The (real) death of travel writing

I recently turned 50 years old. That’s right, I made it. Now that I’ve reached AARP eligibility, I feel I’ve earned the gravitas to espouse the old adage, exclusively disseminated by old people, that with age comes a practical wisdom that no amount of genius, schooling or Googling can provide. If you think that statement is bullshit, this is going to infuriate you, I’m afraid you’re just not old enough yet to appreciate it.

That wisdom comes bundled with newfound confidence that, at first, seems dubious, particularly if the first five decades of your life had been accompanied by wavering confidence at the best of times. Initially, one doubts these foreign feelings of confidence. After all, you’ve been so wrong so often about so many things that one lives in fear that any manifestation of confidence will be quickly, sometimes publicly, revealed to be foolishness. Again.

There was that time, for example, during my nomadic travels that I told, promised even, dozens of people in 20-odd countries that there was no way that (illegitimate) President Bush would be re-elected – or simply “elected,” if we’re being totally accurate – in 2004. And who can forget the time I predicted that the U.S., by its own hand, would become an insular, economically tenuous, socially chaotic “plague state?” Whoops, never mind. That’s still a strong possibility.

Despite repeated dick punches, my confidence about two subjects is now unwavering:

  1. Humanity will someday be nearly or completely wiped out due to gross stupidity and selfishness
  2. Travel writing is dead

People in the industry reading the latter will perform practiced, neck-snapping eye rolls, having heard similar declarations at least once a year, every year for more than a decade. But travel writing wasn’t dead, it was just slowly dying. It even had a few brief, but encouraging rebounds.

I can’t say for sure when travel writing died, but it happened sometime in the past few months, at home, surrounded by loved ones. The death rattle, however, lasted for many ungraceful years, as travel publications and travel writing outlets dropped like COVIDiots.

The mighty National Geographic Traveler print magazine shut down in late-2019. Newspaper travel sections scaled down and disappeared, including the legendary travel section at the San Francisco Chronicle. Delta Airlines’ in-flight Sky magazine, with more than five million monthly readers, barely lasted two months after the pandemic arrived, joining already departed Finnair, Brussels Air and probably others that I missed.

Numerous online travel outlets have temporarily suspended work, shut down or are desperately looking to merge, including powerhouses like TripAdvisor, Vice, and Buzzfeed. Lonely Planet publications is on life support and is rumored to be on the market again for the fourth or fifth time in 14 years, for progressively smaller price tags.

And now, of course, we have COVID-19, a travel boner killer many times more serious and lasting than 9/11. Granted, some countries are already cautiously reactivating their tourism industries. We’ll see how that goes. Other countries, namely the U.S. – which I have re-branded “New Romania,” in recognition of the familiar, rapid descent into the ham-handed, absurdist, autocracy personified by Nicolae Ceausescu – may never see notable tourism recovery before global tourism collectively succumbs to the climate crisis.

Considering the much more serious shit sandwiches currently being served around the world, its unlikely that the general public will acknowledge, or even notice, the death of travel writing. When was the last time people were in the habit of picking up their Sunday newspapers, immediately plucking out the Travel section and throwing the rest aside for later?

The last time I personally recall doing this was in the late-1990s, when I hit the milestone of earning three glorious weeks of paid vacation per year, and was allowed by my employer to buy a fourth week. I felt like a god among my fellow Americans with their pitiable two weeks of paid vacation. I had time off to burn, man, so the travel section was a much anticipated treasure trove of inspiration and barely believable travel deals, preferably in February, though June wasn’t out of the question. One year, package deals for seven nights in Cancun were so cheap, I went twice in two months. Now we have the internet, where all we have to do is Google “travel deals” and sift through 100 million search results.

When I say “the death of travel writing,” I’m not referring to the genre itself, of course. As long as people are traveling for pleasure, versus fleeing, there will be travel writing. (I’m guessing we’ve got at least 20 more years of that indulgence before the climate-driven scale tips). What I’m referring to is the job title; the people who travel and write and are able to pay their bills on the strength of that work, will be extinct.

Never mind economic and pandemic disasters, public attention span has largely reduced travel writing from appreciation to utilitarian. Who needs Pico Iyer when newspapers will always have Jeff, the guy that writes the obituaries, or Nathan, the new-hire, who gets the third string business assignments, to summarize their vacations?

Hint: If you see the phrases “[insert place name] is a city/state/land of contrasts,” or “where the old and new collide,” or “After a grueling day of travel from Chicago, my spouse and I checked into the Four Seasons Kauai and headed straight for seaweed floggings at the hotel’s in-house spa Charley Horse,” you know that you are reading their first, possibly second ever attempt at travel writing.

I don’t mean to disparage obituary or business writers. I’m just pointing out that the styles and writing chops are nothing like travel writing. I wouldn’t dream of attempting their jobs without some kind of training or close mentoring. But travel writing has always been one of those careers that has the illusion of being something anyone can do without any training. (Exhibit A: Me, but I eventually pulled it together.) Show me a well-traveled backpacker that doesn’t think they could start professional travel writing tomorrow if they felt like it and I’ll show you a donkey that shits gelato.

So, if cliché-filled, culturally insulting travel writing that reads like a sixth grade, summer vacation report doesn’t offend you, then you have nothing to worry about.

Fear not, there will still be paying work for talented travel writers who are capable of evocative storytelling, just not enough to pay their rent. And there will continue to be, I hope, a handful of book deals each year for the excellent travel writers, or the excellently connected generalist writers who decide to take a stab at travel writing. And then there’s online travel content, one of the few jobs where pay has consistently gone down over the past decade.

A quick look at some of the non-predatory job postings reveals that 1,000-word articles are currently paying $75 a pop. Up until I bowed out in 2014, I was getting roughly $300 for 800-word articles from Lonely Planet Online, depending on the exchange rate with the British Pound or Australian Dollar. After losing four of my best clients in 2013 due to budget cuts and closures, Lonely Planet’s sudden reduction in fees to $220 per article was perhaps the final nail in my travel writing career coffin.

For those who don’t regularly use words as a unit of measurement, generally speaking, a good writer with unlimited caffeine and few social obligations can crank out 2,000 printable words a day (printable, not first or second or almost-done drafts) with heroic effort. So, if they find a website commissioning enough travel content to make it possible, for the moment, one can still go pro in travel writing for about $150 a day in compensation.

Certainly, people in this world get paid far worse to do shittier work, even here in New Romania where such pay is still more than minimum wage, though probably not after the self-employment tax and paying for bare minimum health insurance. But the mental strain needed to get 2,000 words past a discerning editor each day, or worse, copy editors attempting to demonstrate their jobs are indispensable by sending back queries for every stated fact, would put anyone but a nut in the nuthouse inside a year.

And we haven’t even touched on the other duties writers are responsible for in the current content creation environment. In addition to assembling 1,000 words in meaningful order, most places ask the the writer to also track down two or four appropriate, copyright-free photos and, in some cases, identify SEO keywords or phrases and then sprinkle them in the text, whether they fit cleanly or not.

And there will always be travel blogs, of course. But anyone who has ever tried to run a bills-paying travel blog knows that writing is only about 8% of the job, barely an afterthought in some cases, and the quality of writing usually shows. These articles are service pieces, not meant to be enjoyed, just vehicles to answer questions that, according to a Google Keywords search, haven’t already been answered to death by other SEO-dominant websites.

To my fellow travel writers who are still clinging to the possibility that travel in the age of COVID, particularly in the United States which is now pushing the groundbreaking “just get used to it” infection control strategy, will return to normal in 12-18 months, I certainly hope you’re right. I no longer have a stake in the industry, but my nostalgia factor is extremely high, as you might have guessed after slogging through 1,600 words on the subject. I hope I’m wrong, but this unusual wisdom I seem to have cultivated isn’t feeling optimistic.