I’ve been facing a bit of an ethical dilemma for a while. When I did my travel research for our trip to Southeast Asia, it involved the trusty old guidebooks, but for the most part I went to travel blogs as my main source of information and inspiration. Certain locations were written about and photographed with such passion that I knew I had to visit them. Koh Rong, Cambodia. The blue lagoon in Vang Vieng. Angkor Wat at sunrise. The bamboo train in Battambang.
As a result of reading blog posts about these experiences, I had a fire in my belly, eager to see for myself these pieces of paradise on earth.
I wasn’t the only one.
Of the four particular destinations that I mentioned above, in the space of 2-4 years since those blogs were written, I can’t help but think that the increased visibility has in some ways ruined these destinations. The blue lagoon that was described in 2011 by many as peaceful, tranquil and idyllic was crammed with swimmers. Music blared, people had to shout at others to move out of the way so they too could have their turn to jump from the tree into the blue water. There was even a shack selling massively overpriced food and drink, naturally. The lineup snaked long like that an amusement park.
The bamboo train in Battambang was no different. The line of people waiting for their go at a 7km speeding bamboo platform grew exponentially behind us. When we arrived at the other end of the train, we were greeted by children frantically trying to sell us souvenirs, saying things like, “I know you’re rich, you can afford it.” It was a Thursday and these kids could have been in school instead of hawking the wares provided by their parents. I couldn’t help but wonder how their worldview was going to change as a result of spending their days selling to “rich Westerners”.
Koh Rong, while full of stunning scenery, is Ibiza on a less-developed island. It also contains ALL the salmonella in the world (okay, probably not, but I’m grumpy about that one still!). The gal at the Monkey bar took one look at me and just smiled – lots of people leave the island with the vomit-inducing-hospital-requiring pain. Thank god for saline and Russian doctors. Perhaps if I’d drank more shots, that would have been the cure.
Angkor Wat at sunrise is as busy as a rock concert, people elbowing their way to the front, vying for the perfect shot. Instead of taking in the beauty of the pinks, purples and fading indigo, we were grumpy at how many people elbowed in front of our “perfect” photo spot. It was miserable.
Did I miss the boat on Southeast Asia? Did we come too late? And then I thought, no, it’s just that everyone else has been inspired the same way that I was. Inspiration en masse has led to increased development and in my opinion, the loss of what was once probably magical.
We still had glorious moments on our trip, many of them. Funny, though, that some of the best moments came from the most unexpected opportunities, from discovering something ourselves, as opposed to via a blog. Ironic, I know, coming from a blogger.
What is the solution?
Am I blaming travel writers and bloggers? No. Definitely not. I do question, however, whether or not travel bloggers like myself have a certain responsibility to keep a few destinations under our hats? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether or not this destination seems ready for an influx of tourism? Does this destination even want tourists? I’ve been to a few places where Westerners were certainly not welcomed, so I can only imagine a further influx of them would taint the local way of life.
Do we only blog about places that others have blogged about before us? Well… that can’t be the answer, either. We’re all vying for that unique angle, the untold story. We want the ungettable get, the Buzzfeed worthy story, the Pinnable photo, or the next big Instagram shot.
In no way am I saying that I have the answer to this very personal debate. It will be different for every travel writer. For me, however, I will begin to really question whether a place is ready and willing for an influx of tourism. Tourism can bring jobs and business, but it can also bring with it an unintended darker side.
Who am I to judge whether a place is ready for that? I’m nobody, really. But I will do my best to put myself in the shoes of a local and ask myself if it’s worth it. For some destinations, they’re ready, willing and eager for the world to learn about them. For others, they just want to live the lives they are accustomed to, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Or, do we take the good with the bad? For instance, David and I went to Hoi An, Vietnam, with the intention of having custom clothes made. It’s what all the bloggers suggested. Instead, we were turned off at the hard sell. At a loss for how we were going to spend our four days, we wandered, instead. We gave ourselves a mini-photo challenge, ate great food, met new friends and had a better time than we’d ever anticipated.
Perhaps, then, expectations are the problem? Perhaps we over-plan and under-live?
What about you, fellow travel writers? Do you struggle with this? Have you seen evidence of it? What is your take on the responsibility of a travel writer? Of a traveler? Comment below.