If you’re a celebrity, get out of here…

There was an interesting debate at the back end of last week about whether the internet is killing travel journalism. It was started here in an excellent piece by Jeremy Head and continued here in another one by David Whitley.

While it’s somewhat ironic that the debate took place on the net, my view is that the more outlets there are, the more we have to place stories. Pitches no longer have to be limited to national or local papers and specialist mags but can now be sent to a plethora of websites – which ones pay or not is a matter that will eventually sort itself out.

When it comes to user generated travel content, the advantage most travel writers have is our ability to cast a critical eye through a prism of experience. I know, for instance the Atlantis hotel in Dubai is better than the one in the Bahamas because I have been to both.

I actually think there is a far greater threat to travel journalism: that of the celebrity travel writer. It’s easy to see why it works, PR offers celeb a holiday for nothing, celeb accepts, celeb gets a family holiday for free (and without having to pretend their spouse is their photographer), the resort gets the kudos of having a celeb there and, crucially, the section editor gets a ‘name’ piece for free.

Everyone is seemingly happy but the person who loses out is the reader – more often than not, the celeb has no more critical faculties than Billy Bigmouth who posts once a year on TripAdvisor.

Personally, I don’t really care if Mariella Frostrup taught her family to ski or the Minghellas enjoyed Tuscany and, while Alex James may have been the bass player in one of my favourite bands, I’m not interested in his travel tales.

Over the ten years I was at Metro, I published possibly half a dozen celeb features. Five of them were by Claudia Winkleman when she was still setting her stall as the anti-Davina (read funny). At the time, Claudia came up with great ideas, was erudite, witty and knew what made a decent travel story – perhaps the genes were passed on from her mum, Eve Pollard. Sadly, Claudia went on another path and established herself in TV.

The other was one of my biggest nightmares as editor. A PR agency asked a favour to publish a piece by a certain raven-haired ladette from the north east who was heading to Malaysia on holiday. I was promised she would try anything and do anything to come up with a suitably Metro-esque angle, when in actual fact she really wanted to lounge in the spa.

I asked her to do two pieces, sent her style sheets and structure tips; she came back with one story that crammed KL and two different island resorts into 700words and flitted from the past to present tense more often than an episode of Lost.

After weeks of toing and froing of emails, it was still so bad, I had to get the PRs to re-write it and then re-write their copy to make it less gushing; when I asked for a holiday snap of her in the resort she claimed her camera had been stolen.

When I got a note from a PR for one of the hotels she stayed in complaining that on one night she had rowed so loudly they had to re-house the couple in the next villa, I was absolutely mortified this was happening in the name of my publication.

And it was then that I vowed: if you’re a celebrity  by all means get out of here… but please don’t expect me to publish your piece on ‘what I did on my holidays’…

If I could turn Times Travel gay…

kulgbtLondon’s Gay Tourist Office opens in Lisle Street, Soho, on October 23 and will be the first dedicated, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender visitor centre in the capital. But in ‘enlightended’ 2009, do gay people really still need a sexuality specific service? And how does gay travel get a fair crack of the whip when it comes to coverage in the national press? I asked centre boss Shaun Newport for his thoughts.

Do we really need a gay tourist office in 2009?
We do. We will provide a safe and friendly environment for the visitors from around the world to chill out, pick up information, find guidance and take advantage of LGBT services. London has the most LGBT visitors in Europe and we want to ensure people have the best time possible. Regular tourists office do not offer the specialist knowledge we do.

How does the holiday market differ for the gay market from the straight? Surely, we all just want to go on holiday, exclusive of sexuality?
The difference is evident across the world. There are LGBT-focused institutions, events and activities running all year and everyday in London. We are very proud of them and are proud to show them to our visitors whether gay or straight.
We do want to go on holiday and not have sexuality become an issue but this is an ideal that has yet to become international reality. People from the LGBT community want to be safe and comfortable and go to places where they feel most amongst friends. This is currently a privilege the heterosexual community often take for granted. I even dare to suggest that the majority of straight people who travel, do not travel exclusive of their sexuality either.
Additionally, visitors may be taking long breaks such as students, travellers and people on work placements and they may want to become involved with community activities. We are a more extensive resource of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender information. We have information pertaining to LGBT nightclubs and bars, as well as health and well-being, community and long term projects.

Do regular travel sections give enough space to gay friendly holidays?
There are many specialist LGBT publications that are online and in-print. Mainstream media however do sometimes lack some of the vital content that I, personally, would like to see.

If you could edit a broadsheet travel section for a weekend, what stories would you select and why?
A flavour of an my initial thoughts: I’d like to focus on some overlooked sections of the LGBT community. Certainly, I’d like to run pieces on where LGBT families can holiday around the world. I would like to provide information on services where LGBT elders can go on holiday. There are places in the world where being gay is illegal and I’d like to see news on how residents survive. There are also many issues on declaring HIV status when travelling abroad which can be a traumatic experience for some. This could be investigated.

Guest author: Crap things seen – or heard – while travelling. No4

With Christmas press releases flooding into my inbox before the clocks even go back, today’s guest post comes from Tania Ahsan and when even the author of the The Brilliant Book of Calm (Infinite Ideas, May 2008) gets riled, you know you have a problem on your hands…

Coit Tower: home to Dante's lift
Coit Tower: home to Dante's lift

Excitedly, like little children, my friend Raj and I get into the lift that will take us up to the top of Coit Tower – an art deco structure with a viewing platform on Telegraph Hill in San Franciso.

It’s fairly crowded in the lift with a number of Japanese and American tourists. As we get in, a Christmas jingle starts playing. Since it is mid-November this seems a bit early but nevertheless it cheers us.

‘Bit soon for Christmas, isn’t it?’ says Raj, playfully to the lift attendant.

‘Dude, they start playing them in October,’ he replies, with a twitch in his cheek that indicates that if he has to hear about Rudolf the Red-freaking-nosed Reindeer one more time, he’s going postal on everyone in that Goddamn lift.

We begin slowly to understand the full horror of his predicament as it takes a fair bit of the song to get up to the top of the tower. The poor bastard has to go down again. Then up again. Then down again. Forever to the strains of White Christmas and Jingle Bell Rock.

It is a circle of hell so relentlessly horrific, even Dante didn’t think of it…

Catchy headlines, World Rabies Day and a pact

Who knew that aside from World Tourism Day, yesterday was also World Rabies Day? I do – but I only found out thanks to a headline that grabbed my attention.

When it comes to keeping up with the world of travel, the first thing I normally do on getting up in the morning is scan all the travel and tourism headlines from as many online sources as possible. Google News, Newsnow, the BBC, Travmedia and now Tnooz all get a look in. Between them, they seem to aggregate stories from a wide enough range of sources – both media and PR – for me to get a decent overview without spending the whole day trawling the web. (Though if anyone has any other travel news source tips, I’d love to hear them).

And there, this morning, among the dozens of articles on what every other country except the UK did to celebrate World Tourism Day were a couple on World Rabies Day. They stood out thanks to the head of the first story I saw reading:

‘Cats deserve special attention on World Rabies Day’.

The obvious question was, from my point of view as a cat fancier, ‘why do they need special attention’ and so I opened the story and found out that incidences of rabies among domestic cats is on the increase in the US. Aside from the fact I can now answer pretty obscure pub quiz questions on American cats turning all Cujo, I didn’t learn that much but – crucially – I did at least read the story.

A few others that piqued my interest over the last few days were:

  • Britain Is ‘Bankruptcy Tourism’ Hotspot – Sky News
  • Crematorium  ‘could hurt tourism’ – BBC
  • Ghosts to give HP tourism a boost – Times Of India

What is bankruptcy tourism? Do they mean more dead means less tourists? And what does brown sauce have to do with ghosts? were all questions flying around my head as I clicked away on the links.

On the less impressive front, I saw

  • The people’s city – The Press and Journal
  • Nautical…But Nice!  – Costa Cruises press release
  • Footie Madness – SportsWorld press release
  • Holiday review: Center Parcs – Wales Online

Now, I’m not asking headline writers, whether PRs or scribes to be all puntastic-Suntastic in their approach and for every headline to be super clever  – but clearly the last four were somewhat lacking in inspiration.

The job of the head is to grab a reader’s attention and make them want to read the story – it’s ‘the sell’. So it’s a crying shame when someone has spent hours carefully crafting copy to undersell the information being made public with a poor head.

We all have an interest in one of the sexiest industries in the world. Travel is about escapism and wonderment and new discoveries… and, for many of us, it’s our living. So let’s make a pact to be passionate when writing about travel from head to tail. Because if you lose someone at the head, you have invariably lost them for good.

Guest author: Crap things seen while travelling. No3

It’s Sunday, so James is taking a day off from the world of work. Instead, Kieran Meeke (, former features editor at Metro steps into the guest author spot with his crappest thing seen while travelling.

Roatan folk dancers

DSCF005749Oooh – where do we start? And finish? The world is full of sad little tourist traps where the staff taking your money are almost ashamed to do so. Almost.

Still, the saddest thing that springs to mind is seeing a massive cruise ship pull into the lovely little island of Roatan, off Honduras in the Caribbean. About 30 buses – bright yellow American style school buses – were there to meet it. A small group of overweight folk dancers stood around listlessly before suddenly painting on bright smiles and bursting into song as the first passengers appeared at the top of the gangplank.

Each couple tottered down to the quayside, to be stopped and framed in a  brightly painted plywood sign saying ‘Welcome to Roatan’ for an obligatory snap by the ship’s photographer. No doubt they were all billed for it later. Count 30 buses, multiply by about 50 to 70 passengers each and you can work out how much time this all took out from the excursion ashore they’d all paid for.

Eventually, the buses drove off in a cloud of diesel smoke, leaving the dancers to count their tips: two crumpled dollars. Just another day in this business they call travel.

Everyone secretly loves Michael

American Airlines announced earlier this week that they are to charge passengers and extra $10 on airfares, because they are flying on certain dates and, well because they can. And yesterday, the US’s other three carriers, United, Delta and Northwest, followed suit.

The extra charge will be applicable on November 29 and January 2, 3 – or the post Thanksgiving and New Year key travel periods. And you don’t need to be Einstein to work out that with millions of people travelling to see family on those dates and flying being the normal method of transport thanks to some of the huge distances in the States, the big four are going to make another killing.

Here in the UK, we’ve had British Airways and Virgin announce they will soon start charging people up to £40 for extra suitcases above the usual allowance, while BA will next month be fleecing us for an extra £10 in order to pre-allocate where we’ll sit on the plane.

The latter practice is now so rife among airlines flying from the UK that flight comparison website has published a summary table of charges of what you have to pay in order to sit where you want when flying. It makes interesting reading and is here if you want a look click here.

The thing that annoys is that airlines are just finding increasing ways to squeeze revenue from sources that were normally rolled into the price of a flight a decade ago. So why can’t decent airlines just offer a flat fare (even if a little higher) and stop us having to do all this mucking about when booking?

The answer, of course, is the Ryanair affect with boss Michael O’Leary long leading the way on the extra charges front. Where Ryanair has been successful is in squeezing every last penny from passengers. And when one company proves they can do it and get away with it, others will follow (as was the case in the US earlier this week).

The biggest cheer at the TTG Awards on Tuesday came not for any of the winners but when guest host Austin Healey said: ‘We have a lot in common, you and I. I hate Ryanair too.’

O’Leary has become the bogeyman of the travel industry – a role I suspect he quite enjoys – but the same people who hiss and boo at the mention of his name are the same people who adopt his methods as soon as it suits. And underneath they are either glad that he’s there to lead the way, or secretly wish they had his guts when it comes to introducing the next extra charge. In truth, everyone secretly loves Michael