Will travel writing survive COVID-19?

The travel section of London’s Skoob books…

The future looks bleak for travel writing — at least, for the highly commercialized side — but I don’t think this is true for travel literature. They aren’t the same thing.

What’s on the ropes?

Most commercial travel writing exists symbiotically with the tourism industry, living off press junkets, review writing and advertising. It’s designed to sell a product or a destination.

This side of travel writing will be gutted by COVID-19.

Magazine publishing was struggling before the pandemic, and coronavirus will finish off those that were already on life support.

Many in flight magazines have already suspended publishing, and several announced they won’t resume even when the travel ban has ended.

Travel magazines in general are not taking pitches, and the entire industry is holding its breath. Best American Travel Writing series editor Jason Wilson went so far as to call it “probably the extinction event for a lot of travel publishing.”

Guidebooks were already struggling, thanks to the surge in travel apps and review services. The pandemic will finish many of them off too, and it’ll spark serious existential angst in the few that manage to reinvent themselves.

Lonely Planet announced plans to close its operations in London and Melbourne, and to stop publishing Lonely Planet magazine. The loss of another important travel glossy is a blow for freelancers, but the crisis might cause the company to do some soul searching and go back to its roots, abandoning fluff titles and television in favour of its origins: printing reliable guidebooks for cheap travel to marginal places. In my opinion, that’s a good thing.

Travel clickbait will take a hit, too, and thank fuck. I’ve always hated that MSN-style “5 great things to do in Madrid” crap. It’s repetitive, ubiquitous, and utterly predictable, and it clogs up the search results for anyone trying to research a trip that is even slightly outside the obvious. Do we really need some anonymous author to tell us the Eiffel Tower should be on our Paris must-see list?

COVID-19 will deal a death blow to the airbrushed Instagram influencer, at least in the self-absorbed “hashtag travel” category. The world could use less visual cliches of pampered narcissists posing in front of landmarks, restaurants, hotels and shops, flying around the world to take the same ‘iconic’ photo of themselves that everyone else is taking, too.

I think the pandemic will gut large chunks of this commercial side of travel writing — and good riddance. It feels like it sold its soul years ago.

Thankfully, literary travel writing is alive and well…

Why travel stories will survive

Travel literature, the act of venturing into the unknown, coming back and telling others what you saw, has been with us since Gilgamesh. It has nothing to do with resort and hotel reviews, or top 5 things to do in Dullsville.

The best travel writing can be so many things:  journalism, memoir, history, anthropology, adventure, exploration, tales of survival, humour or ordeal. It always involves going to a place and coming back to report what you’ve seen. And if it’s done well, it stands the test of time.

This sort of writing isn’t limited to glossy travel magazines. More than half of The Best American Travel Writing anthology shortlisted stories each year were published in non-‘travel’ outlets. 

I wasn’t very optimistic about current travel writing, and I’d stopped reading new stuff entirely unless it was by a writer I already knew. But the last few years have been a bit of a renaissance, with outstanding books by Kapka Kassabova (Border), Isambard Wilkinson (Travels in a Dervish Cloak), Rory MacLean (Pravda Ha Ha), and Peter Hessler (The Buried).

There’s always a need for such writing, especially in a constantly changing world.

Rory MacLean’s first book, Stalin’s Nose, was about a journey through the former Warsaw Pact countries immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. His new book retraces this journey 30 years later, to get a sense of where things went wrong, how euphoria and optimism for the future became the jaded scepticism we see today, and the rise of populism.

You can gain so many insights from traveling slowly through a place and talking to people.

If anyone asked me back in 2002 if I thought China was on the road to democracy, I would have said there wasn’t a chance — despite the optimistic projections being spouted in every article I read on the topic. It was obvious to me from traveling across the country for two months talking to people that they didn’t care about freedom or culture or democracy at all. They cared about money and status symbols like flashy watches and cars, the ability to start a business and a chance to get rich. They also told me China must reclaim its role as a rival to (or superior to) the United States — a global hegemon. Twenty years later, we’re seeing this play out in predictable ways.

Literary travel writing leaves us with accounts of our times that future readers will consult because they offer the sort of firsthand descriptions a more factual history book doesn’t capture. That outsider’s view is a useful lens.

I can see less scope for the sort of stuff I wrote about in my first book, Vagabond Dreams: travel as self-discovery, a philosophy based on engagement with alien cultures, using the journey as a lens into yourself. This is likely to decline as COVID-19 scares more people into staying close to home. But that’s the sort of book you only write once. It only happens like that on the first trip.

I don’t see travel or travel literature drying up even if the pandemic lasts a year or two. 

In fact, we might look back on the period as another ‘golden age’…

Exploring Skoob Books travel section on a London book run…

Desperate times produce great books

The interwar years of the 1920’s and 1930’s saw writers like Graham Greene, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Byron and Normal Douglas set out on the road to produce books that are looked back on as great travel classics.

Paul Fussell chronicled this flowering of British travel writing in his book Abroad. But they weren’t the only writers to turn turmoil into literature.

Patrick Leigh Fermor took the journey that resulted in his famous trilogy during the rise of the Nazi’s, walking through Europe from Holland to Constantinople during the worst of the political and social instability of the 1930’s. His books captured an Eastern European way of life that would vanish forever just a few years later.

Christopher Isherwood’s journals about his years in Weimar Berlin captured the chaotic flowering of that vanishing world, too. They would inspire the film Cabaret, and they influenced many of Berlin’s most famous expats to come here, including David Bowie.

This is the sort of travel writing that lasts, not tourism articles or yet another predictable “trudging revelation” about walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

I don’t see that ending, even if the current pandemic is with us for years. Times of major change — captured in Rory’s post-Wall journey through the former Warsaw Pact countries, or Paul Theroux’s trip through China right after it opened to outsiders — are the most interesting times of all.

I remain optimistic about this sort of writing. People like me will always be willing to venture into the world’s marginal places and report back on what we’ve seen.

Writing in the Land Cruiser in an Iceland rain…

Here’s what the pros are saying

But I don’t want my longwinded pontificating to be the last word.

I asked a few of my friends to weigh in with their thoughts on the post-pandemic future of travel writing.

Barnaby Rogerson, publisher of the legendary Eland books, is finding inspiration close to home:

“I have been struck by a number of things over the last six weeks. That I own many books that I have never read, so I have had enormous fun lounging in our back garden, on a pile of carpets and kilim grain bags, reading and reading.

The astonishing clean air of London, the lack of noise, has been combined with the time to watch flowers unfurl and birds make their nests as you put your book down and try and digest what has been read.   

It has been a very good time to read, and not for the first time, I realise the deadening tonality of travel books written by professional writers of my own generation. Composed to a deadline and aided by a Publishers advance, they are beautifully composed by accomplished stylists but lack any sense of urgency. Too often they trail around looking for an authentic story to light themselves up with, instead of something experienced by chance that HAD to be written.  

I normally go out to a party or a lecture or a book launch most evenings in London, but find I have been delighted by the free ranging conversation of my neighbours, walking our dog in the park, chatting at a safe distance over a garden fence or talking to the check out staff in our local supermarket. By contrast, after the first excitement of seeing a friends face, I have found the screen chat groups curiously un engaging.”    

Rory MacLean, author of Pravda Ha Ha, has resigned himself — and some of his travel dreams — to a more responsible future we must try to reach:

“At home in our locked-down world, I look out of my study window. Beyond the horizon I imagine launching myself on far flung journeys: trekking Nepal’s high Annapurna trail, savouring spicy breakfast mohinga in rural Burma or paddling a canoe across the dark mirror of a Canadian lake and leaving a trail of twisting whirlpools in my wake. In the coming months, travel restrictions will be eased — both around the block as well as across the continents — and in a year the virologists should have found a Covid-19 vaccine. Of course there will be more new viruses in the coming years, and further epidemics, but our future behaviour will change — will need to change — to confront another, greater danger.

All my life I have been moved by aeroplanes. At four months old a silver-bellied, three-finned Super Constellation flew me from Vancouver, where I was born, to Toronto, where we would live. A year later I crossed the Atlantic on my mother’s lap in a Bristol Britannia Whispering Giant, the first commercial aircraft to fly non-stop between America and Europe. When I was eight my father took me to Washington DC on a TCA Viscount to gaze at the Wright Brother’s Kitty Hawk Flyer. The Flyer’s historic hop — man’s first powered, heavier-than-air flight — had lasted 12 seconds. At twelve years old I shivered above the Arctic in a breezy DC-3. At thirteen I laughed out loud when a float plane lifted me up in a rainbow of spray from the Muskoka lakes. In 1967 I drank my first glass of wine on my first Big Jet, a BOAC Boeing 707, then fell in love with my first stewardess. She wore white gloves, a waisted navy uniform and winged pill box hat.

When I moved to Europe I began to catch aircraft like buses. Twice a year I was carried home by Freddie Laker, PEOPLExpress and on the maiden Virgin Atlantic New York flight. Two dozen times I rattled down the Berlin Air Corridor at 10,000 feet, far below the PanAm 737’s ideal cruising altitude but within range of Soviet anti-aircraft guns. I lost an engine above Rangoon, crossed the Pacific on bankrupt Continental and once had a Qantas jumbo — designed for 456 passengers — all to myself (but only from Melbourne to Sydney). I lost a lover in LAX and found another at London Gatwick. My first travel story won a competition and a flight on Concorde, delivering me to JFK an hour before I’d left Heathrow. Above Seattle I dined on ‘a collation of smoked salmon, sevruga caviar and prawn sushi’ and brown-bagged it on an Ilyushin 86 in an ice storm near Minsk. And every aircraft I boarded, from a Fairchilds Pilgrim to the Airbus A380, across tropical tarmac or cattle-like through a docking bay, thrilled me: the click of the seat belt, the start of engines, the surge of power, the hurtle down the runway, the anticipation of the miracle.

‘More than any other thing that pertains to the body,’ wrote Plato, the wing ‘partakes of the nature of the divine.  Its natural function is to soar upwards and to carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods.’ 

The aeroplane lifted me body and spirit, enabling me to become a travel writer. It let me feel at home in Toronto, London, Berlin and so many places in-between. In Kabul and Tehran, Pyongyang and Seoul, it taught me that much more links us than separates us. But now in our changing age, I realise that we need to limit long-haul air travel. All of us. For as frightening as is the pandemic, climate change is the real emergency, and its potentially catastrophic effect can be mitigated by individuals — by you and me — curtailing our time at 20,000 feet. 

I have been lucky enough to live through a golden age of flight, but today in this world that we have changed, I must accept that I’ll never reach all of my fancied, far afield destinations. For me, this is our post-pandemic future. This is our new, responsible reality.

And finally, Lawrence Millman — author of Last Places, one of my favourite books on the north — is less optimistic about the future of travel freelancing:

“Zoom has followed Covid-19 all around the world, as if they were partners. Once the latter has settled down, the former will go into manic overdrive, with a negative effect on those of us who earn our bread via our pens. An editor might say to a “writer” planning a visit to Africa: “Hey, don’t write anything ‘cuz we’re now using Zoom. Get yourself in front of the screen when you get home from the Dark Continent and tell our viewers [formerly readers] what you saw there. By all means, take lots of photos of pygmies with your iDevice and brandish them — the photos, not the pygmies, haha — during our Zoom session so viewers can see those cute little guys.” 

Since resistance will doubtless be futile, I suspect actual travel writing will go the way of the great auk and the Labrador duck.”

However the situation plays out, it seems we’re in for interesting times. And I’m anxious to get back on the road, to see what the world looks like in those post-pandemic marginal places.

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.



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