The Ethics of Travel Writing

A seasoned travel writer makes sense of the Lonely Planet scandal.


In the spring of 1942, Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm announced that the German military was to embark upon a bombing campaign targeting every building in England marked with three stars in Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain. For the next six weeks, the so-called Baedeker Raids deployed bombs across the cities of Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, and Canterbury, destroying 50,000 homes and killing nearly 2,000 people. But the Luftwaffe didn't go after anything of strategic significance. It only bombed the buildings that the guidebook's author had rated as particularly fetching.We've been traveling for hundreds of thousands of years, but we've only been buying books that tell us where to go for about two. Pausanias' Description of Greece, published around A.D. 160, is the world's oldest surviving guidebook, a 10-volume treatise on where to stay, what to eat, and which gods and goddesses to check out when you're in that neck of the woods.But it was only when a scruffy, wiry young man barely out of his teens set off in 1972 to explore Southwest Asia that travel really began to change. Along with his wife Maureen, Tony Wheeler wrote and stapled together his Across Asia on the Cheap in a Queensland youth hostel. His company, which he cheekily named Lonely Planet (the planet wouldn't be lonely for long), soon began to pave what was once an unbeaten path, changing the very definition of travel.These days, travelers can buy a guidebook to every single country recognized by the U.N.-192 at last count-and the shelves of Amazon.com are chock-full of thousands of titles marketed toward independent travelers. But how "independent" can we be when we're buying someone else's opinions on where to go?Thomas Kohnstamm's memoir, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, asks just that question. Released in April, the book is a chronicle of Kohnstamm's time spent as a writer for Lonely Planet. In it, he narrates a number of personal traveling shenanigans, including a sexual encounter with a waitress (allegedly resulting in a good review for her restaurant) and an episode of impromptu drug dealing to supplement his meager author advance. It also includes less titillating complaints against the company's unrealistic deadlines, low fees, and lack of support when he was on the road.\n\n\n
Quote:
"How independent are we really as travelers when we buy someone else's opinions on where to go?"
Once the Web's travel bloggers got wind of the book's imminent release, the paltry prepublication buzz became a furor. Within a matter of hours, the blogosphere was ablaze with vitriolic indictments against Kohnstamm for plagiarism, fraud, and "He made it up! He made it up!" And for a few days it seemed that hell hath no fury as a desk-bound blogger railing against a writer paid to be away from his desk. While the ado was mainly over a few hyperbolized blurbs from the book's press release-most notably a misstated claim that Kohnstamm had never visited one of the countries he was paid to write about-the affair was a wake-up call for travelers around the world.In his book Kohnstamm rails against employment practices that he found constrictive at Lonely Planet, arguing that the reality of work and life on the road as a travel writer is misaligned with the image the company presents to readers. He is weary of the biblical status that guidebooks have attained among independent-minded travelers-books that have become authoritative voices on the how-tos and where-not-tos of travel.Kohnstamm's argument is not that guidebooks are useless, of course-just that they are flawed. What purpose, then, should these books serve? Kohnstamm wants us to remember to use them as helpful tools and not as a "paint-by-the-numbers approach to following the rutted backpacker trail through x developing country." Perhaps guidebooks should be used less to guide us around than to prod or nudge us along, providing just enough ammunition to get there, get settled, and then get out to explore the world on our own. Traveling with a book in your hand means you might miss out on the simple, enlightening experience of discovering something for yourself-which is the whole reason many of us board a plane, ship, or bus in the first place.Much of what makes it into guidebooks is completely arbitrary anyway: A single writer with a single dog-eared notebook decides whether a museum is "worth visiting" or a bar is "über cool"-not entirely objective platitudes. Even online guidebook site Tripadvisor.com, which relies exclusively on the public to post reviews, wants visitors to heed its mantra, "Get the truth. Then go." The last time I checked, truth was something taught in philosophy or math classes, not something read in travel guides. Enter any hotel or restaurant on Tripadvisor.com and you're bound to find negative reviews ("I'd rather suffocate myself than stay here again!") juxtaposed with positive ones ("I've already booked the place out for our honeymoon!") for the very same establishment.The Kohnstamm affair also lays bare the harsh economic realities of the guidebook publishing industry. Market saturation, devaluation of original content, and the bottom line of media conglomerates may soon make the dog-eared guidebook and the dogged guidebook writer obsolete anyway.At the moment, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is selling well and has garnered some very good reviews. While the surrounding controversy has died down, its reverberations have resonated far beyond Lonely Planet's offices. If anything, the Kohnstamm affair is one more poignant reminder that we should not believe everything we read in print-be it in a Reuters news feed, a Rough Guide, or any old roman à clef. As one poster to Lonely Planet's online forum put it during the eruption of the whole affair, "Am absolutely shattered by this revelation. We all trust what is in LP, now we will never be sure of anything again." Which, if you think about it, may not be such a bad thing. GPS devices and that way cool triangulating map program on my iPhone be damned: Sometimes feeling lost, confused, mistaken, and defamiliarized can be a whole lot of fun. It would behoove all of us to keep in mind Kurt Vonnegut's wise words: "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."
Articles
WITI Milwaukee

Joey Grundl, a pizza delivery driver for a Domino's Pizza in Waldo, Wisconsin, is being hailed as a hero for noticing a kidnapped woman's subtle cry for help.

The delivery man was sent to a woman's house to deliver a pie when her ex-boyfriend, Dean Hoffman, opened the door. Grundl looked over his shoulder and saw a middle-aged woman with a black eye standing behind Hoffman. She appeared to be mouthing the words: "Call the police."

"I gave him his pizza and then I noticed behind him was his girlfriend," Grundl told WITI Milwaukee. "She pointed to a black eye that was quite visible. She mouthed the words, 'Call the police.'"

Keep Reading Show less
Good News


Rochester NY Airport Security passing insulting notes to travelers caught on tape www.youtube.com

Neil Strassner was just passing through airport security, something he does on a weekly basis as part of his job. That's when a contract airport security employee handed him a small piece of folded cardboard. Strassner, 40, took the paper and continued on his way. He only paused when he heard the security employee shouting back at him, "You going to open the note?"

When he unfolded the small piece of paper, Strassner was greeted with an unprompted insult. "You ugly!!!"

According to Strassner, and in newly released CCTV of the incident, the woman who handed him the note began laughing loudly.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Facebook: kktv11news

A post on the Murdered by Words subreddit is going viral for the perfect way a poster shut down a knee-jerk "double-standard!" claim.

It began when a Redditor posted a 2015 Buzzfeed article story about a single dad who took cosmetology lessons to learn how to do his daughter's hair.

Most people would see the story as something positive. A dad goes out of his way to learn a skill that makes his daughter look fabulous.

Keep Reading Show less
Lifestyle
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Coal mining is on the decline, leaving many coal miners in West Virginia without jobs. The Mine Safety and Health Administration says there are about 55,000 positions, and just 13,000 of those jobs are in West Virginia. The dwindling amount of work is leaving some struggling to make a living, but the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective is giving those coal miners a way to find new jobs and make a supplemental income as coal mining diminishes.

The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective trains coal miners and other low-income residents in mining communities to keep bees. Some coal miners are getting retrained to work in the tech industry, however beekeeping allows coal miners to continue to work in a job that requires a similar skill set. "The older folks want to get back to work, but mining is never going to be like it was in the '60s and '70s, and there is nothing to fall back on, no other big industries here, so all of these folks need retraining," former coal miner James Scyphers told NPR. "Beekeeping is hands-on work, like mining, and requires on-the-job training. You need a good work ethic for both."

Keep Reading Show less
Business
Photo by Stella de Smit on Unsplash

There was once a time in Florida where you could park your boat in your front lawn, but you were SOL if you wanted to grow squash and lettuce there. However, thanks to one Miami Shores couple, that's about to change.

Hermine Ricketts and Tom Carroll had been growing a front yard garden for 17 years, but in 2013, Miami Shores changed its city ordinance, making the activity illegal. The new city ordinance said that backyard vegetable gardens were a-OK, but Ricketts and Carroll couldn't keep a garden in their backyard because it didn't get enough sun. So the couple could either dig up their garden or face $50 in daily fines for letting it continue to grow. The couple opted to do neither and instead, they sued the city.

Ricketts and Carroll took their case to the Florida Supreme Court. Initially, the courts sided with Miami Shores, but the fight wasn't over. Florida State Senator Rob Bradley introduced legislation preventing "a county or municipality from regulating vegetable gardens on residential properties." Earlier this year, the Senate passed the bill 35-5.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet