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In defence of travel journalism

“Why should I believe what a travel journalist writes,” someone said to me at a dinner party, “you haven’t paid for your holiday and you’re beholden to the people who gave it to you for free”. As a freelance travel journalist of some thirty years standing, or rather sun-lounging, if I’ve heard this once I’ve heard it, or something similar, a hundred times. It’s true we are a bunch of freeloading hacks for hire swanning around the world while generally enjoying the very best that every travel experience has to offer. What’s more, we have PRs fawning over us morning, noon and night organising all our travel, transfers and accommodation (usually the most luxurious available I should add), booking excursions and exclusive restaurants and ushering us to the front of the queue whether it’s to see a precious relic or a headliner of a sell-out concert tour. And in the case of Rod Stewart, on one occasion, both. We never put our hands in our pockets and the only time we lift a finger is to tap out a few well-chosen words on our laptops. To an outsider it’s easy to imagine how the life of a travel journalist must be the most corrupting experience known to humankind. And, as alluded to earlier, it’s all for free. In fact. to add insult to injury, we actually get paid to live this Utopian lifestyle and even have the gall to call it “a job”. So why should anyone take a blind bit of notice of anything we write? “The holiday industry spends a fortune on you,” continued my dinner companion spluttering filo pastry in indignation, “so why should I believe a word you say?” Well, here’s why…

It’s precisely because we get all this for free that you can believe what we have to say about it. Yes really, the fact that we enjoy all this luxury, pampering and 5-star treatment gratis means our impressions are untainted by any feelings of being biased in favour of the tour company or destination that has paid for our trip. Allow me to explain. It’s all do with behavioural economics, or more precisely, confirmation bias. This is a human trait that behavioural scientists say we are all subject to. If you think of us as puppets, it’s one of the strings that can be tugged to get us to dance, or think, a certain way. In layman’s terms confirmation bias is our latent tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe. Take newspapers, for example, we tend to read those titles that reflect or confirm our politics or view of the world, rather than ones that challenge it.

So what has this psycho-mumbo-jumbo got to do with travel journalism? Well in order to answer this question I need to tell you about a recent visit I made to the opera. It was to see a little-known work by a famous baroque composer, and I had been invited along to by a friend who had been given complimentary tickets. Exiting three and three-quarter hours later we thought that the production had been way too long, uninspired in its presentation and in a word dire. I’ll refrain from naming the world-famous opera house for fear of embarrassing them. But much to our surprise this wasn’t the generally held view of the people in glad rags we overhead while tucking into their Fortnum & Mason picnic hampers and quaffing champagne. (Yes, it was that one.) They seemed to have loved it and the conversation was ll about how wonderful it was. Then it occurred to me what was going on here. They’d all paid in the region of £100 per ticket and the effusive praise we had been overhearing, and which we couldn’t for the life of ourselves understand, was confirmation bias writ large. Paying such a high ticket price beforehand had preconditioned the audience into thinking that they would be experiencing something special. In other words their minds were saying if it costs this much it must be good. Be honest, you’ve probably done the same sort of thing yourself when ordering an expensive bottle of wine in a restaurant to impress someone. That’s the positive way confirmation bias works, but it isn't the only way it affects the way we think. It’s just as influential when nudging us in a negative way too. Consider this, if you’ve just dropped one hundred sovereigns on an opera ticket you’re going to look a total idiot if you then tell all your friends down at the golf club you thought it was rubbish, aren’t you?. Truth be told confirmation bias works in mysterious ways, and in every way it works it clouds our judgement.

So, if you want an unbiased view of a situation it stands to reason you need to remove the bias, and to do that in the travel journalism game what you have to do is take the money out of the equation. That way you get objective reporting and not clouded judgement. Of course, not everyone in my lauded profession takes this common sense view on board, and I believe there are one or two travel journalists out there who pride themselves on not accepting paid trips and who are happy to shout their holier than thou credentials from the rooftops. I was at the launch party for a swanky hotel a few years ago when a well-known travel writer and TV personality, who shall remain nameless, at the end of the evening announced to all and sundry in a loud voice that he wouldn’t be staying in the suite that had been reserved for him and that he was lodging at his own expense somewhere cheaper down the road. I was tempted to shout, “Can someone please pass (name) a plastic bucket so he can regurgitate all the free champagne and smoked salmon he’s enjoyed before he leaves.”

Not accepting paid trips and hospitality may sound that the resulting travel article is more objective, but it’s actually less. Firstly, if a travel journalist has had to shell out lots of their own hard-earned dosh to pay for their trip they run all the risks of being held hostage by conformation bias, just like our opera loving friends. And secondly, if they’re having to scrimp on what they can afford to spend on where they go, where they stay and what they do, how much of the entire experience are they able to report? Which brings me to the crux of the matter. The job of a travel journalist is really very simple. It’s not about describing sunsets in the purplest of prose, it’s to help people make more informed decisions about where they might like to go on holiday, and to tell them what they can expect when they get there and what it’s all likely to cost. To do this usefully takes knowledge and experience, an in-depth knowledge of the holiday industry and the accompanying experience to compare and contrast similar holiday offerings. And that, in a piece of carry-on luggage, is what travel journalism is all about. This, of course, takes a lot of travelling, years and years of it, which can only happen if it’s paid for. The fact that we do it for free isn’t a bribe, it’s people’s guarantee that we mean what we say.