Published on June 5, 2012
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Travel and leisure sections are any publication’s most romantic pages.
Travel writing conjures the idea of interviews with tribal villagers, beach holidays at posh new resorts and time to pen sparkling prose describing the exact weight of those lush, verdant leaves you brushed aside to keep pace during last week’s jungle trek.
Are the realities of the gig really so glam? Depends on the day.
If you’re lusting after bylines in the travel section, here are 10 tips to help you craft more authentic and informed travel journalism, gathered from the UN World Tourism’s two-day conference on the Red Sea.
Dedicated to exploring the partnership between journalism and the tourism sector, the April 26-27 gathering aimed to create a space in which journalists and travel industry insiders could speak candidly about their relationship.
Share your notes as you go
Use social media to describe, in real time, your experiences on the road. Describe the local food, share photos of local people (snapped with their permission, of course) and highlight your impressions.
Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott, a married couple who run the travel blog Uncornered Market, said it will take time to build an audience.
But by using a personal voice and sharing authentic content, you’ll gain a more engaged, niche audience.
“You’ll find you get better engagement with your audience,” Scott said. “They’ll become part of your story and champion what you’re doing.”
Uncornered Market, which describes both sponsored and unsponsored travel experiences, gets around a half million visits per month according to TrafficEstimate.com. It has around 4,200 Facebook fans and about 4,300 Twitter followers.
Take time to verify your information, even on the road
Travel writers may need to take extra steps to check their facts, like employing a good interpreter. But how to check, say, the story of someone describing personal experiences that happened in the past – like atrocities suffered during civil war?
Alessandra Viola, a freelance journalist from Italy, recently interviewed a woman in Guatemala who has been sharing her experiences in that Central American country’s civil war with the tourists who stay in her lodge in an effort to educate them.
Viola spoke to other locals to verify the main sources’ story.
“There were a lot of women of the village there and they all had the same experience so they were collecting their memories,” Viola said.
“It can be better to get a story with the community, where you can check the information with other accounts.”
Color in the statistics
Accurate numbers are important, but statistics don’t have a heartbeat, said Anita Mendiratta, lead consultant of the CNN TASK Group (Tourism Advertising Solutions and Knowledge) and the moderator of the Red Sea event.
With statistics, you can summaries a story in two sentences, said Christina Poutetsi, a journalist with the Greek newspaper To Vima. But getting out from behind your desk is crucial.
“When you experience things as a person, you write about something that you know and that you perceive,” she said. “And this is the most rare and difficult part. But this is what brings knowledge, an overall knowledge, of a subject. Even the way the feature is written is different, because you have experienced it.”
“You write in a different way; the feature is alive.”
When you’re choosing which numbers to place high in your story, choose statistics relevant to your audience.
Mark Leftly, an associate business editor at The Independent, pointed out that the figure “$2 trillion of tourism GDP” has little impact on a reader. But writing that “a 10 percent hike in holiday prices hurts the wallet” is meaningful.
Keep it real
Don’t hide the negative aspects about the destination from which you are reporting - no matter how nicely a source asks.
If anything, mentioning problems will make your story more authentic and believable.
“We need sources to be honest and self-critical,” said Andrew Burmon, associate travel editor at The Huffington Post.
“If we get a quote from a tourism minister saying ‘These are the problems we are facing,’ I can make my page a little better.”
If you find yourself needing to calm a frantic public relations professional concerned about your story, remind them that aspects they consider abysmal aren’t really so horrid, suggested Abigail Hauslohner, a correspondent for Time Magazine.
“Approach with honesty and our story will be more than one dimensional,” she counseled tourism sector representatives at the conference.
When writing for traditional media, understand and accept where in the newspaper or website your story will be featured
“Tourism, in the West, is not viewed as a systemic industry,” Leftly said. It simply doesn’t affect the economy in the same way as, say, banking, oil and gas, or automobiles.
That’s why stories about the tourism sector, if they appear outside the travel or leisure section, are so often relegated to the back pages of the business section.
When it comes to pitching a publication for which you haven’t yet written, the best-case scenario is to know someone who can introduce you to the appropriate editor, Viola, the Italian journalist, said.
If you don’t have that luxury, aim high in the organization.
“An error I frequently did in the past was to start contacting someone who was not the big boss, because I didn’t want to disturb,” she said.
“It wasn’t working. I think you have to focus on well-positioned editors because he or she can really send you forward to the right person.”
How to craft a good pitch? Make sure you hit these high points from Leftly’s presentation:
- Highlight real-world impact
- There should be an inherent conflict. Case in point: Japan recovering from the 2011 tsunami and welcoming tourists back to its eastern coast
- Be sure the story hasn’t already been written. The more exclusive the story, the better the chance it’ll be published.
Expect suspicious editors
Michael Altenhenne, a senior international correspondent for Deutsche Welle TV, said he encounters major skepticism when he’s pitching travel stories to various editors at DW.
“I have to overcome, at least in my media, the suspicion that I’m not just a tool of someone I’m working for.”
Altenhenne said he typically takes a ‘Trojan horse’ approach to winning editors’ approval; he’ll couch a tourism piece around a relevant news hook like an anniversary, a sporting event or any other large event.
“Go through the back door with a different topic,” he advised.
“Don’t come direct and straightforward with a tourism promotion story, because it’s going to set off all the alarm bells.”
Be specific about the people and places in your stories, especially when writing about conflicts
Just as “local man” and “area woman” are the enemies of crime reporters, so too is “the tourist” problematic when covering tourism.
Say a European traveler has been involved in an accident in Chile or been arrested without warning by a policemen in China.
The story may be newsworthy, but using imprecise language to cover it may be inflammatory and result in unnecessary alarm for other travelers.
“The tourist is not always ‘the tourist’; he might have been an engineer or an adventure tourist,” said Dirk Glasser, coordinator of risk and crisis management for the UNWTO.
“Narrowing the description of the person … reduces the unnecessary, and I underline that, unnecessary harm for a destination.”
When writing about physical places, contextualize them in terms your audience will understand. It may be easier for readers to think about a two-hour drive than it is for them to imagine that a place is 200 kilometers from the nearest airport.
This proves important in countries like Egypt, where images of protests in Tahrir Square have been seen around the world. Clarify for the uninitiated exactly how far Tahrir Square is from the hotels, beaches, landmarks and markets about which you might be writing.
Establish sources at airlines and hotels. Reach out to various embassies.
“Go to travel markets and make contacts with people working in the sector, print a lot of business cards and give them out,” Viola suggested.
But don’t be satisfied with speaking only to public relations professionals, Leftly added.
Meet with the decision-makers - CEOs, senior directors and chairmen - if only on background. They’re the ones who can tip you off to more exclusive stories.
You need fresh angles
Christina Poutetsi, a journalist with the Greek newspaper To Vima, recently sparked a conversation in Greece when she wrote a piece about how the country is attempting to re-brand itself as a destination to boost tourism.
Poutetsi spoke with tour operators, government officials and markers about the strategy for the new brand.
“I found it, it was original and it proved to be also a common and popular story because there’s a discussion now in the country,” she said.
Tags: conference, egypt, how to, journalism, media, reporting, tourism, traininig, travel, unwto,
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