Thursday, February 26, 2015

10 ways to write better travel blogs: a critique of the travel blog industry

There is nothing I love in the world more than traveling. I love it even more than baseball. The area of my travels has not been extensive - I've never been further east than Jordan, nor further south on Africa than Egypt, and I've never set foot on the South American continent. Still, I consider myself well-traveled, having not only visited 24 countries (many multiple times), but having lived in four countries outside of the United States. Yet, I've missed a great deal of places I'd love to see, including Machu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Zanzibar in Tanzania. The problem is that with so many places to go and so few vacation days to do so, I have to make tough decisions on where to visit. My last trip, which sadly was two years ago, was to show Chris the city that possesses my heart, Beirut, and to visit the Amalfi Coast and see one of the sites I've always dreamed of visiting: Pompeii. In April we are going to the city that was tops on my list to visit - Barcelona - as well as southern Spain, where periods of history that fascinate me took place, that being Moorish rule and the Spanish Inquisition, as both have a profound effect on our world today.

I've often envied those who make their living as travel writers and who get to travel the world while working. For some reason, I've never figured out how to make that happen. I mean, I've been able to travel for work, but with the very notable exception of living in Lebanon, it was never enough. In my first job in DC, I was denied the promotion that would have given me more travel, and the program that I had developed and specifically picked Tunis to hold it in was given to the new program officer. It wasn't because I had done anything wrong; it was because I had three bosses in four years and the one who passed on me didn't know how much I had held our department together. I'm still bitter about it, because I really liked working there. I'd go back, too.

But working in development isn't travel. It's working. It's meetings, reports, and deadlines. It's bureaucracy and management. Travel bloggers write for a living, and though they have some deadlines and obligations to meet, they are pretty much on their own. To write for a living while traveling, well, I can't think of anything better. Increasingly, though, I've started to look at many of these blogs as lacking something. When they write about their travels, they write about what they ate and how they got there, but too often they miss the people. Then the reason I've never been able to make it work dawned on me. It's about substance.

See, even though I've never published a book, I still consider myself a writer. I still wish to persuade, still wish to teach, to help people look at the world outside their bubbles, to make them feel and to arouse empathy within them. When I write something about traveling, I want to show people what these places are like, and more importantly, what the people are like who live there. I want to relate my experiences and my own growth as a human being, and I want to build bridges to worlds that most people will never see. While I don't see anything wrong with marketing your blog, far too many today forget that the whole purpose of blogging is content. You wouldn't write a book without substance; why are you maintaining a blog without it?

A lot of travel bloggers get paid by companies to take trips to certain destinations and then write about those destinations. Some of them disclose this information. Others do not. While the latter are probably bad people in real life, the former can push a certain hotel or tour company to the point where the entire trip seems inauthentic. Still others are paid to market travel gear or guidebooks or tickets of some sort. That's fine, unless it's coming at the expense of content. That's what I couldn't do. It takes me long enough to write a post - spending several hours a day selling products is, well, selling out.  Some travel bloggers spend most of their time trying to sell their ebooks. Those are the worst.

Even the content itself is often junk. Look, for example, at the Matador Network, a major travel website. Go there and you'll be advised on what social media not to use if you're having an affair in Italy, or you'll learn how to drink like you're in the Outback. There are sections for family and kids, luxury travel, sports and adventure, trip planning, language and study abroad, and only one section dedicated to culture and religion, but that culture section isn't about the people in the places you go. It's about you, the traveler, and the section is full of listicles. Nomadic Matt is another big travel blog, but it suffers from the same "12 things not to do when you travel" posts. You can go through pages and pages of blog posts and not find one about the people who live in the places traveled to.

I know that travel bloggers make money from their blogs and that these kind of posts earn traffic. Maintaining a blog is a lot of work, and these days you have to pay attention to search engine optimization, social media, affiliate marketing accounts, and analytics in addition to actually providing content. It's tough to write every day, especially if you aren't traveling. But if you are traveling, there's no reason you can't provide some good stories on a weekly basis, even if it's only a reflection on why there aren't more cows in Bulgaria. And no, it's not "10 reasons why there aren't more cows in Bulgaria."

I went through dozens of the top travel blogs, and few of them focused on the travelers' interactions with the people of the places they visited. Few spoke much on their histories or the socio-political climates or even what matters to the people who live in those places. I mean, what is your point in traveling if you aren't experiencing the people? What does it matter if you see the Brandenburg Gate if you don't care what it represents or how it has affected those who lived behind the Iron Curtain? Why would you travel to Egypt to look at ancient wonders without concerning yourself with the instability there now? If you don't understand the country's history or the current political climate, you don't get the country.

Don't get me wrong - there are PLENTY of great travel blogs out there that tell of their experiences. They are hard to find because they focus on telling their stories rather than SEO and marketing. I know a thing or two about this area since it is my profession now, having moved away from development and into digital media while working in Beirut. Despite knowing what I should be doing to attract more readers (and more clicks to ads), I don't do it, because it detracts from the writing. It detracts from the story and the people.

Exile Lifestyle avoids all the bad habits and writes for writing's sake. He focuses on experience. There are no ads, no annoying listicles, and no photos - you can see his photos on his Instagram account. The minimalism of it all is refreshing.

Velvet Escape has a whole section on people, although the length of time between these types of posts is weeks to months.

Here's a bit on the Sami people in Finland, which is better than "12 facts about reindeer," but it isn't told from a traveler's perspective. Of course, on the same site is "10 reasons why you shouldn't date a Mexican man."

Here is a good post about a visit to the slums of Manila. Slum tourism is a disturbing trend among travelers, but this woman didn't write the typical "it was inspiring" kind of post. She is genuinely explaining what she felt and learned. I learned a thing or two while reading it.

Some of my favorite travel memories are the time I spent in a small Lebanese village with some older Lebanese men while they distilled arak or the evenings we had in Veliko Tarnovo with a group of Bulgarian friends or the tiny church we climbed to on a hillside outside Amalfi, Italy where the priest invited us to have limoncello. These people, not monuments, are the reason travel is worthwhile. To know them is to know something of their history and culture. To know them is to humanize parts of the world that seem so distant when you're not there. Why do Americans think the entire Middle East consists of evil people who want to kill us? Because they've never been there and make entire judgements based on what they see in the media. That's no different than what Arabs do when they see a story on their news about Ferguson, Missouri, and assume we're all in the KKK. 

So we're going to Spain, where I will meet up with a Barcelona native whom I've never met to watch a baseball game. Chris and I will head down to Andalusia after a few days, not only to visit the "monuments," where a clash between Christian and Muslim civilizations took place more than 500 years ago, but also to meet people we don't yet know exist and find some out-of-the-way local bars to chat with strangers, all of which I'll write about here. If I mention the hotels we stay in, it will be because of the hospitality or because we had an interesting experience in them. When I mention the things we say, it will give historical context in more than two or three sentences, and I won't neglect to wax upon the implications on our conflicts and events of today. I won't be giving tips on how to save a buck or writing "10 tricks to smarter packing" or use the word "quaint" to describe every nook and cranny of the trip. If we miss seeing a tourist site, so be it, because it's about the experience.

The New York Times published an article a couple of years ago about how much travel blogging has changed. Change doesn't have to be bad. Twitter and other social media can make our lives better, but we just can't forget the substance. Otherwise, what's the point?

No comments:

Post a Comment