What Do Travel Bloggers Owe the Places That Sustain Them? A Lingering Question from TBEX and TBU

TBEX conference at Keystone, Colorado

A quiet moment at TBEX 2012

This past weekend, I attended the Travel Blog Exchange Conference (TBEX, in bloggers’ lingo), in Keystone, Colorado. And I was blown away—by the organization, by the location (yay, mountains!), by the events, and by the other attendees. I’ll definitely be back.

But, long after the rooms had emptied of their 800 conference-goers, one question lingered in my mind.

We spent the weekend talking about influence. In particular, we spoke about how to grow that influence (seminars included “SEO for Beginners,” “How to Create a Social Media Strategy,” “Email Marketing with Your Newsletter”). And how to turn it into cash (“Monetize Like You Mean It,” “How to Work with Brands,” “Creating a Business with Your Blog”). 

There was little talk about what else we should do with that influence. Other than, of course, getting ridiculously rich off blogging being able to scrape together enough pennies to live (and, hopefully, travel).

This isn’t unique to TBEX. I visited Travel Bloggers Unite (TBU) in Umbria this spring, and the focus was the same: Social influence. Networking. Monetization. All good stuff—but, I think, missing an important part of the puzzle.

Especially as travel bloggers get more and more influential, what we each owe the locations, and people, we write about seems integral to the discussion. I would have loved, for example, some talk of what ethical responsibilities (if any!) come with publicizing “undiscovered” towns or regions. Or with giving further publicity to sites already unhealthily flooded with tourists. Or with how to decide when to write about a big, multinational hotel chain or an independent B&B. Or a chain store or a local artisan


Venice on the Ponte Rialto

Venice’s Ponte Rialto in August


And no, it’s not that each, or any, of us are a Rick Steves, able to single-handedly turn a corner of the world like the Cinque Terre from undiscovered gem to tourist Disneyland destination, where the tiny streets are full of souvenir shops and mediocre restaurants and where tourism’s consequences are damaging the area’s natural resources in concrete, even lethal, ways. (The floods of October 2011, for example, were devastating in large part because as tourism has replaced agriculture, the Cinque Terre’s terraced hills haven’t been maintained—meaning little resistance to the rains).

But, as a community, we do have influence. The same way the travel journalism community does. And that influence is growing.

With that influence, I think, comes responsibility. And it would be fantastic if discussion about this responsibility could be a part of our conversations from the get-go, while the community is still relatively new.

Of course, some of us already think about this, a lot. Some bloggers write about green travel and agritourism; many others make a point to write about “immersion travel,” which seems far more beneficial to local communities, at least to me, than slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am resort stays.

Peacocks at a local farm in Tuscany

Hanging out with peacocks at a cheese farm in Tuscany


Most notably of all, Passports with Purpose—a fantastic nonprofit started by bloggers Beth Whitman of “Wanderlust and Lipstick,” Debbie Dubrow of “Delicious Baby,” Michelle Duffy of “Wander Mom,” and Pam Mandel of “Nerd’s Eye View”—had a huge presence at the conference (and the smarts to lure people to their booth with cupcakes!). Their concept is great: Get the blogging community to rally behind one carefully-chosen project each year. This year, Passports with Purpose is raising $100,000 to fund the construction of five wells in Haiti. I’ll be participating, so keep an eye out on the site for how you can win great, Italy-related prizes.

But I think the conversation about responsibility, and ethics, and what we owe to the communities that we’re so lucky to travel to, live in, and write about, can—and should—extend beyond one (excellent!) cause a year.

Bloggers, travelers, readers: What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. I think these are really important issues (and there are a few in here). I can’t say I have the answers but I’d love to see more discussion of this. Through Dream of Italy, I’ve definitely tried to cover the little mom and pop places and little-known areas that make Italy special but readers (even high-end ones) want to hear about those famous, often over-run places that they hear about elsewhere. Also, I would like to do more than just publicize the relief and recovery efforts for recent disasters for the land I love (Italy). Plus there’s the whole issue of the decay of Italy’s ancient ruins and lack of funds to keep them up. If I’m sending thousands of people to see them, how can I help preserve them OR more importantly instill a desire among my readers to help preserve them too. This post has been a good reminder to keep all of these issues in the forefront even when I have my head down creating and marketing content.
    Kathy McCabe

  2. What a great point! I didn’t attend this latest TBEX nor TBU (only went to the first TBU) and from what I can see: we’re still a growing community, so naturally all the emphasis has gone into how-to – how to build a following, how to work with brands, how to produce quality travel writing etc. Tt’s great to hear that the travel blogging industry has officially matured and ‘grown up’ (as what many said) at TBEX Colorado though – that means we might be hearing more of such issues that you brought up: responsible journalism and ethical writing etc.

    On another note, it’s been something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. We’ve adventure travelers and we particularly enjoy visiting unconventional places like the Arctic, Madagascar, and more recently North Korea. I’ve been thinking about the ethical responsibilities of publicizing these ‘undiscovered’ places – especially since we run our own magazine, which specializes in such a niche. I’d like to think of it in a different light: Reporting on such unexplored regions tends to appeal to certain types of travelers – those who are responsible, eco-conscious and fully aware of the effects of our footprint. And when these reports are done the right way, we end up educating readers instead of ruining a place.

    Anyhow, I do agree that these are interesting topics to discuss, and hopefully at the next TBEX, we’ll be able to hear more on this.

  3. This is going to come off a bit snobby, but I think there’s a difference between a tourist and a traveler. A tourist is someone who goes to places and just checks them off without really understanding why the place is important or know why they are even there. These are the people who go up to the Palatine Hill and say, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of ruins. Who cares?” They’re the people who get freaked out if they get a bit lost, or if they can’t find their usual food to eat, or get angry because they just paid $10 for an espresso because they never bothered to find out the pricing tiers at cafes.

    Travelers are those who, even though they might be seeing the same things tourists are, have done their homework on a place and understand the context of what they are seeing. They’ll get lost in a place and look at it as an adventure, and will probably find that little medieval church with a della Robbia on a side street in Florence that no one goes into because they haven’t bothered to leave the main parts of town. They find restaurants and cafes that have only locals in them, and pay only 1 Euro for an espresso. They are open (and want) to visit the places that are off the beaten path and want to interact with the locals instead of just treating them like they are there to serve tourists.

    All this is to say that people reading travel blogs probably are more likely to be travelers, rather than tourists, and will have a vested interest in not exploiting the places they visit, and will, in fact, behave like the guests they are. Perhaps getting people to donate to local causes, for example, can help offset the damage tourism can do. Bringing up environmental and societal issues in blogs helps people to be more informed, and therefore, give them the ability to act more responsibly in the places they visit might also be good. I know some do already.

    The biggest problem I see is not with people who read travel blogs, but people on large package tours who stay hermetically sealed inside their buses or are being dragged along at top speed by tour directors, and don’t really get much of a chance to get off the beaten path, or. Also, guidebook writers have a huge responsibility as well to explain to their readers what the impact of large amounts of tourism has on a place. Some of these, like Lonely Planet, are very good about this, but I wonder about the guides geared toward the less-adventurous types.

    I’m sure this is really rambling and probably doesn’t make much sense, but it’s based on some of what I’ve seen when I’ve been traveling.

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