Politics, human rights and the travel media are unlikely bedfellows but they regularly share a bunk! Before we can ever begin to think about the implications of the pairing, we need to ask one seemingly simple but actually fiendishly difficult question – what is travel writing? No one has ever clearly defined travel writing. Nor have we defined where it stands on the question of truth and accuracy. And whose truth, for that matter? Is it storytelling, is it journalism, is it marketing, is it history, autobiography? Are we writing for moral purpose – to educate and inform our readership or to make a stand on an issue about which we feel passionate? Do we live in a world of ideas and entertainment? Or are we selling the destination as many PRs assume?
Ask each of us and we have a different answer. I’ve had some lively debates on the subject with some extremely eminent practitioners of the art and none of them can agree, with mutterings about ‘genre conventions’. One even threw up his hands and said ‘it’s travel writing because it says it is.’ The truth, such as it is, is that travel writing is all things to all men – it encompasses the globe and each of us makes of it what we will.
Why is this relevant? Simply because we need to know, collectively and individually, where our own boundaries lie, but we should also be aware that every one of us sets those boundaries differently. There are no norms.
Tourism is political
The same, incidentally, holds true of politics and human rights issues. If I hassle the US Dept of Homeland Security about visa requirements or the UK government about Airport Passenger Duty, these are political issues and no one would be in the slightest doubt that they are also tourism stories. At the most basic level, if I am writing a guidebook and I describe the make-up of the country’s political structure and a historical roundup of how it came to have that structure, I am, by definition, writing about politics.
In some countries, this is more straightforward than in others. I have written guidebooks to Turkey, Zimbabwe and North Cyprus. In each of these, you pick your way through the history section with extreme care, knowing that whichever words you choose, someone is going to disapprove. Simply mention the word Armenia in a book on Turkey and you are immediately into murky political waters. Add any other word and you need to think long and hard about which word to use. I was confidently promised death threats before I took on the book on North Cyprus. They didn’t happen, but there were calls for boycotts.
I also write regularly about Africa and conservation issues. There was recently an attempt made to build a high-speed rail line and then a tarred road across the Serengeti, cutting the route of the Great Migration. This was a huge conservation story and undoubtedly a huge tourism story. When writing about it, should I write a pretty puff piece about a scenic ride on a failing railway or should I write something that also explains its past – built by the Germans in a race to the Nile with British and its future, part of a new Great Game with the Chinese in Africa? Should I explain the implications for wildlife and the future of the Serengeti – one of the greatest national parks on the planet? Which is more interesting? If I leave out the politics, I am shortchanging the people of Tanzania, my readers and myself. I don’t have to make them the sole focus of my piece or my chapter but they should be there.
Then of course, there are the social media. In this day and age, I don’t think it’s possible to stand aside from politics and human rights issues and still retain any credibility as an expert. Social media is too powerful a force. Take a brief look at three recent mass protests in three key tourist destinations – Egypt, Turkey and Thailand.
Tahrir Square in Cairo has been the focus of most of the main protests over the years. Tahrir Square is the home of Egypt’s National Museum. I’ve stayed in a hotel overlooking the square. It is not some forgotten corner – the centre of the capital city is now effectively a no go area to tourists. What does that say about the society and more importantly, tourists’ safety? Is this something we should be talking about in print or should it be ignored?
Taksim Square in Istanbul, centre of the main disturbances during the Gezi Park protests, is surrounded by many of the city’s main business hotels. There were running battles with the police, water cannons and tear gas in the lobbies of those hotels and at least one hotelier has been arrested for ‘aiding and abetting’ the protesters, offering them food, water, shelter, access to toilets and first aid. This had a direct, profound impact on the tourists staying there. Some of the protests were also very creative, with the rainbow stairs across the country becoming instant tourist sites. With bloggers and tweeters out in force, are the travel writers going to be the only silent voices? Or should we join the state TV channel in broadcasting films of penguins?
And to Thailand – the Thai protestors did things differently with extremely short speeches, and plenty of free food and entertainment ranging from rock bands to pole dancing to ensure that the crowds arrived and stayed. Backpackers soon discovered that this is where the party was and joined in, welcomed by the protesters who fed them happily, feeling that they offered a degree of protection. Again the social media was highly active and tourism and politics were inextricably intertwined.
Time to stop?
But inevitably there comes a point when we have to ask ourselves if we should stop writing about travel. Or at least narrow our definition of travel writing. Unfortunately, one of the repercussions of the protests in Turkey, Egypt and Thailand has been a crackdown on free speech. Journalists have been arrested and jailed in all three countries. There are increasingly draconian efforts in these countries and all across the world to shut down newspapers, curtail the social media, intimidate and even torture those who speak out and criticize. In Zimbabwe, where I grew up and about which I write regularly, it has recently been made a criminal offence to discuss Mugabe’s health! Many people supported the boycott of South Africa during the apartheid years and the boycott of Burma.
We have to ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay for a holiday in the sun. Are we willing to write about lazy days beside the sea when thousands live in terror or face execution, if children are starving or if we ourselves fear for our own safety or fear for the safety of those to whom we talk if we stray onto more difficult topics.
Recently, I was at Africa Writes!, a wonderful festival of African literature at the British Library. This is what Nigerian travel writer, Noo Saro-Wiwa had to say: “Only a very few privileged white people can afford to be apolitical… and they are not going out there to look for anything or discover anything new.”
I, for one, don’t want to be one of those people. So while human rights and politics should not dominate the tourism agenda, they should and must be part of the tourist media and it is impossible to separate them out.
This article is based on a discussion paper given by Melissa Shales at a British Guild of Travel Writers/Association of National Tourist Office Representatives evening on 15th July 2014 at Gibraltar House, London.
Caption for header photo: Egyptian protestors in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Feb 1, 2011. (c) MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images Creative Commons