Travel journalism, junkets + dwindling media budgets: are you getting the true picture?

In 2010 my wife and I, newly married and kids-free, embarked on a dream back-packing trip around the world starting in Thailand and ending in the USA (with Malaysia, Singapore, East and West Europe, Morocco, India, Egypt, Turkey and Mexico in between).

When we returned to Australia, I was eager and hopeful of writing a few freelance travel pieces about some of the more exotic places we had visited for the travel sections of newspapers and travel magazines.

I submitted a number of story ideas and photographs but no editor would bite.

I was a bit disappointed but not entirely surprised since I’d submitted what I thought were interesting ideas in the past (a story about why tourists should visit my hometown of Johannesburg was one of them) but had received polite “no thank you’s”.

Since then I’ve read, with envy, the stories written by travel writers, some about the places I have visited and many other destinations I would love to saviour for myself one day.

However, what I have also noticed, with greater and greater frequency is that so many of them end with the following:

“The writer flew with…”

0r, “The writer was a guest of…”

Most pieces of travel journalism, I’ve discovered, are paid for or part paid-for by either an airline, resort or tourism bureau and it got me wondering what sort of impact this had on the objectivity of these “hosted” writers.

So I put the question to the Fiona Carruthers, editor of the Australian Financial Review’s Sophisticated Traveller magazine and to Susan Kurosawa, editor of The Weekend Australian’s Travel and Indulgence section.

Both are excellent publications with great photos and stories – but many of their articles are funded by what Carruthers calls “famils” – “travel familiarisation” trips, where the expense is borne by the person or organisation extending the invitation.

“Also known more cynically in the trade as “junkets,” Carruthers tells me.

She estimates that due to the expense (and no doubt dwindling budgets) about 85% of travel writing is paid for through these hosted visits.

“It’s a shame this is the case – I would dearly love for us to pay our own way – and sometimes we do or we pay part of the trip or media rates,” she says.

“But the problem is that most media organisations simply cannot afford to pay for these travel experiences and given travel is so popular, we don’t want to short change our readers by not offering travel content. So this is our compromise – and as I say, most media outlets compromise.”

So what does this compromise entail? Does it mean giving favourable coverage, not reporting on bad experiences and potentially giving readers a less than fair picture of a travel destination?

Is it just advertorial disguised as a travel review with out the advertorial “label”?

Both Carruthers and Kurosawa firmly deny this and maintain that objectivity is always maintained.

“Famils/hosted trips are not advertorial and the hosts know we are free to write whatever we like,” says Carruthers.

Kurosawa says The Australian responds to “invitations for selected trips”, but does not “actively seek hosting of any kind, whether from airlines, hotels, operators or national tourist offices”.

“We maintain our independence at all times and reserve the right to be critical where appropriate.”

Carruthers though does say that “most journos are keen to give a good write up in return for hospitality.

“And given the standard of travel is so high these days, nine times out of 10 any experience we do is fantastic”.

That so many hosted trips should result in a “fantastic” experience is not surprising, given that many involve luxury getaways, private lodges and top end of town hotels and restaurants.

But also, due to the hosted nature of journalist’s visits, resorts would have ample warning and all staff would surely be briefed, to provide these ‘special guests’ with extra special care and assistance.

One of the articles in the September issue of Sophisticated Traveller is about the Banyan Tree resort in the city of Lijiang, in China’s Yunnan province.

While Carruthers points out that the writers were critical of the resort’s food and the fact that is “very quiet at night and locked away behind high walls”, I do wonder if the fact that staff at the resort delivered “toasted sandwiches and warm glasses of milk” to the reviewer’s villa and “never tired of feeding the fish” with their three-year-old had anything to do with the fact that the writers Angus Grigg and Fiona Murray were journalists on a “famils” trip.

I have some personal experience of this phenomenon having undertaken a number of restaurant reviews at some of the Sydney’s finest eating establishments, when I edited a mortgage broking magazine. The meals were organised through a PR agency and were free (with unrestricted menu access).

What I recall most vividly, besides the mostly exquisite food, was staff going out of there way to be helpful.

On one occasion the maître d’ at a Surrey Hills restaurant i was reviewing offered to adjust the temperature because my wife had a cold.

There is of course, the option of making up your own mind about any resort, hotel or restaurant or airline by reading some of the reviews on traveller’s bible, Trip Advisor.

There are 485 reviews of the Banyan Tree resort in Lijiang on Trip Advisor.

None of these people stayed for free, but equally, it could be argued that because they have paid their own way, they could be motivated by spite to write something nasty or out of proportion to a bad experience.

Among the few critical reviews on Trip Advisor for the Banyan Tree Lijiang is one that occurred during a BMW event (when staff may not have been at their attentive best) and while another unhappy reviewer mentions that their booking was lost and they had to find proof their booking by finding it on their laptop.

Most agree with the Sophisticated Traveller writers.

In the case of the Banyan Tree Trip Advisor ranks it 6th out of 296 hotels in Lijian with 94% of 485 reviews rating the stay as either “excellent” or “very good”.

So what to make of articles that arise from a hosted visit?

I’d say take them mostly at face value (providing its a reputable publication), but with the tiniest pinch of salt.

As with most new experiences, having lower expectations usually results in a more enjoyable holiday – so best not to set the bar based on what you read.

Or, if you want top notch service, you could try hinting to the staff that you’re writing a review for a major publication.

This may result in an experience that matches the newspaper write-up.

This post was subsequently published in Crikey (subscription required)