A woman sits with offerings for a religious ceremony, Swayambuthu, Kathmandu, Nepal.
Lately I've noticed a growing - and disturbing - trend among travel bloggers to accept multiple free trips from government tourist boards or travel companies and write about their experiences. In journalism school, professors taught Ethics 101: do not accept free trips or gifts in exchange for writing about a certain place or subject, lest we risk losing our objectivity.
This accept-no-favors policy was crafted to insure one never had to worry about offending those who funded the trip - or paid for dinner - if describing the experience in less-than-glowing terms. At every newspaper, radio and television station where I have worked as a reporter, this policy was rigidly enforced.
Today, the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics continues to stress the importance of acting independently:
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
Of course this begs the question: are bloggers journalists? Not always, but these bloggers seem to think they are, billing themselves as professional travel experts. So when did travel bloggers begin thinking it was okay to accept free trips?
Call me old school, but I am disappointed when reading about a blogger's all-expenses-paid trip to a beautiful locale. Some travel bloggers might be curious enough to do some background reading, but more often than not, their posts contain the same information, filtered through a vaguely-different lens. After all, many of these bloggers have stayed in the same (luxury) hotels and been guided to the same tourist hot spots - without ever once veering off the beaten path. They've been led around like sheep, albeit by knowledgeable shepherds. These bloggers know little other than what they've been told and therefore have just scratched the surface of that area. They haven't visited residential neighbourhoods or refugee camps or made much of an effort to see the way the locals live. How could they, when following their sponsor's self-serving itinerary?
Traveling vs. tourism
In my view, traveling on someone else's dime and someone else's agenda isn't traveling; it's tourism.
Simon Calder, senior travel editor for The Independent, London is known as “the man who pays his way." Calder has said, “The cheaper you travel, the closer you get to the soul of a place… I don’t accept free transport or accommodation from the travel trade. As a result of this somewhat curious and eccentric policy, I tend to meet a lot of very interesting folk. The people with the best stories to tell live life in the cheap seats.”
So if you're back from all-expenses paid junket, I'm not interested in your hotel or tourist site recommendations. After all, you know only about the places you stayed - as a pampered guest - and have no basis to compare prices or amenities of other hotels that might be easier on the typical traveler's budget. And please don't try to pretend you're an authority on the area; visiting once and being escorted to specific tourist sites does not an expert make.
Besides ethical questions raised when a blogger accepts a free trip, there's also the issue of an oil-free country so desperate for tourist dollars that it provides luxury trips it can ill-afford to fund. A vicious cycle is created, when a country dependent upon tourism is forced to expend limited financial resources promoting travel. In a region where tourism may be affected by the Arab Spring political uprisings, is it right for bloggers to take advantage of the situation?
Last November in Nepal I met an American photographer who had traveled extensively in the region and spoke a bit of the language. Nepal is an impoverished country largely dependent upon foreign aid. Its fractured government means that most citizens' services are in flux, leaving many people living hand-to-mouth. So I was appalled to discover after purchasing an expensive handpainted tanka - that took a skilled lama three months to produce - the photographer (who brought me to the school) demanded a commission on the sale. Even worse, he did it in a sly manner, when I had left the room. At the time, I wondered why he insisted on asking the price in dollars, when I told the vendor my credit card was in euros.
The photographer did the same thing when I bought a very pricey Tibetan prayer-book cover from an antiques shop, again in an underhanded manner. I was beginning to wonder if he had health issues, as he excused himself so often to go to the toilet. It seems while I was waiting downstairs, he was collecting commission on my purchases.
Had I known the photographer insisted on a commission from these businesses - which of course meant the fees I paid had been raised to include his commission - I wouldn't have bought either piece. The Nepalis deserved the money; the photographer didn't. Yet he took full advantage of small institutions that needed all the business they could attract. Plus he took advantage of my good nature and my pocketbook.
Back home, I was busy preparing for the move from France to the Netherlands. A few months later, I emailed the photographer about some outstanding issues, including him claiming commission on my purchases. He refused to directly address the matter. Instead he sent me the names of three charities he'd supposedly donated prints to and told me he'd once sent money to a local guide - as though any of that excused him demanding commission payments on purchases of any foreigner unlucky enough to go shopping with him.
No free lunch
What are your thoughts about the ethics of bloggers and/or journalists accepting all-expenses-paid trips to foreign destinations?