Locals only: travel writers beware
comment 10 Written by on September 24, 2009 – 7:33 am

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Here’s a dilemma for all you travel writers out there…

What do you do when a hotel specifically tells you they do not want to be included within your article/book/website?

This situation arose recently for a colleague of mine. (Those on Twitter may remember I mentioned it briefly.) I won’t go into details, but it was a South American destination, and some rural, no-frills accommodation. The owner told the writer, very politely, that she specifically did not want to reach out to a European or US clientele. Why? The general gist seemed to be it would bring a different set of expectations from the guests and the owners would be under more pressure.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. On one hand, fair enough, I respect their want to kept to their roots, stick to what they know, and also that they don’t feel the need to chase the Euro/US market. On the other hand (and after reading the email exchange), I feel the owner had fallen into a trap of stereotypes. She thought that the writer would fail to mention that it was simple, rural dwelling and guests would all turn up with their Luis Vuitton wheelie cases wondering why there was no soy milk for their cappuccino. Had they been reading Liz Jones’s Exmoor files?

The above case was not the only one I’ve heard recently where a hotel owner feared an influx of disappointed guests. When another publication highlighted an establishment among a shortlist of ‘best’ recommendations, the hotel’s owners got nervous. “We aren’t the best in town! We’re just a simple B&B!” was roughly the theme of their written complaint. It certainly wasn’t the usual response. The editor then had to assure them that the article was meant to show how they shone in their own way and that they were the sort of unassuming gem we all like to read about.

You can see why owners fear disappointed guests. And especially these days when people advertise their disappointment on the world wide web via social networks and peer-to-peer review sites.

It is also true that once a local joint becomes popular with international tourists, there is a danger that the feel of the place can change and the local clientele could find themselves getting priced out. For travel writers, it’s a dilemma. We can be more than just a cog in the wheel. In some cases, we’re the electric motor.

Perhaps the biggest danger comes from over hyping a place. Yes, this makes editors happy (mainly because they’ll be oblivious and will fall into the hype honeypot too). And it makes readers happy, as they excitedly start planning their trip to paradise. Indeed, everyone is happy until someone actually goes there and finds the reality is rather different. “Are you on ‘hype watch’?” asked a colleague of mine when I was editing a guidebook recently. Good advice.

But back to the original question: travel writers – would you respect the wishes of a hotel to be kept out of your publication? Or if it’s a place that would really suit your readers would you explain your case? Or would you go ahead and publish without a second thought in the name of free speech? Readers of travel writing – what do you think? “Writers shouldn’t even tell people they are writing about the place” is the common answer. But as travel writers know, this isn’t always practical.

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10 Responses to “Locals only: travel writers beware”

  1. Really interesting question. Usually it’s the other way round – the dilemma of being put up somewhere by a tourist board that just isn’t right to recommend. Then it’s a case of explaining to the tourist board why it’s being left out – it’s kinder to omit than write about it honestly.

    I can’t say I’ve had the problem you mention, but I’d do one of the following:

    1. If the owners are genuinely hostile to foreigners, then I shouldn’t be recommending it in the first place. It’s out.
    2. If they request to be left out, and it’s touch and go whether it’s the right place for the readership, then I’d probably leave it out.
    3. If they request to be left out, but it’s dead right for the readership, it goes in. BUT, it goes in with a detailed description of what the accommodation entails, and why it might not be right for everyone. I’d also be careful not to describe it as a hot new secret hotel or anything that hype-y. I’d play it down if anything, with all manner of provisos.

    I always see my obligations as to the reader first, editor second, tourist boards and accommodation providers etc a distant third. If in doubt, I’ll refer to that priority list.

    Interesting dilemma, though.

  2. Restaurants that are highly rated with Michelins and other organizations know this situation well: there is a lot of pressure on both the management and the staff to maintain expectations. For those that choose to play this game, the loss of a single star is catastrophic.

    A listing without the owner’s approval, while satisfying some of your readership in the short term, may well give you and your publication a black eye in the long term. Just as readers regularly share reviews today, no doubt there will be services on the horizon that enable destinations to maintain their own white and black lists.

    Why not respect their wishes, refrain from immediate publication, and if you truly believe the hotel is a find, maintain a relationship with that hotel? Sure, you run the risk that someone else is going to scoop you, but I have a suspicion that in this vague new world, people are going to know if we did something contrary to what was requested.

  3. Thanks David, thanks Brian. Great to hear your points of view. I’m not sure we should *seek* approval for inclusions or it would become a bit of a nightmare (although I don’t think you were suggesting going this far were you, Brian?). However, we shouldn’t just a finger up at the hotels either. Cooperation is always good, but then again *too* much cooperation can be dodgy ground too. Hotel owners aren’t always going to like what we say and that’s the way it should stay.

    I think David sets out a good approach and makes it clear that it’s more case-by-case than cut-and-dry. It’s worth putting some thought though. I think I’d be inclined to ask why they are against the idea. It could be prejudices against a certain type of publication or scepticism about the writer’s motivations; it could be based on a bad experience in the past; there could be staffing or money issues behind the scenes; or perhaps a place is planning to close. Now I think if it that last scenario happened to me recently.

    Out of interest – can people opt out of the Michelin guides? I do agree that having a Michelin star is a huge amount of pressure (and huge rewards). A Michelin star certainly carries more weight than a passing recommendation in a one-off travel feature.

    By Vicky Baker on Sep 24, 2009 | Reply
  4. It’s a very interesting question. Sadly, the first thing that occurs to me is that the property you refer to is neither licensed nor insured and conducts its business entirely ‘en negro’. They may feel that there *is* such a thing as bad publicity.

    The irony is that the more a hotel owner succeeds in keeping her property out of the mainstream guidebooks, the more a travel hack who stumbles on the place will want to write about it. Who doesn’t want to find that mythical converted farmhouse at the end of a dirt road, with its flagstones, open fire and twinkly eyed proprietor? (Who just happens to be an unsung genius in the kitchen, rustling up impromptu late night snacks for her guests while her husband sits in the corner playing Spanish guitar.) You know what I’m talking about. How much *joy* does it give you to write about a hotel/restaurant/art gallery which has a slick PR machine?

    By Matt Chesterton on Sep 25, 2009 | Reply
  5. Very true, Matt. I forgot but there was one place I went to write about recently where i was asked not to reveal who the real owners were because things weren’t all above board. Sometimes you find out these things, sometimes you don’t – that’s their risk ultimately.

    There’s always that thrill at turning up at somewhere unknown and feeling you’re ‘discovering’ it – as a writer or as a traveller. But that’s not to say those small places in middle of nowhere with the interesting owners stop being a joy when they’re in the books. Also not everyone pushes up the prices instantly when popularity grows. I meet a lot of owners who deliberately cap their prices as they don’t want to price people out so they only attract the rich. That’s always heartening.

    By Vicky Baker on Sep 26, 2009 | Reply
  6. I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone in the world wants to increase production/increase profit/increase prestige. One of the things that made me want to study anthropology was watching a television program on some just-discovered culture that actually used stone axes to clear land for gardens. Anthropologists thought, “what a good time for an experiment in the efficiency of modern tools!” So they gave the headman a modern and very sharp ax as a present–then left the territory for a while.

    When they returned they immediately set out to see how much land had been cleared. It turned out to be roughly what could be done with a stone ax.

    So they went to the headman, “What happened? Did the ax break?” to which he replied “No! The ax was wonderful. Now we can sleep two more hours every day!”

    I’d definitely leave places out of a guidebook if the owner requested it. How can an owner ever be “wrong” when it comes to his or her own life and possessions? Isn’t it all about journalistic integrity? Who’d want to go where ultimately they’re not wanted? And why would I want to send them there?


  7. Great essay!

    A few years ago I was flying to the city of Oaxaca, Mexico and the couple next to me were owners of a hotel. They responded poorly when I told them I write about travel. “We were included in a guidebook and the author didn’t ask our permission,” they huffed in a rather indignant manner. This gave me pause – do I ask permission of everyone I include in a list of where to stay and eat?

    It seems to me that these owners are seeking control, fine if the tourism numbers are consistent but terrible once the numbers start dropping. What we saw in Oaxaca 2006-2008 was that tourism businesses thought that things would get better and better, but the social conflicts led many simply to close their doors forever.

    My advice to the owners of tourism businesses – take publicity and recommendations when you can get them. My advice to media (old school, new school or next school) is to be respectful of those who provide tourism services. If they don’t want to be mentioned, then don’t mention them. My advice to all – let’s see if we can see the bigger picture: how do we encourage the type of travel that respects locals and visitors. That’s what I’d call responsible travel.

  8. I’ve only introduced myself and asked that question to the most gleaming and gorgeous of hidden gems if I felt to include them would risk spoiling them and I felt they might not be able to cope with the onslaught of travellers. If I felt they wouldn’t change their charming ways and they could handle the influx (the reasons why warrant a blog post of their own) then I haven’t said a word. It’s a question that is always in mind because I’ve seen far too many places ruined over the years – especially in Buenos Aires actually.

    My only two experiences of being asked by hotel management *not* to include a place in a guidebook was a five-star that was adamant it did not want to be in a Lonely Planet guide and have backpackers traipsing through (they’ve neglected to notice that backpackers get old and grown-ups use guidebooks too), and a chic Turkish Med hotel that thought it was too cool for Gulf travellers (expats & Arabs) and did not want to be included in a hotel round-up I was doing for an in-flight magazine. Snobbery and racism were the reasons in these cases, so we included the properties in both cases.

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