While writing my thesis, which is ultimately devoted to travel journalism, I found myself lacking expert opinions. Well, thought I, who could give me better answers than Rolf Potts, the famous backpacking guru and the author of “Vagabonding“?
My thesis was supposed to be entirely about travel documentary films, but as a huge lover of travel writing genre I just gave half of it to the great men and women of the quill. I knew from the very beginning that it just won’t work without words of wisdom from the people in the field. Rolf has gracefully agreed to answer my questions. And I believe it would be a shame to just bury the interview in a pile of paper!
Rolf Potts is a renowned travel writer and adventurer who preaches independent travel. He also managed to run around the world with no baggage at all.
What current tendencies in the genre of travel journalism would you point out? What does the audience expect from a travel writer nowadays?
The online and blog world has gradually been transforming travel journalism for the past 15 or so years. Travel journalism still exists in the print world, but — like other forms of journalism — it is more and more becoming an online phenomenon. A lot of this online travel writing isn’t particularly good — but travel writing had quality problems well before the emergence of online media. In a way, “travel journalism” encompasses a huge realm, from the most brainless and commercial destination features, to challenging and nuanced literary reportage. Accordingly, what the audience expects from travel writing depends on what the audience is looking for. The majority of travel readers are just people who want information and inspiration so that they can plan their own travels, or travel vicariously from their armchairs. Another, smaller, audience, is more vested in the realm of literary travel writing, and they tend to seek a higher quality product.
Would you agree that travel is currently becoming a sort of a pop culture, with so many people starting to travel and document their travels? Can we say that the idea of a journey is getting farther from its original sense?
More than pop culture, travel has become populist culture, since blogs and social media have allowed most anyone to document and broadcast their travels. So yes the idea of a journey is changing — but it always has been changing. One of the reasons travel has changed over the past decade or two is that there is so much more information available about faraway destinations. The idea of traveling halfway around the world doesn’t feel as intrepid as it once did; it has become more normalized. But then travel has always been changing, and becoming easier, going back past the advent of jet planes to railroads and steamships and even paved roads. In English the word travel has a relationship to the word “travail” — but for the past 3000 years travel has been gradually getting easier. There are still challenges to be had on the road, of course, but compared to a journey one might make 1000 or even 100 years ago, it’s a different experience entirely.
Do you think that travel writing may lose to the developing genre of vlogs, photoblogs and all the Buzzfeed-like content (aka «10 places you must visit before you die»)? Will people (especially the youth) be willing to read when they’re offered visual content, faster&easier to consume?
I think those kinds of media are changing the way people approach travel — but this also is part of a historical conversation. The development of photography in the mid-19th century transformed the way people thought of travel and travel writing, and the boom in “picture postcards” in the early 20th century also made people wonder if young people would bother to read about faraway places when they could just look at pictures. In truth, images and text have always coexisted. Even in the 1980s, a good decade before online media took hold, critics bemoaned the fact that glossy travel magazines were more slanted toward big photo-spreads than good writing. The same went for “top-10-list” journalism. I think the mainstream audience always has and always will opt for simplistic photo (and text) coverage of the travel experience — but a smaller, yet very important, sub-set of that audience will seek out more nuanced long-form reportage and memoiristic travel writing. In a way, a photoblog post that can be consumed in 90 seconds is a completely different genre from a deeply reported book that takes a week to read. They are both called “travel journalism”, but they serve different purposes and have different audiences.
What would you say will be the main tendencies of the genre of travel journalism in the upcoming ten years? Will there be some radically new ways to deliver travel-related content to people’s homes?
I don’t think travel journalism is a zero-sum game — I think more traditional literary writing will continue to exist, even as technology makes it easier to evoke a distant land through pictures or videos or social media. Audiences will continue to enjoy well-told long-form or memoiristic reportage, even as they enjoy the simpler narrative forms like multimedia. I don’t think the focus of travel stories will change; I just think the technological methods of capturing and communicating travel experiences will transform. This means audiences can enjoy information and stories about distant lands in multiple ways at once.
What are your favorite travel documentaries, if any, and why? What do you think is the current place of travel documentaries on the travel content market?
My interest in travel films skews toward films with an anthropological bent, from “Cannibal Tours” to “Gringo Trails.” I think the idea of a traditional, 90-minute travel film is in the process of changing, due to the way people watch online. I think travel films will become shorter, showcasing their content serially instead of through long-form feature documentary. As with writing, the long-form approach won’t go away, but with more opportunities to find an audience through short-form film and video, a lot of filmmakers are going to skew in this direction.
You can find Rolf’s biography and works on his official website.