The Dark Side of Travel Blogging
For awhile after starting this blog, I (naively) thought there was no way that a travel blog could be controversial. How could people have anything against exploring the world? Against learning from other people that don’t look, think, pray, celebrate, or live like them?
After all, isn’t seeing the world firsthand the best way to learn about it?
Then I began discovering articles (like this one) that alluded to a darker side of travel blogging. And while I don’t agree with every negative comment about travel blogging that I read or hear (more on that throughout this post), I will freely admit that most of the travel blogging rants I’ve read make some fair points... or at the very least, get me thinking about how we can all do better.
So I figured it was time to write a travel blogging 'rant' of my own.
Lately, I’ve been reading and listening to a variety of journalists, bloggers, podcasters and Instagrammers complaining about travel blogging. And while the content creators who are sharing negative opinions about the travel blogging industry and travel bloggers in general may see this as an oversimplification, I’ve noticed a recurring, overarching grievance they tend to share:
They are fed up with the lack of authenticity in travel blogging.
Why Should We Care What Other Travel Bloggers are Sharing?
One could reasonably ask: why does it matter to one travel blogger that another Instagram model who also calls themselves a travel blogger is posting only sponsored, heavily edited photos of themselves in exotic resorts that regular people could never afford as long as they are indicating on all their feeds that their content is sponsored?
Shouldn’t we all just mind our own business?
When I first discovered that there were content creators out there sharing their negative opinions about travel bloggers and travel blogging, particularly those sharing complaints that centered on a lack of authenticity, I’ll admit this thought crossed my mind. I got the vibe from some of what I was reading that travel bloggers who share 'more authentic' content were mad at those that only share heavily edited, sponsored content because those 'less authentic' content creators had more followers than them. I’m not saying that I agree with how the world works, but this just made logical sense to me: pretty photos get more followers, even if they are fake.
These posts gave me insight into why a lot of travel bloggers who are actually trying to help real people travel have a problem with the travel content creators that are just trying to make money. The lack of authenticity in the travel blogging industry isn’t just annoying to them, it goes against the very core of their mission as creators. Traveling in such a way that can’t be recreated by a normal person, but acting like it CAN be recreated by a normal person, isn’t just some type of confusing manipulation: it could actually put a real person in danger. And even if we zoom out from the risk of physical harm, there are other things to consider.
Content creators who want to help people are trying to inject a dose of honesty into their travel content because they want to prepare people for the fact that travel - just like life in general - isn’t always perfect. This means talking about when things go wrong, when trips go badly, when destinations are difficult and possibly not the best options for a first-time traveler, when loneliness and depression and the game of comparison take a serious toll, and when their privilege, influence and/or sponsorships contribute to their ability to travel. Travel content creators who have making money at the core of their mission statement don’t generally talk about any of that “dark side of travel” stuff… probably because they are running a business, and too much reality could hurt their bottom line.
So it started making sense to me that the bloggers who are in it to help are getting fed up with the bloggers who are in it solely for the money. But...
What Can We Do About It?
I’ve noticed two camps on this particular issue: some fed up travel content creators are recommending that we boycott travel blogs altogether, while others are recommending that we be the change we want to see in the industry. Maybe I’m just a relatively new blogger who hasn’t been fighting this fight for long enough yet to become jaded... but I tend to fall into the 'be the change' camp. I don’t think that just quitting travel blogging (or quitting travel completely) and handing it over to the type of content creators we all feel aren’t being responsible with their influence helps anyone.
Which is exactly why I’m writing this post.
Because I believe there is something we can do about the dark side of travel blogging.
We can consistently create unapologetically authentic content.
In my shorter introduction post to this novel of a blog post, I alluded to several topics that I’ve recognized I need to cover with greater transparency here on my blog, because I want to make sure I’m helping real people when I create content. This list came out of all the articles I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to and conversations I’ve had about what is wrong with travel blogging, but it also came from just reading a lot of travel blogs (including my own) and asking myself what may not be clear to the reader. I thought it would make sense to share this list, in case you find it beneficial. Maybe you have already talked about all of these concepts on your blog in great detail: in that case I’d say cheers to you, and please link some of that content in the comments because I’d love to read it and make sure it gets shared. But if you read through this list of topics and notice a few gaps in your content library, or notice that these may be topics you think a lot about but don’t necessarily say out loud in your posts, then you and I are on the same page.
A list of questions to ask yourself if you are a travel blogger who wants to help people.
Are you discussing people's access to travel, decision to travel and ability to travel in a realistic and inclusive way?
While I agree that there is no way to appeal to everyone with a post about budget travel or saving for a trip (since everyone's financial situation and travel budget are different), I also think that you can’t avoid talking about money if you are going to talk about travel online. How to pay for travel is still the number one question I get asked, and clarity on this particular topic sets content creators who want to help real people travel apart from those that primarily care about making money (after all, it pays to imply that everyone can have what you have in your sponsored suite in a five star resort... even if everyone can't.) Avoiding the topic of money, implying everyone can afford to travel and insulting people who do things like work a conventional job instead of traveling full-time may keep the sponsors happy... but those things don't help real people.
Are you having an honest conversation about the difference between travel and tourism?
I try to stay up to date on the countries and places in the world where mass tourism is causing a negative impact, and as much as possible I try to stay away from those places and/or avoid visiting during the times of year when tourism is out of control. Conceptually, I know that longer-term, slower travel is more sustainable... and it also happens to be the type of travel I like to do. That being said, I’m not sure how to reconcile my love of slow travel with only having 10-15 days of vacation each year. Going to any city or country for a month isn’t possible with a full time corporate job in America: there just isn’t that much time off work in a year. Ultimately, I don’t think we need to have the concept of travel vs. tourism and how it relates to us completely figured out. I just want to have an honest conversation about how I try to prioritize being a traveler over being a tourist in the context of my own situation going forward.
Are you not only giving a disclaimer about your affiliations and sponsorships, but also explaining your decision to monetize?
Personally, I don't run ads, have any affiliate marketing relationships or have any sponsorships. Why? I simply haven’t figured out how to reconcile everything mentioned in this post (the fact that I personally want more transparency and authenticity in the travel blogging space) with product and location reviews that bloggers are paid to write. I certainly understand that a girl’s gotta eat, but I also think that writing a 1,000 word post about how much you hated a product or trip to a location that you got for free would be very difficult… which is likely one of the reasons we don’t see a lot of blatantly negative reviews from travel bloggers who get free stuff. As is hopefully clear from this post, I want to make sure that I’m offering actionable inspiration for real people, and for now I just don’t know how affiliate marketing or free press trips to locations that real people could never afford to visit would really fit into that mission. No matter what your personal policy is on this topic, I think a truly authentic take on monetization goes farther than disclosure: it also includes an explanation of how monetization fits in with your mission (in my opinion, this post does a good job of that.)
Are you acknowledging privilege and the lack of diversity in travel blogging today?
I grew up in the conservative, Southern US, and saying that talking about the concept of privilege usually leads to a heated argument down here would be a serious understatement. I’ve also seen the research suggesting that talking about white privilege in particular can make people who are white become more entrenched and less likely to be open to people who don’t look like them… which is basically the opposite of what I’m trying to do by writing a travel blog (or by traveling in general). But acknowledging these issues that surround talking about privilege doesn’t mean I get a free pass on talking about it (and neither does anyone else writing about travel or money online). Another issue that you may have noticed while scrolling through Instagram: the travel blogging industry could benefit from a LOT more diversity. I don’t think there is one right way to address privilege and the lack of diversity in the travel blogging industry currently, but I do think there is a wrong way: avoiding these topics altogether on our blogs. This is a conversation I plan to have more often around here in the future, and I hope I'll see these issues discussed across other blogs and platforms as well.
Make Authenticity the Standard: Join the Conversation.
This has been a long post (and if you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for hanging in there), but the main idea isn’t that complicated: at the end of the day, increasing the level of authenticity in the travel blogging space is pretty straightforward. In addition to sharing authentic content, and covering some of the common issues people have with travel blogging and travel bloggers in an authentic way (four of which are presented here), we need to be having a conversation about how to improve authenticity in general. What other questions should we be asking ourselves about creating responsible, authentic content as travel bloggers? What topics have you seen travel bloggers avoiding (either on purpose or by accident), that can’t really be avoided if your goal is authenticity? How do we make sure that authentic content from a variety of diverse voices is being highlighted? What do we need to do as an industry to make sharing the process (and not just the finished product) cool again? How would we go about doing that?
While this may have started out as a negative topic (the dark side of travel blogging doesn't sound like a very happy discussion), it has evolved for me into more of a call for solutions. Everyone is talking about what's wrong with the industry, and there is some room for that acknowledgement: but I want to take that a step farther.
Instead of just calling out the things we don't like, let’s brainstorm ways to shine some light on the dark side of travel blogging.
And that solutions conversation?
It starts and ends with authenticity.
(I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments)