The bitter-sweet world of travel writing

When I realized that I could write well enough to score As in my grade 8 English assignments, and that The Amazing Race was the best show ever invented in the history of mankind, I decided that I was going to grow up to be a travel writer. Thanks to further pop culture influences by the 1996-TV show Travelers that I religiously watched every Sunday morning, I wanted to grow up to be like Michelle, Pearce and rest of the gang, globe-hopping with a camera following them as they experienced different cultures.

The first step towards achieving that lifelong goal was scoring my internship at Verge: Travel with Purpose magazine. I helped research several destination guides while sitting in my cozy bed, but day-dreaming of the gorgeous landscapes of Patagonia and Amazon. I did travel on my own during the two years of my association with the magazine but no matter how much I kept my eyes and ears open during my trips, none of the stories I brought back were good enough to meet the magazine’s mandate. Talking to my editor, I realized that you couldn’t land in a place and expect to find a story unfolding; I had to find a story, research it, set up everything, and then plan my trip according to the story requirements and not my desire to travel the place. But, then that’s work… not travel, right?

When I was at Daily Planet, Ziya Tong, former host of Island Escapes, told me how you stop enjoying travel when it’s considered work. I expressed my great interest in becoming a travel show host like herself, after which she presented me the realities of how that gig worked out for her: she flew for hours and once she got to the destination, she had to prep for the camera, show up at location and start shooting right away. What I took from that conversation was that she stopped enjoying travelling to these gorgeous places because she never got to experience the beaches, the culture and the scenery; she was always working to put the show on air for others to see these places.

Furthermore, I stumbled upon famous travel writer Tim Leffel’s piece called The Seven Myths of Being a Travel Writer. He debunks the glamour associated with professional globe-hopping by pointing out some harsh realities: travel writers don’t make enough money to live on (at least not during the early stages of their careers), editors are not hungry for stories from new travel writers, travel magazines don’t want long stories or every painful detail of your adventure, and despite the “all expenses paid” advertisements, not all your costs are covered.

With my trusted Lonely Planet guide, exploring the streets of Leon, Nicaragua.

But that doesn’t mean that some writers haven’t earned fame and (modest) fortune from travel writing. Maureen and Tony Wheeler, the founders of the largest selling guide books, Lonely Planet, started off by publishing their notes from their hippie trail and called it Across Asia on the Cheap. Young adults from Australia to New Zealand almost considered it a rite of passage to go across Southeast Asia, through the Indian sub-continent and into Europe, so this guidebook was an instant hit. Maureen and Tony’s second book, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, published in 1975, is nicknamed the ‘Yellow Bible.’

Nowadays, everyone has used at least one Lonely Planet guidebook for their adventures; I have five sitting on my bookshelf. Not only did Tony and Maureen establish themselves as travel writers, they also employed many other authors as their franchise expanded.

It is speculated that with the expansion of travel blogs, google maps and smart phones, guidebooks may be reaching extinction. I still enjoy the novelty of guidebooks and will continue to use them as long as they are being written, but that poses the question of the future of travel writing. It’s unsettling to aspire to establish yourself in a profession that may be dying (if it ever truly flourished in the first place).

For now, the deep ambitions of sharing my travel experiences with the world are taken care of by my blog. The freedom of writing about your adventures without waiting on an editor to approve your story idea (or kill it) is pretty rewarding. At work, I also write for the Sympatico Travel Blog along with researching many more destinations guides like I did for Verge. It is bitter-sweet building a photo gallery for the New Seven Wonders of Nature when I am stuck behind my desk and wishing I was at those places. I joke around with my travel editor and ask  her not to assign me anymore travel stuff because it breaks my heart to research and write it, but then I jump on any assignments she sends my way, hoping to learn more about the beautiful places in the world.

I am at the stage where my career aspirations have become a hobby. I have travelled to nine new countries this year and shared my experiences with my readers without expecting any compensation. I may never successfully become a travel writer, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing about travel.

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7 responses

  1. Thanks for mentioning that article of mine at Transitions Abroad. I wrote it ages ago, but much of it still applies. For more updated and thorough advice, see the Travel Writing 2.0 book I put out last year.

    You CAN make real money at this and enjoy the places you’re visiting as well, but it takes a lot of patience and a long time building a platform. It’s very hard to manage in anything close to a short time and it’s an incredibly competitive field. There are certainly easier ways to make a good living. Then you can go on vacation anywhere you want. It just depends on whether that’s enough. For me, it never has been.

    • Thank you so much for your feedback Tim! I was very excited to see that you stumbled upon this piece and left a first-hand comment. Would love to read your new book.
      Cheers!

  2. The humor in the start , the comparison of enjoying travel and work , the transfer from guides to technology in travel made it a great reading experience.

  3. Pingback: Happy Birthday Blog! « roopgill

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