Around 1988, whilst working at The Sunday Express, I interviewed a travel writer named Larry O'Toole who worked for magazines like Travel Leisure, EnRoute and other glossies. He was originally from Renews, Newfoundland.
I recall that he was paid $5 a word for his articles. And this was 1988. For this, Larry invested considerable time in researching the places he visited, and in writing the articles that ensued.
Apparently, he is the exception in the travel writing industry.
Nowadays, its commonly accepted that travel writers produce superficial crap, designed to fill space around the ads while not offending the advertisers. Theres an interesting discussion on this topic over here, where a literary critic reviews a tell-all book by a former travel industry writer, which purports to skewer the travel writing industry from the inside.
One need look no further than the latest issue of Aeroplan Arrival magazine to find an example of shallow travel writing. Theres a travelogue about St. Johns, by writer Steve English, that seems tainted by flimsy research.
The article is online and you can read it here. It announces that Newfoundland is shaking old preconceptions and emerging as a wealthy province, thanks to the oil and gas boom. Which is fair enough, though not exactly a penetrating insight.
But the writer wanders onto shaky ground in the second paragraph.
He claims the citys brightly-coloured houses are so painted to help sailors spot their homes as the ships steamed into the harbour
This is a silly myth presented as fact. The first brightly-coloured houses appeared on Victoria and Gower streets in 1977-78, and were a project of the St. Johns Heritage Foundation. They had nothing to do with fishing.
A sidebar says Chess serves inarguably the best fish and chips in the city. In other words, absolutely the best. No exceptions. Any local will tell you this is nonsense there are several restaurants that do a better fish and chips than Chess. Clearly, English should have written arguably.
Then he pronounces the A1C Gallery the leading contemporary-art space in St. Johns.
Now I wont say the A1C Gallery, which is run by Gordon Laurin, isnt important. But to pronounce it the leading gallery? What about Eastern Edge? Emma Butler? Christina Parker? Did the author visit these other locations?
At another point, English claims that the thriving St. Johns arts scene has been bolstered by support from city and provincial governments, a big statement that some artists will challenge, and which cries out for some form of substantiation. But we dont get it. Just the pronouncement.
Then there is the matter of the full-page photo, an aerial shot of Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove, which opens the piece. The photo caption says: Circling St. Johns on an Air Canada flight.
Technically, the caption is correct. You can see Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove on a southern approach to St. Johns. But most will read the caption, look at the photo treatment, and assume this little town must be St. Johns. Its just sloppy, thats all (and probably not the authors fault).
To see a full sized photo of the page, click here.
Now, it is possible that English did interview economic development people with the city and province, to see exactly how they bolstered the arts community, and confirmed this by speaking with artists. Perhaps he tried the fish and chips at Leos, The Duke, Scampers and several other spots, before pronouncing Chess the absolute best. He might even have visited most of the citys excellent galleries before adjudging on A1C Gallery.
Though I doubt it very much.
Travel writers, it seems, have special licence to make big pronouncements on subjects that might normally take weeks for other journalists.