Lee Slater and Sarah Bennett
As New Zealand travel writers throw themselves with gusto into rebuilding domestic tourism, Sarah Bennett proposes a ban on ‘secret beaches’, ‘hidden gems’ and other ‘underrated’ places in favour of a more inclusive and strategic approach.
At last year’s TRENZ I met a fellow media delegate about to embark on a whirlwind tour around a relatively low-profile region for a travel splash in a major UK daily. She seemed bewildered at my suggestion that she check in with the locals about that exposure first.
Call me old school. My first travel-writing hero was Tony Wheeler. Working in Lonely Planet’s UK office back in the day, I travelled with Tony to bookstores where he’d deliver scintillating talks. Like the audience, I hung off every word. When the mic was off, however, Tony was more of a listener. And that felt like a bit of a clue.
A few years later when my partner Lee and I started writing for Lonely Planet, we discovered that listening was a big part of the gig. A chinwag here, a nod and a wink there. RTO, iSITE, DOC staff, all sorts of operators, the folks down the pub. Getting the lay of the land seemed vital if you wanted to create a happy marriage between host and visitor.
Twenty years of travel writing has taught us that not everyone wants us to spill the beans on their secret slice of paradise. The natural environment, too, has shown resistance, resulting in our deliberate omission of secret penguin colonies, seal-pup pools and pristine springs. Some places just aren’t for us.
Lonely Planet’s editors proved well attuned to the negative effects of guidebook readers on the places that they visited. A few years ago, authors were asked to justify the inclusion of any marine wildlife tour. It felt ridiculous to have to defend Whale Watch in light of Blackfish, but I like to think the marine life was glad we had to.
On hearing news that Lonely Planet is closing offices, casting authors and staff adrift, I can’t help feeling even more nostalgic for the days when print was king and the glacially slow publishing process allowed time for rigorous research and consideration of downstream effects.
Travel writing now lands on a dime. Pre-Covid-19, old-school guidebooks and in-depth features had been increasingly displaced by hastily curated and crowd-sourced content with a palpable sense of self. Mainstream media channels were flush with airbrushed accounts of famil trips with enormous carbon counts and more than a hint of colonisation.
For all the benefits we’ve seen it bring – at its most obvious in small New Zealand towns and rural areas – the tourism industry has proven unsustainably extractive. And in this, travel media have appeared increasingly complicit, selling a dream that seems less concerned about sustainability and more about clicks and the commercial imperatives they serve.
Well, it’s a whole new world now, and travel writing has changed overnight.
As we seek ways to help rebuild domestic tourism and the nation in turn, let’s get back to grassroots, listen to the locals, and gain deeper insights into the places we go. Then maybe we’ve got a chance to regenerate not only the industry but the very planet itself.
Sarah Bennett & Lee Slater are travel communicators and publishers specialising in Aotearoa/New Zealand.