I’m deeply honored. After working so hard for so long, it’s gratifying to receive this kind of recognition, and all the sweeter to receive it alongside several of my friends.
And it got me thinking about the strange and wonderful industry in which I’ve been ensconced for the past seven years: professional travel blogging.
For those of us who are long-timers, dating back to 2010 or previously, we didn’t get into travel blogging for the money. There was very little money back then; if you made any money in 2010, it was probably from text link sales or a teeny bit of Google AdSense. Hell, when I started, I thought the only way you could make money as a travel blogger was through a book or TV deal.
We got into travel blogging because we wanted to tell our stories. Some of us started writing for our friends and family; some of us dreamed of writing for a wide audience from the beginning. We wanted to share the world with people, and for North Americans, we wanted to introduce our fellow citizens to the almost-unheard-of concept of long-term travel.
Me? I wanted to help women travel the world safely.
Of course I wanted to entertain strangers with my writing (I started blogging as a college freshman in 2002!) and share all my favorite travel stories. And once the money started rolling in, I wanted to keep my travels going as long as possible.
But helping women travel the world safely? Showing them that yes, it’s okay if you want to travel the world, you can do it alone if you want, and you’re not selfish or a horrible person for wanting that in your life? That has always been what drives me. That’s the audience I’m writing to with every word, including this sentence.
We all wanted to help — all us long-timers. We wanted to show people how to travel on a budget. How to hack points and miles. How to travel as a family. How to visit countries that were perceived as being too dangerous. Basically, we all wanted to change commonly held misconceptions about travel.
As the years passed — 2010, 2011, 2012 — more and more money entered our fledging industry. Freelance writing opportunities cropped up. Groundbreaking blogger campaigns took place in Costa Brava, Spain, and Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Sponsored content became a thing. Affiliates were no longer just for people with sky-high traffic. Bloggers proudly announced they were giving up text links. And then the holy grail arrived — the paid press trip.
It’s around then that the industry changed. In the early years, there had been plenty of bloggers who hoped to subsidize their travels and get some cool stays at swanky resorts; by 2014 or so, people were starting travel blogs specifically for the money.
When money is your biggest motivator, it affects everything — your travels, your content, and the industry as a whole.
I worry about the impact of other influencers entering the travel space.
As far as the travel blogging niche goes, it’s not as big or flush with cash as fashion, beauty, or home blogging. There are lots of reasons for that, but one is that travel is not an impulse buy. You see a pretty dress, a cool lipstick, or a cute set of placemats and it’s easy to rationalize buying it.
But planning a trip, especially an international, expensive, or complicated trip, can take years. You don’t just hit a button and randomly book a safari in South Africa for next week.
Case in point? I learned about the Sydney Bridgeclimb on season 2 of The Amazing Race when I was 17 and yearned to do it someday. I finally did it when I was 29. Travel ROI takes time.
There is money in the travel blogging industry, but it’s nowhere near the level of money for fashion bloggers. Travel blogging’s perks, however, are unbeatable. And that’s why lots of lifestyle bloggers, primarily fashion bloggers, have started to rebrand and add travel as a specialty. This mostly takes the form of posing in luxury hotels and in front of natural wonders in various outfits.
Some are quite good. Gary Pepper in one of the pink lakes of Western Australia is one pictorial that has always stunned me.
But to consider these bloggers and Instagrammers as travel influencers could potentially be dangerous. Why? Picture this. A luxury hotel invites a fashion blogger to Cartagena, Colombia. She gets picked up at the airport by a chauffeur, does several photo shoots in and around the hotel, and has a great time exploring the old city but doesn’t set foot outside it.
Predictably, her followers start asking her, “Is it safe to go to Colombia?”
And she replies, “Sure, it’s totally fine!”
For starters, Cartagena is by far the most touristy part of Colombia and isn’t anything like the rest of the country; walking around the old city of Cartagena at night is very different from other neighborhoods like Getsemaní, where non-luxury travelers are more likely to stay; the language barrier in Colombia is significant and you’ll struggle without knowing Spanish; much of Colombia is at a high altitude, which can lead to illness in some people; certain parts of the country are unsafe for overland travel; and Colombia at its core is a destination better for experienced international travelers, not newbies.
Colombia can be traveled safely — but it’s a challenging destination, even for experienced travelers. And a fashion blogger who waltzes in for a few days and doesn’t leave the old city of Cartagena doesn’t have the knowledge to advise her followers how to travel in Colombia safely.
That person should not be a travel influencer. But with lots of Instagram followers and partnerships with several gorgeous resorts across the globe, this person could be considered a top travel influencer. Even though she posed in the street with a designer handbag that didn’t zip up and are you kidding, this is Latin America, your wallet is going to be gone in ten seconds if you use that purse.
I worry that this is where the industry is going.
It’s time to stop ignoring politics.
One phrase you see frequently amongst popular influencers is, “I’m not a political person.”
Frankly, that’s bullshit. Are you breathing air in your lungs? Do you earn money and exchange it for goods and services? Do you cross borders and enter other nations? If so, your very existence is political.
I urge you to strike I’m not a political person from your vocabulary and replace it with one of the following options:
- I don’t care about people who aren’t as privileged as me.
- I do care about other people, but I’m afraid I’ll lose followers if I write about politics.
I’ve started writing more political content in the last year and a half or so. The ethics of attending a travel blogging conference funded by Robert Mugabe’s government. How to travel the world as an American without being embarrassed about Trump. Being the only white person to call out a racist travel blogger. Ways to travel more sustainably. The overbearing whiteness of the wine tourism industry in Stellenbosch, South Africa. And in the aftermath of the 2016 election, why remote workers leaving the US can do more harm than good.
I started writing content like this because I wanted to go deeper. So much of the travel blogging industry had become increasingly shallow, the rise of Instagram no doubt being a factor, and I needed to plunge back in and bring something more meaningful to the table.
Did I lose followers? I sure did! Mostly people who called me unrepeatable names and told me I’d regret it when Trump’s army rose up. Which…yeah, I’ll let that speak for itself. But it wasn’t enough to derail my business. I also gained a lot of new followers at the same time.
Do you have to do the same thing? You don’t have to. But at the very least, you should take a look at your content with a critical eye and think about the greater political context in your travels.
One example is North Korea. I personally think there’s no way to travel to North Korea ethically at this point in time. And yet several top travel influencers have visited North Korea, often as a sponsored guest of a tour company.
Of the influencers who chose to visit, some of them did a ton of research beforehand, analyzed their options, and determined that visiting North Korea would do more good than harm (in the form of exposing North Koreans to outsiders, however briefly). While I disagree with their conclusions, I appreciate that they thought critically about this issue and did what they thought was ethical and right.
Others chose not to think critically at all. They ignore North Korea’s human rights violations and get hypnotized by the chance to visit North! Korea! And for free, too! and return with content about how awesome the trip was, and how North Koreans seemed happy, without examining any of the deeper issues.
But you know what’s worst of all? When people in the latter group come back and say they’re not going to discuss politics because they’re not a political person! Come on. You don’t get to have it both ways. All the videos of waving North Korean schoolchildren can’t make up for that.
People will always disagree on what is and isn’t ethical and on where people should and shouldn’t travel. Some will refuse to visit the U.A.E., Russia, or even the United States for ethical reasons. All I ask is that you do careful research, own your decision, and don’t let the allure of a comped trip or bragging rights cloud your judgement.
We can all do better as influencers — so let’s try to do better.
Nobody is going to be perfect. But all of us could stand to do a little bit better. Here are some ways:
Consider your purpose. Why are you blogging? What sets you on fire? Be honest with yourself.
If your reason is So I can continue my travels for as long as possible, I urge you to rethink your purpose. Even if it’s To inspire others to travel, I urge you to think a little deeper and see if you can come up with something that benefits others more than yourself.
Think beyond your personal experience. Did you manage a whole trip without getting robbed? Is that because you visited somewhere super safe like Japan or Iceland, or because you’ve had years of practicing travel safety to the point that you don’t even think about it anymore?
Not everyone is going to be as experienced a traveler as you, so share your knowledge. Put yourselves in the shoes of a less experienced traveler going through this for the first time. Your ultimate goal should be to do no harm.
Acknowledge that travel is not only for the most privileged. If you’re a straight, cis, white, able-bodied, English-speaking traveler with a first-world passport, you’ve won the global lottery. Travel is going to be much easier for you than literally anyone else in the world. Acknowledge that.
Talk to travelers of color, queer travelers, disabled travelers, Muslim travelers who wear hijabs. Read their blogs and share their narratives. The Philippines and India both have tons of excellent travel bloggers, along with eye-opening stories of jumping through legal and financial hoops in order to visit destinations you take for granted, like the EU.
Use your voice to amplify their voices as well.
Consider the impact that you have on the destinations you visit. Are you putting money into the local community or making a chain CEO richer? Are you causing harm to the environment or animals? Are you actually interacting with the people of your destination in a meaningful way or just using them for Instagram props?
Just doing a bit of research can make all the difference. Aim for sustainability — economically, environmentally, socially. When you’re an influencer, your actions are magnified by the travelers who follow in your footsteps.
Read as much as humanly possible. It always amazes me how many travel bloggers say they don’t read other travel blogs. How else are you supposed to stay up on the industry? But don’t limit your reading to just travel blogs. Read literature — fiction, nonfiction, travel-related and non-travel-related. Read the news from a wide variety of sources and stay up on issues of the world.
At the very least, reading will make you more knowledgeable and compassionate and turn you into a better writer.
Aim, always, to help people. And that is how you use influence wisely.