On travel writing in a connected media space

in Tunis medina
A picture of me in Tunis in 2009, which later accompanied a published article under the headline, “A woman alone in Tunisia”

How do we negotiate difference in travel writing?

How might colonial, or historic, encounters and expectations affect travel writing today?

These are questions I began working through as a newspaper reporter writing about travel experiences, then as a student of postcolonial theory, media, communications, and development. And, this fall, after nearly two months discussing travel writing in a classroom setting, these are questions I continue to struggle with.

Perhaps, on the surface, travel writing appears trivial. An excellent vehicle for selling advertisements in newspapers and magazines, excellent material for letting one’s imagination wander while on a plane, planning a trip, or over coffee on a Saturday morning. But I hold that travel writing is not at all trivial; in some ways it better frames our perceptions of the world — rich in exoticism, possibilities of encounter, and of course adventure — than any news story of faraway tragedy or disaster. More, good travel writing, vivid travel advertising, even memorable fictional films or novels, stick with us. They become cultural markers grounding our expectations of place, and they invite us to meet people we hope will fulfill our expectations. (Consider, as an example, this compelling tourism video for South Africa.)

In his critical assessment of travel writing, Carl Thompson (2011) writes, “If all travel involves an encounter between self and other that is brought about by movement through space, all travel writing is at some level a record or product of this encounter, and of the negotiation between similarity and difference that it entailed” (10).

This encounter urges us to define difference – to explain what makes another culture or another place different, but it assumes there is a “we,” an audience with shared experiences and shared cultural markers who will be able to recognize these differences.

Here lays a danger of a negative othering, wherein “one culture depicts another culture as not only different but also inferior to itself” (Thompson 2011: 132-133). This can also be called “orientalism,” a term coined by Edward Said (2003 [1978]) to define a “rationalization of colonial rule” (p. 39) premised on the stories we tell ourselves about other places, which draw upon, for evidence, more stories we tell ourselves about other places. “Every writer on the Orient … assumes some Oriental precedent, some previous knowledge on the Orient, to which he refers and on which he relies” (Said: 20). This geographical Orient doesn’t exist – it is essentially everywhere that is not Europe, or North America, although the boundaries can be pushed and pulled.

As an example of how our difference-making or identifying in travel writing might be less a series of new observations than a repetition of expectations, consider Edith Wharton’s (1919) In Morocco, wherein she writes, “Everything that the reader of the Arabian Nights expects to find is here” (quoted in Edwards 2001: 104). Her description, of Morocco as “‘remote,’ ‘exotic,’ and ‘untouched’ by the European tourist industry” (Edwards: 104) thus finds its rhythm by drawing upon shared, historic, folk stories.

There are better critiques of this work out there than I could offer, and one of them is from Justin D. Edwards (2001), who writes in his book, Exotic Journeys: Exploring the Erotics of U.S. Travel Literature, 1840-1930: “…such discourses freeze Morocco in the past and frame North Africa as a space that does not change” (111).

How does a cultural refusal to acknowledge change contribute to potential power imbalances? Because travel writing, or travel promotion, or the travel industry itself do not float outside economic structures. “Our” selection of vacation spots has local economic impacts; the rewards of increased tourism are sought by countries and communities, fostering the promotion of what John Urry (1998 [1990]) calls the “tourist gaze.” 

Urry’s tourist gaze is a construction of authenticity and differentiation that can be consumed (3, 11-12); tourism literature and promotion invites a focus on a “division between the ordinary/everyday and the extraordinary” (p. 11) that is built upon a sense of “anticipation, especially through daydreaming and fantasy” (p. 3).

As travellers, when we adopt this gaze, we come to appreciate not only what we have actually experienced on our journeys, but what we feel like we should experience – the camel-back ride, the gelato Julia Roberts ate on a bench in Italy, perhaps the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

“What people ‘gaze upon’ are ideal representations of the view in question that they internalize from postcards and guidebooks (and increasingly from TV programmes).” (Urry, 1998 [1990], p. 86)

To what extent, then, as Urry argues, do the objects of tourism – including people – get framed as both exotic and culturally static or homogenous by the tourist’s gaze? What pressures arise in this gap between the imagined and the real? What challenges for organizations and people in the Global South to develop local tourism by meeting expectations for cultural or environmental preservation, despite or alongside pressures to develop other sectors of local economies?

Last of all, what are the ethical responsibilities of travel journalists in a cosmopolitan — and connected — media space? How does finding difference and constructing exotic tales from travel experiences echo in a media landscape that can be tapped not just by readers of the local newspaper but by audiences all over the world change these stories and their meanings?

Cited references

Edwards, J. (2001). Exotic Journeys: Exploring the Erotics of U.S. Travel Literature, 1840-1930. Hanover and London: University Press of New England.

Said, E. (2003 [1978]). Orientalism. London: Penguin Group.

Thompson, C. (2011). Travel Writing. New York: Routledge.

Urry, J. (1998 [1990]). The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Further reading

Cornelissen, S. (2004). ‘It’s Africa’s Turn!’ The narratives and limitations surrounding the Moroccan and South African bids for the 2006 and 2010 FIFA finals. Third World Quarterly, 25(7), 1293-1309.

Goldstone, P. (2001). Making the World Safe for Tourism. Dexter, MI: Thomson-Shore.

Hall, S. (1997). The spectacle of the other. In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (pp. 223-290). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Jaakson, R. (2004). Globalisation and neocolonialist tourism. In M. C. Hall & H. Tucker, Tourism and Postcolonialism: Contested discourses, identities and representations (pp. 169-183). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Mignolo, W. (2010). Delinking: The rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality and the grammar of de-coloniality. In W. Mignolo & A. Escobar, Globalization and the Decolonial Option (pp. 302-368). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Robinson, M. & Picard, D. (2006). Tourism, Culture and Sustainable Development. UNESCO, Division of cultural policies and intercultural dialogue, Culture and development section. Nîmes: Société Édition Provence.

Shome, R. & Hegde, R. (2002). Postcolonial approaches to communication: Charting the terrain, engaging the intersections. Communication Theory, 12(3), 249-270.

Telfer, D. & Sharpley, R. (2008). Tourism and Development in the Developing World. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Yan, G., & Santos, C. (2009). ‘China, Forever’ Tourism Discourse and Self-Orientalism. Annals of Tourism Research, 36(2), 295-315.


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