Travel Writing Decisions:  
When to Walk Away from Stories and Destinations

By Roy Stevenson

By Roy Stevenson

Some travel articles are doomed to never see the light of day.  Such ill-fated stories can be victims of circumstances, poor timing, questionable ethical and moral issues, or just plain bad luck.

One of the skills in travel writing is the ability to objectively assess a potential travel story or destination, and its “publishability”.  If the cards are stacked against a story, you must know when to walk away.  Persisting with pitching a “dog” story is a tremendous waste of time.

The same advice goes for destinations.  Some are simply too controversial or downright dangerous to visit. 

Here are some examples of unsavory travel stories and conflicted destinations that will be difficult sell and might even endanger your life:

Bummer Stories

A writer I’m coaching wanted to pitch a story about the wineries in the Sonoma, California area.  This was the spot ravaged by sizeable fires in 2017.

I had mixed feelings about pitching this one.  Magazine editors generally are not interested in "downer" stories. They prefer upbeat, exciting, feel-good stories that excite their readers.

Wine tasters want to inhale the aroma of a fine merlot in a boutique tasting room.  They don’t want to see and smell scorched wastelands.

What happened in Sonoma County is a tragedy.  Although this might be interesting “news”, wine magazine editors and their readers know the area will not be suitable for wine-tasting tourism for some time.

As I write this, I notice some wineries have launched a marketing campaign to let the public know that they are open for business.  However, tourists tend to stay away from areas where there have been tragic incidents. 

No one wants to visit a place ravaged by fire, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, piracy, genocide, disease, or any other man-made or natural catastrophes.  People are picky when it comes to choosing a vacation destination!

You’re wondering why I had mixed feelings, right?  All was not lost with this story idea. In a few months, wine magazine editors will be interested in an update.  They’ll want to know how the Sonoma wineries are recovering from the fires.  They’ll be looking for good news stories.

I suggested the writer place this story on the back burner and gather some facts about the recovery of the wineries.  Although it’s on hold right now, they can query this story in a few months’ time when things are on the upswing.

Travel Prohibited

One writer I coach lives in Turkey. She clearly loves the place and the people. And she desperately wants to write about the places she visits.

However, in 2017, Turkey stopped accepting visa applications from American citizens. Clearly, there is no point in pitching travel stories about Turkey to American media. 

One travel writing journalist friend suggests this writer pitch her stories to the other English-speaking travel media (U.K, Australia, Canada, New Zealand).  This is sound advice.

Keep in mind, cutting the U.S. travel media from your magazine distribution list will limit the statistical chances to get your story published.  Ultimately, the decision is up to the travel writer.

Conflicted Destinations

A few months ago we were offered a tempting five-day press trip.  We’d cruise around Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, and drop anchor at beautiful, remote white sandy bays.  We’d snorkel with colorful marine life through warm, clear water.

Our home for most of the trip would be the MV Sea Gypsy, a classic converted fishing boat with canvas-sided cabins.  We’d also stay in a beachfront bungalow at the Boulder Bay Eco Resort.  We’d meet sea gypsies and kayak around deserted coves. There would be sunrise and sunset photo shoots of this paradise.

But there was one big problem.  I couldn’t sell a story.  Travel editors aren’t buying stories about Myanmar.  Myanmar is on the tourist “no-go” list because of their persecution of the Rohingya.

So, in the end, we cancelled out of the press trip.  I don’t accept press trips if I can’t sell at least one story in advance.  Sure, we could have taken the trip and quietly disappeared into the sunset.  But that’s not ethical, and it’s the reason for my policy.

Now and then you have to make a hard decision in the travel writing game.  This was a tough one!

Human Rights Abuses, Danger and Intrigue

Some places aren’t worth visiting, no matter how much you’re intrigued by the place. 

Anyone wanting to visit North Korea needs to be sternly reminded that this unsavory country is run by an overindulged madman.  He has no restraints on what he can and can’t do.

The recent case where 21-year old American student, Otto Warmbier, was arrested by their secret police for stealing a poster off a wall.  He was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for this heinous offence.  It’s only one example of a hapless American citizen being brutally used as political pawn.

Warmbier, you might recall, was flown back to the U.S. in a coma, and died soon after.  He paid a steep price for his decision to travel there. 

Sometimes you have to wonder how people make decisions when hosting travel writing and blogging conferences.

For example, after learning that the 2018 Travel Blogger’s Exchange (TBEX) would be hosted in Zimbabwe, travel blogger Kate McCulley wrote a searing expose of why this decision smells.  Her well-written and heartfelt plea not to attend the TBEX in Zimbabwe clearly states the problems with attending a conference in this volatile dictatorship.

Kate puts the case a lot better than I can, so here’s the link to her article.

Selecting Safe Travel Writing Destinations

Well, where does all this mayhem leave us?

There are plenty of politically stable destinations around the globe that are safe to visit, and that have great tourist attractions and activities. Perhaps we should be writing about those countries instead of touting political flashpoints?

Make sound ethical decisions with your travel writing. Don’t place yourself where things can go tragically wrong at any moment.

You can check with the U.S. Department of State website for Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts about the situations in countries you’re considering visiting.

Also, check the CIA website for updates on the political situations and general background in countries you’re considering visiting.

American country singer Kenny Rogers warns in The Gambler,You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ‘em.  Know when to walk away, and know when to run.” 

The gambler’s advice applies to you when deciding what stories to pitch and where to visit.  When in doubt, walk away from bummer stories and run from conflicted destinations.

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Roy Stevenson sitting in front of his computer.

Roy Stevenson is a professional travel writer and the author of www.PitchTravelWrite.com.  Over the past ten years, he’s had more than 1000 articles published in 200 magazines, trade and specialty journals, in-flights, on-boards, blogs and websites and has traveled on assignment around the U.S. and to dozens of international destinations.

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