A few months ago, while visiting Belgrade, I came across this line in a Lonely Planet article:
This underrated destination in the European traveller’s mindset is a sitting duck for those who hunt memorable experiences.
To be fair, Serbia is a difficult place to describe. It was far from being my favorite destination and I’d have a hard time writing about it with any real enthusiasm. Still, that didn’t stop me from asking Lonely Planet to let me try.
As you might imagine, I didn’t get a response – as is often the case when lobbing thinly veiled insults at reputable media organizations online. I don’t fault them for taking the high road, but I’m kind of surprised they did. Surely their editors surely know that nothing interesting ever happens there.
"This underrated destination in the European traveller’s mindset is a sitting duck for those who hunt memorable experiences." Thanks for the tip, Lonely Planet. When you get serious about rewriting your Serbia guide, call me. #serbia #novisad #travel #traveling #travelgram #lonelyplanet #city #blogger #travelblogger #travelblog #bohemianstyle
My problem with travel writing – and guidebooks, in particular – runs much deeper than a single line in Lonely Planet Serbia. The real issue? Travel writing is lazy. It relies on empty platitudes, sloppy comparisons, and tired stereotypes to describe what are arguably some of the most beautiful and interesting places in the world. There should be no shortage of inspiration, and yet here we are:
The mere mention of Bali evokes thoughts of a paradise. It’s more than a place; it’s a mood, an aspiration, a tropical state of mind.
Taking its place alongside the Pyramids and the Serengeti, Victoria Falls … is one of Africa’s original blockbusters.
Tel Aviv could not be more different to its older sibling, Jerusalem. Modern, vibrant and cosmopolitan: hedonism is the main religion in this hip, bustling Mediterranean ‘Manhattan’.
Forgive me for being so blunt, but that is some terrible writing. And my expectations aren’t that high either. All I’m asking is that web copy make sense. That a writer doesn’t bill a waterfall as “a blockbuster” and describe a major city by comparing it to two other major cities. I expect every sentence to make a point.
“A tropical state of mind,” indeed. And they wonder why no one buys books anymore.
I’ll be the first to admit that summarizing an entire country or city in just a few sentences is no simple task. I’m even willing to admit that it might not be possible. Perhaps guidebooks should skip all the creative rambling and focus on the practical and the factual: a list of attractions, a brief history, a simple “how to” for getting in, out and around. I’d much prefer that to seeing Istanbul summarized as: This magical meeting place of East and West has more top-drawer attractions than it has minarets (and that’s a lot).
When I read that, I cringed. And if you’ve ever been to Istanbul then you probably did too. Dare I say that anyone who has visited Turkey can come up with something more interesting than, “It has an awful lot of minarets.”
I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but then I read the page for Krakow:
If you believe the legends, Kraków was founded on the defeat of a dragon, and it’s true a mythical atmosphere permeates its attractive streets and squares.
Just, keep in mind, that’s Krakow they’re describing. One of the few cities in Poland not decimated by the Nazis. A place that survived one of the darkest periods of modern history and then reinvented itself as a first-class tourist destination and burgeoning tech scene. The city that’s so interesting it inspired a major motion picture about what happened in a sink factory.
I don’t know how anyone could have gone there, took a look around and walked away thinking, “So let’s lead with the dragon.”
Another quality that’s sorely lacking in guidebooks is objectivity. And I understand that’s a tricky matter too. After all, the purpose of travel writing is to showcase the best the destination has to offer and convince people to go. But these write-ups need to strike a balance between interesting and honest. In many cases, they don’t.
For instance, I don’t think we should begin a summary of Prague with the sentence, “[This city] is the equal of Paris in terms of beauty.” First of all, no it’s not. No one thinks so, not even Czech people. If they did, then they probably wouldn’t feel the need to brag about being the birthplace of the contact lens. They’d just be like, “Look around. Like Paris, but cheaper.”
Bottom line: Prague is Prague. Just like Paris is Paris and Beijing is Beijing. Tel Aviv is not a Mediterranean Manhattan and Manhattan is not an Atlantic Dubai. Like Mark Twain said, comparison is the death of joy.
The examples go on and on:
Estonia doesn’t have to struggle to find a point of difference: it’s completely unique.
Prepare for your senses to be slapped. Marrakesh‘s heady sights and sounds will dazzle, frazzle and enchant. Put on your babouches and dive right in.
Albania has natural beauty in such abundance that you might wonder why it took 20 years for the country to take off as a tourist destination since the end of a particularly brutal strain of communism in 1991.
Adding insult to injury is that these quotes are coming from one of the biggest, most popular travel brands on the market. They are, quite literally, as good as it gets. And you know what? I think I could do better. By that I mean that I could write something for each of these places that is original, accurate, honest and smart. If anyone wants to take me up on it, I’ll be in Helsinki, where “the boulevards and backstreets are awash with magnificent architecture, intriguing drinking and dining venues and groundbreaking design.”