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October 27, 2005

Talking travel in an academic context

Ever since my days as a travel columnist at, academics and graduate students have occasionally contacted me to comment on the state of independent travel, travel writing and literature, and globalization. These topics fascinate me, so I’ve always enjoyed these dialogues.

Since my comments always end up in small-circulation dissertations and theses, however, I rarely get to sound these ideas to a general audience. Thus, I’ve decided to start posting these academic dialogues on this blog. My first such transcript, an email Q&A between myself and Lea Teuscher (a journalism grad student at City University in London), is detailed below. Teuscher’s full thesis, “Global nomads & The art of travel journalism”, can be found in pdf form here.

Lea Teuscher: According to your experience on the road, what kind of people are today’s travellers? Have you noticed a change in the numbers or type of independent travellers and vagabonders?

RP: Today’s travelers are middle and upper-middle class people from developed countries — Western Europeans, North Americans, Aussies, New Zealanders, Japanese, Koreans, Singaporeans, Israelis, South Africans. Some Mexicans, Brazilians, Chileans, and Argentines, plus growing numbers of Eastern Europeans and Russians. A few Indians and Chinese. I’d say there’s a slight increase in the numbers of independent travelers and vagabonders, but nothing revolutionary. As I say in my book, the decision to go on a long-term trip is just not something that everyone chooses to do.

LT: Do you think that people are thinking about travel in a different way nowadays, thinking about it more as a way of life than just 2 weeks per year?

RP: Some people are, but not people in general. In the United States, travel is still seen in fairly confined terms. There are plenty of vagabonders — folks who seek out long-term journeys and live in such a way to make regular travel possible — but they are a minority. They may well be a growing minority, however, as the Internet helps bring people with wanderlust together and demystify the process of travel and vagabonding.

LT: Do you feel that a new traveller community is emerging, thanks to the different travel blogs and websites?

RP: Definitely, just like online communities have arisen around certain sports or hobbies or technologies. Travel blogs and websites demystify the travel process — they make it apparent that vagabonding or travel in general is something a normal person can do. That is, you don’t have to be a student or a hippie or a rich person to hit the road for several months or years, perhaps mixing work in with leisure as you travel.

LT: What do you think of traditional travel journalism in newspapers and magazines?

RP: It can be hit-and-miss. Some of the writing is really good; much of it is insipid and generic. Recently, I think traditional travel media have been conservative, more aligned to “safe” trips and attractions close to home, or without any cultural “risk”. As far as I’m aware, there are very few major travel newspaper sections or magazines that cover long-term vagabonding travel or deep cultural immersion travel. With occasional exceptions, these travel media are still mainly geared toward “vacations”.

LT: Are the ethical problems of traditional travel journalism (disguised advertising, paid journeys by tourism companies, danger of mass tourism) becoming more and more important? What solutions could be found?

RP: Certainly — and this has a lot to do with the fact that magazines have to make a profit. With new media competing against traditional magazines and newspapers, those magazines and newspapers have to cut corners on expenses. Newspaper travel sections pay next to nothing, and even major glossy magazines have to depend on trips that are subsidized by certain outfitters. It can be ethically dangerous (that is, writers are tempted to write “puff” pieces about comped trips), but it’s the nature of the market right now. Solutions would be more ad revenue coming into media to pay for journeys (not likely), or you might see more online journalism from travelers who are basically paying their own way. That’s how I got started travel writing, with — I was basically traveling on saved teaching money and giving them stories for very little money.

LT: What are the advantages of travelblogs over traditional travel writing, and vice versa?

RP: Travel blogs are more raw and unfiltered, which can be an advantage and disadvantage. Some of them are dull, but some occasionally have a spark and edge that one doesn’t find in other media. It’s like political blogs — they have an energy you don’t find elsewhere, but their facts are not always accurate. Hence, the advantage of traditional travel writing is that it has been fact-checked and has met the standards of editors. If reading and enjoying general travel stories, I’d opt for traditional media; to research the nitty-gritty of a destination where I’m headed, blogs and message boards are sometimes more useful.

LT: Do you still think there is a future for travel writing in a globalised world with very few places left to discover?

RP: You bet. Travel stopped being about “discovery” of new places about a hundred years ago. Now it’s all personal, and more democratic — that is, it’s not about rich men explorers, but average citizens making their worlds a little larger. In a globalized world where we’re constantly being reminded of sameness, it’s great to get out into the world and report back about how rich and varied human experience can be — while still being essentially and inspiringly human.

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