Travel Writing, Annotated

In the time-honored journalistic tradition of lists (o, you home of nuance and subtlety and click-worthiness), the NYT exoticism Travel section gives us The 31 Places to Go in 2010.

1 on the list? Sri Lanka. Wouldn’t you know it, but “for a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune.” Seems that way, doesn’t it? “But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era…” Timesdudes, is that misfortune all GONE? Sweet! Except for all the people dealing with the conflict’s aftermath! Including the hundreds of thousands of displaced! Not to mention all the bereaved!

(Also on the list… Mysore, Mumbai, and Nepal. The last may be the “next gay destination.” Trend-o-RAMA! (h/t to Anup))

Let’s annotate, just for kicks.That misfortune includes “a brutal civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority.” Hm, not quite accurate, Timesdudes: although civilians of both those ethnicities (and others) fell victim to the war in considerable numbers, they were not really its combatants. More accurately, the war was between the government’s security and armed forces and the Tamil Tigers (and, if you want to be totally precise, other paramilitary groups). This is very inconvenient when the word count is so tight. Sri Lanka: boilerplate nightmare. But this is a job for journalism, no?

“But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era for this teardrop-shaped island off India’s coast, rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors.”

I won’t rag on “teardrop”–I’ve used that one too. But how ‘BOUT those “cultural splendors.” What does that mean? Otherness, dance for me and offer me the bounties of privilege with the many arms of your strange gods… Who’s the traveler here?

“The island… feels like one big tropical zoo…”

Really? The whole island? Even Colombo? To whom? Have you BEEN to the zoo lately? Were there a lot of cars?

“And then there’s the pristine coastline. The miles of sugary white sand flanked by bamboo groves that were off-limits to most visitors until recently are a happy, if unintended byproduct of the war.”

And THEN there was that tsunami five years ago. Mmmm, sand. Tasty. Also, happy for whom, exactly? The people who used to live there? Fishermen? People who lost their homes to that tsunami, or to high security zones?

“the Tamil north”

Erm. Tamil-dominated and historically Tamil, yes, and I know there is a word count. But “Tamil north” is reductive in the extreme.

“The Sun House (www.thesunhouse.com), in Galle, looks like a place where the Queen of England might stay, with its mango courtyard and colonial décor.”

Anglophiles, quick! To the travel agent!

Please note: my beef (!) isn’t with travel generally… it’s with travel writing of this kind, constructed for a very particular audience and seeming to encourage people to travel to someone else’s home without any sense that that is what it is. These are places to see, yes–but why not see them, and yourself, as they really are? I don’t want this to be a snark-and-run… but good travel writing contends honestly and openly with presumptions of who is traveling and why… and it does not treat local people as though their lives were just incidental, conveniently or inconveniently producing conditions for others’ escapism. To those who would say, “So what? Sri Lanka needs all the business it can get!”–that’s not my point. Sri Lanka does not need to be reduced to writing like this to attract tourism. No country does.

In this old post from The Lede, the Times’ own Robert Mackey writes, “Let’s just hope that the first journalists to be allowed to operate freely in Sri Lanka will not be there to write travel stories.” Or let’s just hope they don’t write travel stories like this.

(To be fair, much of the Times’ Sri Lanka coverage from the foreign desk has been excellent… head and shoulders above its competitors.)

Here’s a terrific post from a couple of years ago, on PTR, also related to travel writing (and the writer himself responds in the comments!)

Here’s another post I did related to the NYT and travel writing.

40 thoughts on “Travel Writing, Annotated

  1. I know lots of people who go to Lanka, despite its troubles, often to get married there..in one case it was a relative of a relative getting married to a Gori from the UK, both non Sri Lankans, but the romance of the place attracted them…It’s not always what people think are popular, in actuality..eg Taj Mahal is actually less visted by Tourists than the Golden Temple…so I think Lanka being up there is a good Thing

  2. There was a fantastic episode of No Reservations where Bourdain goes to a stupa in Laos and gets yelled at by a monk for bringing in all these tourists who come to gawk and take pictures without actually giving a damn about the actual meaning or spiritual side of what they do. “It’s not a show!” he says.

  3. *** Sweet! Except for all the people dealing with the conflict’s aftermath! Including the hundreds of thousands of displaced! Not to mention all the bereaved! ***

    First, that is a NYT Travel section writeup about 31 places highlighted with a paragraph each to capture unique selling point for travel, not a socio-political-economic article on Sri Lanka, nor a senior thesis, term paper, manifesto, HRW report.

    Second, tourism brings money, education, awareness, and attention. In its own right, it will do more for the civil war displaced and tsunami affected people by mass awareness, revenue for the people there than any discussion amongst the chattering class.

    I would not put any blame on NYT article. I do not know Colombo but Delhi is like a jungle – not only a human one but with elephants, cows, camels, monkeys along with cars.

  4. I do not know Colombo but Delhi is like a jungle – not only a human one but with elephants, cows, camels, monkeys along with cars.

    to paraphrase VV, have you ever been to a jungle? anyway, i thought this bit from her was extremely relevant:

    Please note: my beef (!) isn’t with travel generally… it’s with travel writing of this kind, constructed for a very particular audience and seeming to encourage people to travel to someone else’s home without any sense that that is what it is. These are places to see, yes—but why not see them, and yourself, as they really are? I don’t want this to be a snark-and-run… but good travel writing contends honestly and openly with presumptions of who is traveling and why… and it does not treat local people as though their lives were just incidental, conveniently or inconveniently producing conditions for others’ escapism. To those who would say, “So what? Sri Lanka needs all the business it can get!”—that’s not my point. Sri Lanka does not need to be reduced to writing like this to attract tourism. No country does.
  5. have you ever been to a jungle?

    Yes, I have be in pristine jungles in Okawango Delta, Botswana for weeks in 2004.

    So I know a feel for a jungle, how it operates, I have even seen live hunts by cheetahs, and wild dogs.

    Now, we are diverting, and getting away from the topic of this post. Back to the topic…

    Tourism is huge money, and it empowers the people on the street. Tourism/ travel pitch is done by simple selling points, not by a senior thesis. Do you really think Mysore is all about yoga, or Kathmandu all about gayness acceptance for a minute. In Mysore, it is not yoga yogis by this pitch, it is the rickshaw wallahs, vendors, and all that make money.

    If you want to market Colombo is like NYC, be my guest, you will not have someone spending thousands of dollars to go there

  6. looks like a place where the Queen of England might stay, with its mango courtyard and colonial décor.”

    Yes, because mango courtyards are strongly associated with the Queen of England.

    Next up: Goa with its gay goys, where a guy like Goya might do yoga.

  7. Tourism/ travel pitch is done by simple selling points, not by a senior thesis

    i disagree with your entire perspective on tourism (which I understand to be ‘money is everything, nothing else matters, even if there are other ways of making money’ – just ask people in goa these days ;)

    Even accepting it for conversation’s sake, the totally simple approach in the article – and most other nytimes travel section articles i’ve read – is actually useless for those purposes too. I don’t consider myself an especially sophisticated traveler. I just came back from a month traveling around India and using the Lonely Planet was useless exactly because of this kind of issue – there is a particular vibe that an overly touristed place takes on and it turns off actual tourists – at least this one. after going to cochin, i didn’t bother with pondicherry – maybe i was wrong, but you kind of get a feel for things after a while. and so things like the ny times travel section become a way to continuously and everlastingly find ‘the new hot spot’ rather than trying to focus on places you can actually have a connection with in some way and learn about – what little you can – in a few days.

  8. This is a silly blog posting. It reflects a certain amount of privilege and education, yet completely misses the point that these regions need tourist traffic for their economy and development.

    And, yes, there is a certain simplification/reductive quality to the original article – so what? The last time I looked at a Fodor’s guide it seemed pretty simple-minded to me as well.

  9. Tourism is huge money, and it empowers the people on the street.

    Too much tourism, though, and you end up killing the vitality and authenticity that makes places interesting in the first place. Things start being designed for the benefit of transient tourists rather than locals. Everything becomes sanitized and mopped up for international consumption. What you end up with instead is kind of a Disney-fied simulation of what used to be real life.

    It was a little disturbing for me to see a city like Pisa. It used to be an actual city, but now it feels more like a theme-park pretending to be a city. The churches and the baptismal altars where people once worshiped and blessed their kids are just there to be gawked at. Even in structures that are still being used, tourists frequently act like assholes. In Notre Dame people were taking pictures with flash during mass! And not just the ugly Americans either. I can imagine a community not wanting that kind of stuff coming in even if it does mean they lose out on some easy money.

  10. Yoga, I agree in terms of easy money from tourism may not be as useful as building capacity and developing an economy. It’s up to the people of the area, but it seems similar to development aid in pushing problems down the road rather than changing the conditions in which the problems occur

  11. It seems like NYT wrote that to generate some optimism for places like Sri Lanka and Mumbai. Opinions are diffrent from facts.

  12. This is a silly blog posting. It reflects a certain amount of privilege and education, yet completely misses the point that these regions need tourist traffic for their economy and development.

    Well said. Not only that, it seems to be finding a target to mock for the sake of showing off.

  13. Too much tourism, though, and you end up killing the vitality and authenticity that makes places interesting in the first place

    Tourism is a trillion dollar a year business (look up @ Incredible India website, http://www.incredibleindia.org for numbers). The major pie is divided amongst USA, Italy, France, Austria, and Greece. India is just 1 % of the total revenue.

    But countries like Botswana, use tourism as a vehicle to keep nearly 40-50 % of their country pristine (essentially fenced off by electric barbed wires). Places like Okavango Delta are one of the few pristine lands on the earth today, and it is the high end tourism (huge amounts of money they bring), that funds it. Otherwise they would run over by human beings. Some of the South American countries do that for rain forests. Bhutan has a similar model.

    Look tourism is a business transaction, not a moral preaching platform. You open (sell) your place for people to visit your place for whatever reason, and so long they do not do anything illegal, we are not the one lecture them. They want to act gaudy, want to immerse, not immerse, whether they reach to local people or not, it is not for us to tell. They visit, and create a revenue for the place…….. act as catalyst for development faster than anything, Thailand bounced back post 2004 tsunami because tourism fueled the place to rebuild. 9/11 in NYC, and 11/ 26 in Mumbai really hurt tourism in those places, and it hurt the livelihood of the people there at that time. Mom and pop businesses be in New Orleans, NYC, Paris, Athens depend on tourist money.

    If 5000 people visit Sri Lanka in 2010 by reading NYT article (in NYT or republished somewhere else) – 5000 is an incredibly modest number – spend $5,0000 on an average. Making Sri Lanka making on the top of an esoteric Amrikan newspaper would have generated 5000 X $5000 = $25,000,000 in revenue in airfare, lodging, local business in 2010 for Sri Lanka.

    If you want to argue tourism should not destroy mango groves, litter Himalayas, and Mt. Everest, I am with you……..but again, government any place in the world will not allocate enough resources for such things but tourism done smartly will do it.

  14. Yes but Kush I think you have to also take into account the economic base in which tourism occurs, and think about the possibility that some of the choices of what kind of tourism to accept might be linked to a certain lack of other alternatives.

  15. Spain and countries like that have no choice but to offer tourism because that is what feeds them..to people in cold northern rich countries it looks attractive..same for lanka..even in UK where many are republican, we have to keep royal family as it brings in tourists, mainly Yanks, Japs and Indians

    This thread is a bit of a so what really

  16. I agree with Kush Tandon. In fact, he’s one of the few commenters here who I feel as a real “pulse” on India and it’s surrounding countries, by virtue of being born and raised there.

    Some of the others come across as PC and self-righteous, which is to be expected because they were born and/or raised in a PC and self-righteous latte consuming trendy culture.

    Anyway, this comment;

    Please note: my beef (!) isn’t with travel generally… it’s with travel writing of this kind, constructed for a very particular audience and seeming to encourage people to travel to someone else’s home without any sense that that is what it is. These are places to see, yes—but why not see them, and yourself, as they really are?

    Well, “natural beauty” “pristine coastline” “cultural splendor” and “tropical zoo” is IN FACT how Sri Lanka is. Not every single inch of it, but a good chunk of it.

    My god, these are all COMPLIMENTS, not INSULTS.

    Sheesh!

    *shakes head in disbelief”

  17. I find some of the comments on here quite extraordinary. If Times Travel cited North Korea or Burma as the top travel site of 2010, people would be rightfully incensed. Sri Lanka is certainly not North Korea or Burma, but it’s a far cry from China or India. The camps are still in effect. The war may be over, but human tragedy is not.

  18. If you want to argue tourism should not destroy mango groves, litter Himalayas, and Mt. Everest, I am with you……..but again, government any place in the world will not allocate enough resources for such things but tourism done smartly will do it.

    The problem is that governments that don’t care enough to allocate these resources aren’t going to do tourism smartly either. Botswana and Bhutan are special cases. They actually have somewhat functional governments (read: not corrupt) with well-respected monarchs in charge (unofficially in Botswana’s case), and substantial natural resource wealth to offer stable funding for the governments (hydroelectricity for Bhutan and diamonds for Botswana.)

    You can’t extrapolate from that to countries that aren’t the same. Sri Lanka can’t regulate the tourism industry the way Bhutan can. The fate of most dysfunctional countries that go for a tourism fueled development path will end up looking more like Roatan than Gabarone. Some nice resorts along the coast and a bunch of run-down shanties on the hillsides for all the help. There is money coming it, but it’s not making life much better for the mass of people who actually live there. All it’s doing is pricing them off the nice land and reaping dividends for the jet-setting crowd.

  19. The war may be over, but human tragedy is not.

    Disclosure: I’m one of those who said Sri Lanka needs all the business it can get.

    The dirty secret about Sri Lanka’s economy is that employment (mostly as maids and other low-skilled workers) in the Middle East is one of the highest sources of revenue. The workers are treated piss poorly (as documented on SM and elsewhere) and are generally poverty-stricken rural women who have no other option. They spend years away from their children and send money home to their husbands — who unfortunately tend to drink it. This might seem like a narrow-casted example, but it’s far more widespread that you’d think. The country’s a mess, people are depressed, and the war and tsunami have taken a hideous toll on everyone.

    Tourism would be a huge boost to rural areas (Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Hikkaduwa, Yala, Batticalo lagoon — these are nowhere near Colombo) and give these women, their husbands, adult children, brothers, etc. work in the way of hotel management, restaurants, local crafts, etc. Service and hospitality work picks up when the tourists come. And when there are no other jobs at all, this can only be a good thing. Even making money as a tout is still making money. People are desperate for work.

    Yes, the tourists might come to take pictures of Sri Lanka’s famous stilt fishermen, for example. And that might seem like an indignity. But when those fishermen have already been abandoning the practices of their forebears because the fish don’t bite as much after the tsunami, no one in the villages can afford to buy fish, it costs too much to transport to the city, and the fishermen can’t afford to eat their own catch because it’s still cheaper to eat rice and dahl and sell the fish at a discount…does it matter? So now they’ll hop back on the stilts for a few hours timed to when the tour groups come by and get a cut from the tour managers. We’re not there and aren’t in a place to judge, are we?

    Visiting Kandy might not be the same when it’s flooded with several hundred backpackers and business travelers and the hostels, hotels, and burger places that will cater to their needs. But so what? Most Sri Lankans would be delighted to feel like New Yorkers, bitching about how they never go to Times Square anymore because it’s so insufferably flooded with midwestern tourists and ESPNZones. These are high class problems.

    Reading this NYTimes travel piece is an exercise in double-consciousness: we are both the intended readership and the discreetly-ignored subject. We are the westerner looking for a hip place to visit, and the local shocked to find NYTimes reporters at our door. We know the country better than the writer so we’re mad at how easily other readers will be deceived, and we’re shocked into wondering if writing/reporting on oversees issues isn’t just an exercise in artistic bullshitting. Okay, maybe that last part is just me :)

  20. There is money coming it, but it’s not making life much better for the mass of people who actually live there.

    I forgot to add to my previous comment the fact that Sri Lank HAD a booming tourist economy in the late 70s and early 80s. European rockstars (Duran Duran, A-Ha, etc.) came to play and colombo was filled with sunburned white people trying to find a way upcountry to the mountains. So it’s not like we don’t know what will happen because it’s never happened before. And yes, some benefitted more than others but the whole country did thrive.

  21. Thankyou Cicatrix for bringing some sense and FACTS to the discussion. Tourism can only be a boon for un-employed Sri Lankans, and hopefully the tourism will be of the “eco-tourism” variety. Then it will really be a win/win.

  22. uh, thanks UN PC/NO-UN. I don’t think I provided much in the way of fact, but I also think this might be one of the only times you’d agree with me so I’m just going along with it :)

    Sugi makes a great point in the post:

    Sri Lanka does not need to be reduced to writing like this to attract tourism.

    So the post criticized the article for the writing, not for the topic, and that’s been lost in the ensuing discussion of whether tourism itself is good or bad.

    A really valid concern here is that western media gets total amnesia about the war and tsunami now that things things are “over” and just write silly stories like this about how pristine beaches are the “happy, if unintended, byproduct of war.” I mean seriously, that’s so infuriatingly glib. Like, well at least you didn’t bleed all over the sand when y’all shot each other!!

    But this current post-war period still feels tentative and uncertain…and it’s just sort of positive to see Sri Lanka being celebrated in the press, even in this tone-deaf manner. So I’m on the side of not caring about the writing as long as it gets people to visit. Once things stabilize (prognosis uncertain — elections on the 26th and dear Mahinda wants to crown himself pretty badly) then I’ve no doubt that I’ll join in snarking all over the Times for every syllable they misprint :)

  23. I also agree that Sri Lanka could use some tourism. But what kind of reaction are tourists going to have when they touch down in Colombo and don’t see this:

    The island, with a population of just 20 million, feels like one big tropical zoo: elephants roam freely, water buffaloes idle in paddy fields and monkeys swing from trees.

    What a little more nuance have killed the writer or been killed by the editor? How about “the rural parts of the island” instead?

  24. V.V., a nicer version of some of the criticisms here–you sound a bit too much like a bright undergrad. re-performing a canned critique–you’re not really dealing w/ the critiques of that sort of position re: travel which have arisen in the past 20 years since the same critique arose. Still, you show intelligence w/ the post, so I’m not a total critic.

  25. I think that V.V. is angry that her campaign on Lanka Solidarity (a misnomer if there ever was one!) advocating sanctions against Sri Lanka is getting short shrift by the travel writers at the New York Times. Other Sri Lankan Tamils with a chip on their shoulder are trying to campaign against garments made in Sri Lanka. It is unfortunate that V.V tries to satirise the article, when it has nothing to do with whatever political problems there are in the island. Moderate Sri Lankan Tamils, like Mr S Kalaiselvam who runs Sri Lanka’s Tourism Development Authority, and many other Sri Lankans will be happy with the piece.

  26. Naresh, with all due respect, I think you’re missing the point. V.V.’s criticism is of the way the article was written, rather than a political position. The debate here is not about whether or not Sri Lanka needs tourism, but about how newspapers (among other forms of media) consistently exoticize and other South Asian destinations. I’m Indian, but would love to visit Sri Lanka – not because it’s a tropical petting zoo, but because (like France, Germany, or any other Western country) it is an interesting place with a rich history and a lot to see. V.V. hasn’t brought up her political position in this post at all, probably because it’s irrelevant: no matter where you stand on these matters, I think we can all agree that the western press has some work to do on reporting on non-western destinations. (For that matter, the non-western press does too.)

  27. What a little more nuance have killed the writer or been killed by the editor?

    Forget it, Ennis. It’s the NYT.

    Arguably, India’s moral high ground was always somewhat shaky; the country has rarely hesitated to use force to protect its interests. (After Indian troops marched into the then-Portuguese colony of Goa in 1961, President John Kennedy was reported to have remarked that maybe now he could be spared India’s lectures about a moral foreign policy.)

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/weekinreview/29kapur-web.html?_r=1“>Link Never mind that India waited roughly 14 years to throw these thugs out of, ahem, India. I’ll take reductive complimentary over flunked in basic history-geography.

  28. This post is very important in light of the possible economic futures of New Orleans and Venice. The problem is that when a place hard up for cash but “exotic” or different is marketed like this, the place ultimately becomes a caricature of itself, becomes not itself, in order to satisfy the economic dictates of those who stand to make money off such marketing. And those who make money are folks in the tourism industry – all the way from businesspeople to busboys – but only those in the industry. Everyone and everything else is expended for this venture.

    “Let’s turn into something else in order to make money to retain what we are.” Sustainability and far-sightedness do not appear to be the hallmarks of modern business development and visitors’ bureaus.

  29. Briefly, as I am otherwise employed today: There seems little point to repeating myself. I’ll just quote Cicatrix, who wrote, “So the post criticized the article for the writing, not for the topic, and that’s been lost in the ensuing discussion of whether tourism itself is good or bad.” Thanks to Cicatrix, Ennis, Kharghosh, Dr. A, and others who noted my actual argument.

    Jaded professor, I’d be interested in the critiques you’re referencing, if you want to say what they are. I am a sometimes-jaded professor myself. (But not so jaded, I might note, as to think that the Times can’t manage to have writing that is good, accurate, AND interesting. It’s not a choice between crappy writing + tourism OR nothing.)

    Finally, anyone interested in my political positions should look at the Lanka Solidarity website and read it for themselves. Naresh apparently didn’t; we haven’t advocated sanctions.

  30. v.v., thank you for bringing attention to an often-overlooked topic. i, for one, found your analysis crisp, insightful, and humorous. have you considered stand-up comedy? :) thanks for a compelling read. best regards.

  31. It really is a beautiful country but even absent the highly visible militarization, poverty and urban overpopulation the country couldn’t hope to measure up to the description in the article. Also, no mention of landmines, which still make travel in many areas dangerous.

  32. I am all for people traveling — uninformed, naive, shortsighted, carefree people, in addition to us Sepia Mutiny sophisticates. Sri Lanka needs all the help it can get, and tourism revenues are the obvious way boost the economy and provide jobs. The island is not going to be transformed into Singapore overnight (it has been “the next Singapore” for over 30 years), and the Chinese-built deepwater port in Hambantota isn’t going to be finished for another year. So if a goofy Times article creates just a tiny uptick in tourist interest in Sri Lanka, then so much the better. Tourism is a delicate industry even among countries not affected by war, and the hardy types who know Sri Lankan history and travel there fully informed tend not be the ones who spend a lot of money. The big spenders are the ones who don’t care about Sri Lankan history or politics — they just want the nice beaches and fancy hotels, charming locals, and some mystical architecture. So let them come, and let them subscribe to the New York Times.

  33. Preston,

    I have been to Sri Lanka. Beaches and hotels are OK. Locals are hadly charming and architecture..what…Italy, Greece, India, China..better places for architecture. Florida is better than Sri Lanka – based on my experience. 30 years is not enough… Sri Lanka to SIngapore…long way to go.

    http://arealblogger.blogspot.com/

  34. Poor Sinhalese could certainly benefit from tourism. I don’t think anyone disputes that.

    But I think all the commentary here misses one significant point: there’s an effort by some hawkish western journalists to portray the way Sri Lanka’s victory as an example of how states should deal with terrorism. This article read like it was written by a member of that camp.