers on this trip, and I am confident that they will help promote Guyana as a destination.”
Alex and the birder both seemed confident as well. I squirmed in my chair. They said a few words about how much they loved Guyana, how much it had to offer, and how bright its ecotourism future was. They sounded like they believed it.
The reporters had no questions, so the presentation ended abruptly and we went upstairs to an elegant, colonial dining hall for our farewell dinner. The room was packed with various important Guyanese officials, as well as people from the contracting firm. At the head table sat the U.S. Ambassador who, in a sense, had paid for all this.
We chatted. We laughed. We genuflected. But as the dinner wore on, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. The ceremony put an even bigger weight on our implied task, one I wasn’t sure I was up to. Finally, mercifully, the dinner ended and guests milled around. I darted toward the door, but Patrick saw me and maneuvered himself into my path.
He held out his hand. I took it.
“Thanks for everything,” I said. “It was a great trip.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “And I look forward to your article.”
“Yes,” I said. “So do I.”
FRANK BURES's last story for Nowhere, The Crossing, was selected as Notable Travel Writing for Best American Travel Writing 2013 and won a Lowell Thomas Award. He is currently working on a book about the relationship between biology and culture to be published by Melville House. More at frankbures.com