Is Travel Blogging Becoming a Cheap Marketing Stunt?

Posted on November 10, 2009 by

Lately the travel blogosphere has been debating up a storm over the issue of ethics. Well, at least it started with that. Gawker posted a story about NY Times writer Mike Albo taking an all expenses paid trip to Jamaica, sponsored by Thrillist and Jetblue. The NY Times has strict rules prohibiting their writers from accepting any freebies as such.

Thomas Kohnstamm - author of 'Do Travel Writers go to Hell'  Thomas Kohnstamm – author of ‘Do Travel Writers go to Hell’

A Debate on Ethics

Did that create a wave? Hell yeah. It’s fired tons of response from travel writers/bloggers on twitter, and all over the internet. Some bloggers have been firm on their stand against freebies and press trips, while others have got lots to defend – how would they make a living otherwise? Who will pay for their travelling expenses then? Do they have to pay to go to work?

Three months ago, while on assignment for V!VA Travel Guides, I was told not to reveal my identity as a guidebook writer in order to get an unbiased take on the hostel/restaurant I was writing about. There was this once when a tour operator inquired. When he learned that I was including his business in a guidebook, he changed his attitude altogether (yeh it was obvious) and proceeded to offer me a drink and even a free biking tour, to which I graciously declined. Would I have written the same review without the freebies? It definitely changed my views on it – the result: an honest write up of his tour operator – excellent equipment, well-trained guides and a hypocritical owner.

 Matador Network recently published a fascinating piece, ‘Do Freebies Undermine the Honesty of Writing?’, provoking many interesting responses and discussion (surprise surprise!). On the other side of the coin, Gadling headed for the direct ‘yes to freebies’ stand, ‘Free Press Travel: Necessary…and Certainly not an Evil.’

While I’m not taking any sides here, if you ask me – I don’t give a hoot. I don’t have a care in the world whether your trip was sponsored by the tourism board or whether you paid for it with every dime you have – it’s the story that you write at the end of it that matters. One of my favorite writers, Pam at Nerd’s Eye View, had an interesting take on Press Trips and Writing A Good Story

Somewhere amidst the debate, the key point gets forgotten. The critical point that sparked all these discussions – is not how you paid for it, or who paid for the trip – it is the story at the end of it. I’d say – stop judging people on petty issues and start focusing on the big picture.

A Debate on Publicity Stunts

Then came the social media cruise where a bunch of travel bloggers were invited on a Caribbean cruise. Bloggers would then tweet about their cruise experience. The free press trip, as a surprise to many, turned sour. Last weekend, it turned into a name-calling, lashing session on Twitter (Read more on #twethics). Yes, while I was out exploring the Spanish countryside, the biggest names in the travel blogging world had nothing better to do but lash at each other in front of the whole world. 

While I missed out on the action (I’m glad I did), I really don’t want to be part of this huge debate that has immensely converted into a big ugly mess. As how Pam reports on BlogHer:

What was meant to be a fun adventure, an opportunity for the host to use social media to promote their services, turned into an object lesson into how not to use Twitter. The issue at hand — a totally valid one — was the environmental and social impact of cruising. Vocal critics of the industry used the hashtag to promote an anti-cruising agenda. So far, so good, but the discussion quickly turned to personal attacks, defensiveness, and an absurd one-upping around who’s a "better" traveler.

Although I seriously think the environmental impact of cruising is totally out of the point – this social media cruise is only what.. 1% out of the millions of people who go on cruises each year? – I digress. So what did the people involved get out of this pissing match? Publicity! 

Leigh at The Future Is Red has written an insightful post on Blogging For Publicity: Watch Helplessly as Travel Blogging Jumps the Shark. She’s the one who sparked this post I’m writing, and also a friend I’d discussed this in length with. Several months ago while I was travelling through Argentina, we’d bonded over a wonderful evening soirée and our conversation topic unknowingly moved to travel blogging. We both share the same thoughts on travel blogging and certain phenomenon we see on the net frustrate us both.

Someway or another, last weekend’s lashing session on Twitter turned into some form of attention-grabbing tactic for other bloggers/twitterers who had no sort of connection with the matter. They seized the opportunity to gain some fame. I’d say it’s a despicable self-promotion channel, but hey who’s judging?

In fact that’s how some money-making bloggers made it big. Sadly, writing style and good photography are secondary these days – it’s how you publicize your blog that matters. As judgmental as I may sound, certain travel blogs that rank tops in traffic have attributes that understandably lead to high readership. While some, there’s much to be desired.

Can We Stop These Stupid Travel Fights?

While I’ve always thought of travelling as a medium of opening up someone’s mind, it’s amazing how many people who are self-acclaimed travel experts be so narrow-minded as to belittle another person’s travelling style. BootsnAll published a list of Stupid Travel Arguments (And Why We Should Stop Having Them) – might be useful to some of us.

As travel bloggers, shouldn’t we be more open-minded, having seen strange sights, lived out of our comfort zones and encountered foreign cultures? Instead, last weekend’s online brawl seemed to prove otherwise.

Be it Albo who was judged for his unethical ways of accepting a paid press trip, or the name-calling bloggers involved in the Twitter #followmeatsea discussion, who are we to judge? 

Isn’t anyone tired of all these travel fighting? Enough already, get on with your lives.


Read more here:

  • NYT Nitpicker: Why not give Mike Albo a break?
  • Gadling: Free press travel necessary… and certainly not an evil.
  • Miss Adventures: Of freelance writers and junkets
  • Matador: Do ‘No Freebies’ Policies Undermine Honesty in Travel Writing?
  • The Future Is Red: Blogging For Publicity: Watch Helplessly as Travel Blogging Jumps the Shark.
  • WildJunket: Why We Travel

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

29 Responses to “Is Travel Blogging Becoming a Cheap Marketing Stunt?”

  1. Leigh November 10, 2009 2:11 pm #

    Fantastic, Nellie. With an excellent set of links to follow through on this debate as it threads it's way back in time. (And you know how I feel about links)

    Sometimes, though, I feel there are those who take this whole thing WAYYYY to seriously. We're travel bloggers. It's not brain surgery, and none of us is working with lepers in Calcutta.

    But there is also a lot of positive we can put out there. Such as bringing green and conscious travel to light. Highlighting social issues worldwide. Sharing tips we've learned along the way that allows others to travel well but also travel within local communities.

    And then we also still have to make a living, somehow, because even with the occasional freebie — which is usually small, like a taste of chocolate or a half-glass of wine — we still pay for our travel, no matter how frugal or conscious we are.

  2. Ladyexpat November 10, 2009 2:11 pm #

    Should the fact that he took a freebie be the issue or that he broke the rules of his organization? If the rules are reasonable (and this one is) then as an employee he shouldn't have taken the free trip.

    • Nellie November 10, 2009 2:59 pm #

      You've got a point in that the main issue is that he broke the rules of his organization – which is similar to a normal job contract which when broken, the employee will have to be terminated. Every one of us have been too busy debating on the ethical issue instead.

  3. pam November 10, 2009 3:29 pm #

    Nice round up of links, Nellie, and thanks for including me. A few thoughts…

    Albo, as Lady Expat mentions, broke the terms of his contract by taking that trip. Granted, the NYT terms are crazy restrictive, but Albo did have a contract with them. It's good that the situation publicized the extremity of those terms, but at heart, this situation was a contract/employer issue. If you sign a contract, it's your job to observe those terms.

    Those spotlight grabbing tactics kind of backfired, don't you think? Hostility, axe-grinding, and grandstanding are a pretty good way to lose Twitter followers and blog readers. Oops. When a well intentioned argument turns to mudslinging, those who would normally be interested in the issue walk away. How interesting would it be to see actual numbers on this? Followers lost, readers lost, etc…?

    Shilling and fawning will never be in style. I'm sure Princess thought having a bunch of high profile names talking about how awesome everything is was a great idea, but we're a transparent community. For people inclined to like cruising, I suppose it could push them to book, but critics of writing have their radar up up up. And wouldn't it be amazing to hear what they're saying at Princess about the results? How much did they not understand about social media?!?! Yikes. I think it was Kevin Luke May who, on Twitter, said that this would make an excellent case study. And have you noticed how we still have heard almost nothing from Princess Cruises?

    I thought Gary lost his cool in the #followmeatsea discussion, but I still like his "I Don't Give a Damn How You Travel" post.[… I agree, mostly, with the sentiment. I DO think it's important to offer industry critique, but hey, that can be done without picking a fight and alienating your community.

    Thanks again for the round up.

    • Nellie November 11, 2009 9:06 am #

      Pam, good to see you here! Oh yeh I enjoyed Gary's "I Don't Give a Damn How You Travel" post, was gonna include it, but left it out in the end – it's a whole new topic to discuss about.

      I couldn't agree more – the attention grabbing tactics actually did backfire. It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. But despite the loss of followers/readers, I'm sure they've gained themselves a bigger reputation than ever, might not be a good one, but still, a reputation nonetheless.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  4. JoAnna November 11, 2009 6:48 am #

    I am posting this comment from Honduras, where I am taking notes on my last day of a week-long press trip. This is no vacation; it is work. And yet, I had a fantastic time. Were we treated like royalty? Sure. Did I learn something? Absolutely, and I'm excited to share my experiences with readers who wouldn't normally have the opportunity to do the things I did this week. My hope, after visiting the country, is to honestly make people more aware of this really outstanding country that so few people even know is on the map. I hope my writing inspires other people to visit. Without this press trip, I probably wouldn't have stumbled across this exciting destination.

    But at the end of the day, travel ethics come into play based on the integrity of the writers. I will write honestly about my experience because my readers deserve the truth. I'm so tired of this conversation that has bounced back and forth across the web. Why are we fighting about this? Some people say yes, some say no. Can't we agree to disagree and move on? My bags were packed after this discussion started, and I hope to pack them again for another press trip some day.

    • Nellie November 11, 2009 9:09 am #

      JoAnna, yeh, I'm tired of all that travel fighting – we should move on already. Can't we agree to disagree – that's an excellent point. Why can't we just accept our diffference in point of view and get on with our lives already?

      Anyhow, I almost made it to Honduras while travelling through Central America! Enjoy your time in Honduras!

  5. Nellie November 11, 2009 9:17 am #

    One last note I'd like to add – I have nothing against press trips, in fact I'll love to go on one! (Who's gonna say no to an all-expense paid trip, raise your hand!) I hope I made my point – it doesn't matter if the trip was paid by the tourism board, by your mother or by our own penny, the impt thing is the result right? A well-crafted tale.

  6. soultravelers3 November 11, 2009 12:44 pm #

    Sorry Nellie, I often like your writing and Leigh's, but think you are mostly dead wrong on this!

    I'm surprised that you did not link to Julie's post on Matador which is the BEST and most honest one that I have seen so far.

    "Should travel writers care about their environmental impact?"

    THAT is the issue!

    I agree with Julie in saying this was about twethics, comped travel, social media, and environmental issues and what created the storm. Both sides made mistakes, but that happens online just as it does in person when dealing with passionate people with different perspectives. Not just in travel either-just saw one with Scobelizer & ChrisBrogan and between Tim Ferriss and Gary Vee etc, etc!

    It was purely principal as to why I tweeted on this topic based on our experiences on our family world tour since 2006. We have seen the damage that mega-cruise ships do to small ancient sites ( with up to 30,000 passengers invading tiny towns like Dubrovnik all at once) and think travel writers have a responsibility to inform & educate the public rather than just to write/tweet travel porn and fluff that encourages unsustainable travel.

    Publicity? Huh? If anything sticking ones neck out like this is probably the worst possible way to get publicity as many love to do Mega-cruise (and many travel writers get free cruises and/or big advertising dollars to write good things/promote them)…so there was instant backlash, namecalling and punitive measures towards anyone who spoke up to the enviro concerns. I know a great travel writer who was instantly blocked on Twitter for ONE RT of mine that had a link to Caitlin's article!!

    Unlike most travel bloggers, I have yet to even write ONE P/R release and have yet to set up a media page and we have been traveling non-stop since 2006! ( We have gotten tons of great things written about us, but that is only because we have a unique and trailblazing story. and valuable information that inspires and helps others….yet I don't enen have time to get them all on my website or even keep up with the ever growing loooong list of writers who want to interview us).

    These are clearly, not the signs of someone after a publicity stunt! I actually have been stunned that we have become so popular and have had so many viral youtube travel videos, awards, write ups and readers! All of it has been accidental, I am a total non-geek & others always approach us and NOT the other way around. Yes, some get jealous, but that's life and most focus on the inspiration and value. You can't please all the people all the time, so you have to please yourself!

    I'm not against press trips, but I have never taken one and am almost positive that I never would. Unlike most travel bloggers/writers, I don't need to write for money and do it primarily to serve others and document our experiences. Thus, I am much freer to do and say what I please.

    I AM passionate about family extended slow travel that is good for the environment (as are many of my readers)! 70% of families dream about doing extended travel and I DO want them to know that it is cheaper, more enriching, greener & easier than most know. We have more first hand experience in this niche than anyone else writing about it (thus we are featured in the new edition of 4HWW & NYT's Frugal Traveler etc).

    Why spend a pile of money to spend an afternoon jammed packed with thousands of Mega-cruise tourists in Santorini, causing all kinds of damage to the environment & not contribute much to the local economy ( as cruise ships make sure most is spent onboard,not in 10-2 excursion)…..when you can spend a month there without any crowds, add to the local economy, live healthier, contribute to the planet for FAR LESS?

    My passion is to inform, educate and inspire!

    • Gary Arndt November 11, 2009 1:42 pm #

      If you are so passionate about the environment, why haven't you talked about this on your own blog?

      Your passion seems to be to tell people how awesome your life is and how better it is than everyone else. You couldn't even resist doing it in commenting to this post.

      • soultravelers3 November 11, 2009 4:11 pm #

        LOL! Haven't you learned anything by your childish "pissing contests" and mean spirited rants towards me and others that you disagree with? It makes you look like the green eyed monster has you in it's grasp!

        I HAVE written about this issue on my blog BEFORE any of this even started. Look at my earth day post or the one on Capri and many others.!

        As you know since I've written about it and recently tweeted this info to you…I broke my rt dominant arm while biking in Austria's wine country (that is also over run with cruise ships) resulting in major surgery, paralyzed arm/hand, much continued pain, hours of therapy needed daily and not one night of unbroken sleep since it occurred in August ( due to pain that wakes me up 5 or 6 times a night & my husband as well as he has to help me reposition).

        This makes EVERYTHING difficult & I can not do many simple things alone including dress myself, go to the bathroom, pull a blanket over me properly, open containers like bottles, zip anything etc etc and since I already have mobility challenges on my right side due to a crushed knee and broken femur injury from 17 years ago that kept me in a wheel chair in and out for several years…even walking, especially on any inclines or stairs is a great challenge.

        I am raising and homeshooling a child while traveling and we are busy right now locating the best possible place for us to rent this winter in our beautiful 15th century village in sunny Andalusia and that is time intensive.

        I only have so many hours in a day and unlike some travel writers I don't spend my days trying to increase my SEO by putting up daily photos, doing contests, doing Digg and SU trades with buddies gaming the system, adding and subtracting twitter followers like a marketer or missing great places just to rush to new miniscule countries so you can add it to one's country list ! We travel for fun and I haven't even counted all the World Heritage sites seen although the number is huge.

        I have MUCH more going on in my life than this silly debate or even travel writing (including 2 family members with stage 4 cancer)…so sorry that I have not gotten a post up quick enough for you. Not sure why you care as you won't read it or will find some way or reason to put it down anyway.

        I am way behind & I'm sure that will continue as my arm heals. which the doctor's say will be up to a year. I do this as a service to others, record for my family and as a creative outlet, so I don't have to please anyone but myself! Getting posts up are very difficult right now with challenging internet as I usually put LOTS of photos.

        We've hardly made a dent in all the photos, videos, stories we have, but living a great family life is MOST important…blog & internet stuff is all just extra. Tweeting is easiest.

        Live and let live Gary!

        Thankfully all the millions that are inspired by our Soultravelers3 youtube videos, thousands that follow us on our blog,Twitter & Facebook etc, see it very differently than you. So do the folks that I care about like National Geographic Traveler that called us "one of the best family travel blogs in cyberspace",Tim Ferriss who asked us to be featured in his new edition of 4HWW, or Matt Gross , the Frugal Traveler from NYT's that called us "impressive".

        Obviously you don't "get" what we are doing. That's what's great about the internet…there is something for everyone! Those that are inspired by us find us, learn from us, enjoy us and many go on to enjoy their own travels excited by and helped by our website, videos & tweets.

        Our readers are not just travel enthusiasts, but also those interested in innovative education, location independent lifestyle, homeschoolers, music education, service projects, RV enthusiasts, budget travelers, families, finance, positive focus types, environmentalists, etc etc

        Lots of folks take a year or two trip around the world, BUT we are the only ones online doing a unique open ended world tour as a family since 2006 on just 25K a year total for a family of three, living large while also living green & sharing it.

        I must admit it IS an awesome life!! LOL! Many enjoy coming along virtually and we have inspired sooo many to do their own adventure THEIR way! I think that's great and if it's not you're cup of tea…just ignore.

        Sometimes you remind me of that rigid guy in Les Mis who hunted down that poor guy for that hunk of bread. Much ado about nothing.Peace brother!

        • Pete November 11, 2009 5:29 pm #

          Well, I'm sorry but this whole thread has gone completely off-topic. I didn't come to this post to read 800 word comments with a woman boasting about her awesome, inspiring, blah blah blah blog.

          I am not fond on cruises myself but if people want to go on them its fine to me, that won't make the world explode nor will stop me from laughing at them when I see them zooming around a city in less than a thay surrounded by another 2000 lazy fat people.

          This is about how people make a living with travel writing and every way is as good and honorable as any other as long as they continue doing their job. Not everyone has other sources of income or a billion visitors in their blogs happily browsing their kids pictures.

          I agree with Nellie, if you guys want to go on with this stupid fight you are better off doing it somewhere else.


  7. @toddlucier November 11, 2009 4:52 pm #

    Thanks Nellie,
    I really liked Pam's take and appreciate your story and all the links.
    It's incredible how much more I keep learning as this story unfolds. This story is less about travel writer in-fighting and ethics and mostly about social media and it's openness. Regardless of whether you disagree with someone, agree with them, block their tweets or respond to them, every side of every story gets attention and every tweet leaves a permanent record (scar?).

    Social Media is beyond the control of anyone (believe me – I tried to talk sense with dm's during this 'fiasco' as Pam referred to it). Nothing can stop or redirect the energy of a passionate foe reacting with emotion.

    Layers upon layers of information that are helping me teach the industry about best practices. The biggest lesson so far on this Rememberance Day / Veteran's Day: Bloggers and tourism industry professionals might do well to read up on the Art of War . . . in short, anticipate the actions of your adversaries and be Prepared.

    As a sidenote:
    I think transparency is best accomplished by making sure your followers, (fans) have access to ALL your ideas, opinions, insights. Hiding them in dm's or in the comments of another's blog is poor form. One of the things I do to ensure my followers are kept abreast of my content is to link to as much of it as possible. For bloggers who want their followers to see their comments on their blog, consider Backtype. It just works.

  8. Nellie November 11, 2009 4:54 pm #

    Hey guys, I'm surprised you would be using my blog as your battle field. I'm sorry to have struck this argument all over again. I'd posted this initially to mock at how ridiculous this all was – but looked how it turned out.

    I thought we were discussing about ethics and environmental issues – how did it come down to such personal attacks and defenses?

    If you guys want to attacking each other, please do it somewhere else.

  9. Carmel November 13, 2009 1:35 am #

    Very heated debate, I agree with you Nellie, cant we just all get along. :)

  10. Nancy D. Brown November 14, 2009 5:57 am #

    Just completed a “This Week in Travel” podcast w/ some of my fellow #FollowMeAtSea travel bloggers in case you’d like to hear the inside scoop.

    Our segment will be available via iTunes on Wednesday, November 18

  11. Dan November 16, 2009 3:58 pm #

    This is a very well written article. I think it says something important about the kind of industry travel is, and how best to approach it. Blogging itself is really only a decade old. Obviously, when any kind of new media (the internet itself is a wonderful example) comes around, there will be a "bubble" when thousands of people realize they can sit in front of their computer and do [whatever it is they do].

    The market will then become over saturated (as travel blogging is starting to become), and the bubble will burst. Who knows how long this will take. The only thing that will take folks successfully through the burst is having solid content.

    You have great insights!

    • Nellie November 16, 2009 4:28 pm #

      Thanks Dan for sharing your thoughts. You might be right in saying that the "bubble" explodes when a new media comes around and thousands of people start jumping on the bandwagon.

      Travel blogging is really becoming over-saturated, which is a scary idea since blogging is barely a decade old, like you mentioned. Yes, solid content. But I'm afraid, these days, it might take more than good writing to bring you up the charts – marketing scams like the cruise-saga coupled with the right contacts you make seem to be the winning recipe. Sigh, it is all too daunting.

  12. Rich Tucker November 19, 2009 5:20 am #

    You Link to my Blog for the Social Media Cruise where bloggers got paid to cruise. I just want to clarify that Social Fresh Cruise had nothing to do with #Followmeatsea. The Social Fresh Cruise was a Social Media Conference at Sea where the attendees paid. We were not there to review the ship or Cozumel. Our Cruise was all about Social Media Leaders getting away, unplugging, and strengthening their network.

    I just happened to be the one to write the first article about the #Followmeatsea #SoCruise & #Oasisoftheseas hashtags.

    Rich Tucker

  13. Scott November 30, 2009 2:31 am #

    Well written article, and I've been following all these responses on many blogs not really commenting much until yours. On one hand I see the harshness as a PR stunt – any news is good news, and on the other a self fulfilling topic. It gives everyone something to write about as there are now hundreds of articles about this (ok perhaps an exaggeration), and travel blogs writing about travel (rather than writing while traveling) by nature write things to spark conversation and often controversial topics get the most replies. An example is even in your great article here where you say "who are self-acclaimed travel experts be so narrow-minded", aren't you really calling out other bloggers who don't agree with your view? This in turn leads to hurt ego's and 800 word replies as people try and protect themselves, blog or brand, sometimes with an over-the-top comments.

    I think this whole topic really is an internet troll, and while an interesting topic, is quickly falling to petty mudslinging that is going to hurt the community. People have long memories and hold grudges unfortunately, and I wonder if a huge irreparable rift is being created? Sadly, like a 4chan event, we just have to sit back and watch it continue to unfold, waiting for the lolz.

    In any case you have a well written article with an accurate title, and I'll continue coming back to your corner of the intraweb for more!



  14. JCI March 30, 2011 7:42 pm #

    Very interesting post an very interesting feedback. It´s interesting to see that people who should be regarded in the frontline of open mindness turn out to be the opposite. Are you employeed by a news organization that prohibits any use of freebies related to your work, of course don´t do it or you will get sacked. Do you turn your passion into your work and make a living by becoming a travel writer, un less you´re Richard Branson and you have tons of disposable income, how are you supposed to travel? are you going only to travel on your own expenses 1 or 2 times a year? are you going only to write about the place you live in? are you to become a Salgari and write about places you´ve never been to, and make the obvious mistakes? People should always strive for the best, not to make everybody live the same miserable life you are living. In the end it all boils down to: are you capable of giving you own honest opinion disregarding who or whom pays your trip. I´m not a Travel Blogger and nobody has paid me to go anywhere, but I sincerely rely on the opinions of those who write, if they are honest in what they do I simply don´t care who paid them their trips.



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