I was in Belize, a paid trip by the Belize board of Tourism and I’m slurping down ceviche and broiled lobster and wondering about ethics. You see the point that became clear for me, in a way that only $200/night hotel rooms and free samples of Aveda shampoo can crystallize—is that there are no writers paying for this out of pocket. I don’t dare to do that math, but a $1000 flight, $200+/night for 5 nights accommodations and 3 meals a day that included apps and dessert (yes even for lunch) plus non-stop activities, air and ground transfers from one end of the country to the other, I’d say we’re looking a $500/day budget. Easy.
The big debate about travel writing comes down to semantics. Can you be objective if someone else pays the bills? To which I ask: does it matter if the check is picked up by your publication or the tourism board? Because let’s not kid ourselves. The writers in any glossy travel mag aren’t staying at spa resorts out of pocket. Someone else is paying. Does it make a difference to the writer if a PR group pays or your boss? Not really. It’s still free. It’s still a luxury that you couldn’t afford on your own. Does it impact coverage? Absolutely. But not in the way you’d think. Most travel writers aren’t approaching the medium like a restaurant reviewer. They aren’t visiting a location to covertly judge and measure everything and produce at 1-5 star rating. It’s about the angle, the story, the bigger picture.
In short, the story is the bias. I didn’t write about where we stayed or what we ate, but rather about traveling pregnant and my take on authentic tourism in Belize. I brought my own agenda and my experiences were filtered through that lens, not necessarily the objectives of anyone who arranged the trip. What impact did the insertion of public relations into my travel have? Access. Seriously. Sure, they probably made sure that my hotel room was extra clean or that they were quick on the water refills at dinner but I don’t write about those things. The biggest difference to me, as an independent traveler, was getting to meet the chef at each restaurant. Spending time with tour guides who were willing to be pumped for information. Having an after dinner drink with the hotel owner. Finding the stories that interested me.
Is it the only way to write about travel? Absolutely not. I could have spent the entire time in Dangria, following Garifuna drummers around and trying to learn everything I could about the African influence on Belizean culture, for $20/day. I would have stayed in modest locations, spent time interviewing locals and picking up as much Creole as possible. That has value. But it was interesting to me that what some people have classified as unethical, i.e. receiving “freebies” and not paying for my travel out of pocket, actually opened me up to stories I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
It reminds me in a way of the age-old traveler vs. tourist argument, which is really about purity. On some levels I’m interested in that, the idea of the pure travel writer, gritty and determined to experience it all and report back in flowery detail. I want that ideal, but it gets in the way of itself. It romanticizes hardship and scorns comfort. It assesses value based on obscurity. It frowns on name brands. To me, it seems that sometimes a place is well known because it’s awesome. Sometimes the obscure mountain village isn’t charming but a hell-hole. If you’re fitting the “authentic” mold then you’re conforming as much as the guy writing 500-word travel filler about his last cruise.
There was one thing about this trip that made me really excited for the future. This was a group of bloggers. In some ways they didn’t know what to do with us, and having done this trip, I have lots of ideas of how we could have used our shared resources better. But we are online writers. We’re not on assignment. We’re Twittering and blogging and talking about Stumbleupon and HootSuite. I think it’s a very exciting development, and hopefully we can figure out how to make it work beyond replicating the print model and inserting the word “blogger” into the itinerary.
Did I mention I loved Belize? The only side effect is my inclination to work the phrase, “You better Belize It” into every conversation. Maybe they did unduly influence me. Or perhaps there was something in that last bite of key lime pie. Totally worth it.