My laptop’s on. I’ve chucked another log on the stove.
Outside on the windowsill two chickens dibble amongst their feathers, pause, press against the window, extend their necks and stare in, pecking at spots of dirt on the glass.
Tap. tap, tap, tap…
My inbox proffers a couple of press trip invitations. Both are vaguely diverting and would make engaging copy. However, I’m overcome by inertia. The prospect of hauling my arse half-way around the world, spending five or so days researching and the same writing, effectively oiling the cogs of a corporate marketing machine, does not appeal. In more practical terms it’s likely any writing fees would be eroded by out-of-pocket expenses and be rendered mostly irrelevant by the time they’re paid. More immediately, I’d be jetlagged, my bank balance would be bumping around twenty quid, and my wife would claim not to know me, again.
That’s not to say I’m tired of travel. There are places I’d do almost anything, short of elective amputation of a limb, to experience and write about. However, I need to solve the financial equation such that X remains a positive integer.
Tap, tap, tap, tap…
More broadly, newspapers and magazines continue apace to abdicate responsibility for paying travel journalists. Travel writing is seen by editors and others as a dilettante pastime rather than a profession – a source of free holidays. Even worse, travel copy is becoming synonymous with marketing.
On the page differentiating between editorial and advertising used to be straightforward. Fact Box information provided by the writer offered recommendations, handy hints or a disclosure of facilitation (free flight, free hotel, free tour etc…) Paid ads surrounded features. These days it’s not so clear. Editorial publishing schedules are determined by advertisers – it’s commercially expedient. Back channel kick backs can govern who receives a Fact Box mention, sometimes to the detriment of readers. In the case of digital media and blogs in particular there’s often no attempt at editorial balance – 100% 21st century marketing.
Tap, tap, tap, tap…
The digital democratisation of publishing driven by the internet has made everyone a writer. As a result we surf around in a cut-and-paste sea of lies, half truths and wishful thinking. Instead of being information rich we’re weighed down by a poverty of facts. This isn’t limited to travel. ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, occupying airtime, that not reserved for product placement, billboards not destined for advertising or column inches not screaming PR.
If you’re expecting a great reveal, an answer or a call to action heralding a renaissance in ‘real’ travel journalism I’m sorry to disappoint.
Perhaps in the hope that it’d be buried beneath the kind of trite tosh that surfaces when most folks are taking a break, BA recently announced a revised sequential boarding procedure. Nothing new in that, save that this process is allegedly based on what you pay rather than where you sit. I said then that BA had upped its game in a struggle to provide an even more miserable flying experience than Ryanair. Apologists for BA have said the process will speed boarding – this is nonsense. Others have suggested we have only ourselves to blame in that we’re suckers for cheap flights – time will tell. If BA had a USP that allowed us to forgive a too often sour and testy customer experience, it was its ‘full service’ flights. This latest ‘enhancement’ joins the abandonment of complimentary cabin service and checked baggage, the roll out of cabin seating ‘densification’ on some routes, the eroding of seat cushioning and the removal of seat recline (though on short-haul this is excusable.) Overall it’s a race to the bottom. Other low-cost carriers have been successfully plumbing these depths much longer than BA and though cheap and cheerful doesn’t cover it, at least they’ve never presumed BA’s false sense of entitlement.
Elsewhere, I use the East Coast rail line fairly frequently. I’d use it more if I could afford the ticket prices. And before we go there, I’m tired of being told there are cheaper advance purchase deals. If I had a bleedin’ crystal ball that let me look three months into the future I’d not be writing this in the here and now. Train travel in Britain is becoming prohibitively expensive, and certainly poorer value than much of Europe. Despite increased fares, aspects of Standard Class service appear in decline. Trolley service is often not available – no staff to do the job we’re told. And then, when staff are available, trolleys are suspended because aisles are obstructed by passengers who mistakenly presumed that buying a ticket would also buy them a seat. Let’s not explore too deeply the realm of delayed journeys – but I recently experienced an eight-hour trip from Newcastle to King’s Cross – the scheduled journey time is nearer three. I did claim back the £136 Super Off Peak (?) ticket but, even changing into my DJ in the pungent train lav, I pretty much missed the event I travelled to attend.
Then we have the roads… Driving south from Newcastle to London or the Channel Ports is to be avoided if at all possible. Britain’s arterial network is clogged. Constant maintenance appears piecemeal and only adds to the woes of drivers, who in turn become unnecessarily unpleasant to each other. To the individual who attempted to prevent me merging en route to central Newcastle the other morning, lent on their horn, gave me the fingers and then tried to undertake me, I suggest you expand your life experiences. On an earlier occasion, when returning from Oxford, I had to abandon the M40, which had to all intents morphed into a Long Stay car park. The ensuing ‘Hidden Villages of Oxfordshire tour’ proved only a minor consolation. These days if I’m planning a long drive across the continent I try to book the overnight ferry from North Shields (Newcastle) to Ijmuiden (Amsterdam.) It costs much more than a Channel crossing but saves on fuel, hotels, peage tolls, frustration and fatigue.
Well, I feel better after that. I’m going out for a run this afternoon. It’ll be cold, wet and muddy but the endorphin rush will more than make up for it. Happy travels to all for 2018.
Having cleared my desk before Christmas – all commissioned pieces filed – I find myself inhabiting the un-festive season of oh-bloody-hell-now-what? A few loose ideas dangle in the uncertain future but that’s about it. Although I know I’m doing it, writing instead of writing and pitching inevitably leads to this abyss. Like Wile E Coyote, the road ran out a while ago, I’ve just noticed and I’m now in free fall.
But it’s not just that…
After quitting PR in 2006/07 I’ve explored various aspects of travel writing; regular round-up columns, hotel reviews and destination features, along with current affairs crossover pieces for print, web and radio. Many of these I’ve enjoyed researching, writing or broadcasting, even some of the deskbound round-ups.
However, there’s been a developing theme, and it’s nothing new. Rates for travel writing now barely cover getting to the airport. For the record, some pieces bring in £150, others a little more. A half page feature in one broadsheet national nets a princely £350. Factor in expenses (few papers cover these), and the industry’s system of payment ‘on’ publication (‘on’ could be months afterwards) rather than on filing and… Well, you can see where I am.
Helping to focus my disillusion was a conversation I had with a blogger while on a recent press trip. They were describing Orlando. I responded along the lines of, ‘Each to their own, but you’d have to pay me.’ Whereupon it transpired some organ of Florida’s tourism marketing machine had not only sponsored the trip but also paid a daily rate for the blogger’s time. On top of this Orlando wasn’t even somewhere the blogger really rated – it was simply ‘transactional.’ Whoop de ‘effing doo!
For most, freelance travel writing is now unsustainable as a primary income. One former section editor recently described travel editorial as ‘a hobby’, another editor described writers’ pay as ‘low’ – accurate at least. Sorrow is knowledge. It’s clear that newspapers and magazines are either unable, unwilling or uninterested in paying better rates. In which case why not allow a tourist board or a sponsor pay a journalist directly? The same editorial rigour would be maintained – not something that applies to most blogs – and the writer’s fee might actually add up to more than the cost of a Happy Meal.
I know this upends a principle and will go against the grain for some. However, in absolute terms it’s little different to what we have now with sponsored press trips, goody bags, complimentary gear etc… The fact is that few of these enticements, beyond the basic facilitation, appeal to freelancers who’d much rather write a balanced, straight story and be able to pay their bills at the end of the month.
For me at least, 2018 will definitely see some changes.
Last month I flew to Tunis and spent a week exploring Roman, pre-Roman and pre-historic sites across Tunisia.
I’ve been ‘back to Tunisia’ before, after the Jasmine Revolution, the first and most effective popular revolt of the Arab Spring. This time it was the murder in 2015 of 30 British tourists and eight others on the beach in Sousse that defined ‘back.’
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice has been revised. Coastal regions and much of the country’s north are now ‘green.’ Further south, about 50% of Tunisia falls into ‘all but essential travel’ in FCO terms, while mountainous areas to the west near Algeria and southern areas abutting Libya remain ‘red’ zones. Despite this relaxation, while legal action continues in UK courts, tour operators have been understandably slow to act.
Tunisia’s tourism eggs were mostly collected in one fragile basket i.e. beach holidays. An emphasis on all-inclusives was another characteristic. When all is said and done cheap holidays featuring sea, sand and all-you-can-eat buffets are not a unique selling point. The world is full of sand.
Tunisia is not mineral rich. Educational standards are good but unemployment is high. While agriculture, high-tech manufacturing and textile production provide some economic foundation, the effect of the tourism downturn has been profound.
Tunisia’s remarkable sites of antiquity may draw some visitors back. Carthage is best known, but oversold and underwhelming – a jumble of middling ruins. It’s the context of the Punic Wars that’s engaging. Far more impressive ancient headliners include El Djem’s magnificent 35,000-seater amphitheatre – second only to Rome’s Colosseum, the atypical Romanised hilltop town of Thugga, the still-being-excavated city of Bulla Regia, the Genoese fort at Tabarka and the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Elsewhere, the mosaics at Sousse’s Archaeological Museum and Tunis’s superlative Bardo Museum are unmissable, almost worthy of a trip to the country in their own right.
Tunisia’s ancient world will never bring the numbers required by mass tourism – an indictment of the industry perhaps? The coast’s cavernous resorts are currently consumed by a race to the bottom, pitching discounted all-inclusive packages to the Russian market for ever reducing returns.
Tunisia has a genuine wealth of appeal; striking landscapes – over and above its coastlines, a rich ancient and contemporary history, engaging Arab and French culture, excellent cuisine and fine wines, mountain hiking, (FCO permitting) desert trekking, and a diverse natural history.
Some holiday flights look set to operate from May 2018. What’s the plan? More of the same? Tunisia’s many unique attributes are unlikely to be embraced by large tour operators. They’re simply too irregular for businesses built on sand.
I’ve separated this post from the last one. The story is the kind thing that doesn’t make it into travel copy – ‘Social commentary, we don’t have the word count…etc…’
As I described, for visitors Dahab is a funky beach stay – excellent dives sites (the Blue Hole and others) and, even for those packing British Pounds, it’s relatively inexpensive. However, dig down and there’s another narrative.
Dahab is a Bedouin town. Egyptians and Bedouins are, to quote local sources, ‘completely different.’ Egyptians don’t understand Bedouin language, and their brasher, noisier lives are at odds with local custom. These differences have reinforced mistrust and resentment. Ongoing violent incidents, mostly in the north of Sinai, are in part both a symptom and a cause of this mistrust.
Across Sinai access to tribal lands is being restricted. The authorities have banned private 4×4 vehicles. Check points and physical barriers have been erected to close off wadis. For an historically nomadic people these attempts to control movement are an affront. The police would say their actions are designed to inhibit smuggling and improve security.
In Dahab houses built on land where title is disputed have been bulldozed, sometimes before the contents have been removed. Such properties are generally inhabited by poor people. The Egyptian legal system, in common with others, does not favour those of limited means. Cleared sites await redevelopment by whom? Elsewhere, blatantly illegal beachfront development, mostly Egyptian-owned bars and cafes, is tolerated. You have to ask why?
Foreign-owned businesses describe incidents where jealous neighbours have instigated malicious prosecutions. Reports of systematic police harassment resulting in imprisonment and even deportation are commonplace. Shopkeepers in Dahab are being obliged to install CCTV – for many a considerable expense, and to what end?
On a street corner I asked a young Egyptian man about the revolution. ‘The revolution is finished, over,’ he replied. ‘What’s changed?’ I asked.
‘Nothing changed. Nothing good for Egyptian people,’ he said.
In Dahab overweight plain clothes policemen lounge in cafes, watching people, and eating free food. Their jackets fall open to reveal holstered weapons. ‘It’s a police state,’ say many residents. The 2011 revolution and the 2013 military coup have been removed from Egypt’s secondary school history curriculum. What’s unsaid speaks volumes.
I’m just back from another Sinai trip. A few days in Cairo then 10 1/2-hours by bus to Dahab.
In Cairo I stayed at the same $10 Downtown hotel I’ve briefly called home on numerous occasions since my first visit to the city in the late 1980s. I’ve seen the place buzzing, filled by young Israelis and foreign backpackers, and empty, save for the elderly Scots lady resident who has long preferred Cairo to Edinburgh, with no fuel for hot water. This time it was different again. International visitors were few. The reasons for the collapse in Egypt’s tourism are well known. However, domestic travellers appear to have taken up some of the slack. An almost 50% devaluation of the Egyptian Pound (LE) has made foreign travel expensive for Egyptians. As a result many are choosing to restrict their travel to Egypt. My hotel was full.
Travelling from Cairo to Sinai involves either a 50-minute flight or a 10-hour bus ride. The British government advises against flying to Sinai’s airport gateway, Sharm el Sheikh. Following the bombing of a Russian MetroJet flight in 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew, no Russian or British direct flights have operated. Lapses in airport security were identified in the subsequent investigation. Though no advisories are in force for Sharm el Sheikh itself, the British government advises against overland travel through the entirety of the Sinai peninsula. For UK tour ops the glittering jewel in Egypt’s mass tourism tiara remains off limits.
I took the overnight GoBus from Cairo to Dahab – about 90km north along the coast from Sharm el Sheikh. A ticket cost LE145 (about £6.30). The bus left at 9:00pm and arrived into Dahab the following morning at around 7:30am. Police and military check points punctuated the route. Standing in a line, in the middle of the night, my ‘checked bag’ was searched twice. My passport was examined more times than I can remember. Egyptians themselves require special permission to travel to Sinai. Checks on their IDs and documentation were even more stringent. That said, a raft of alternative-minded young Egyptians have adopted Dahab as a weekend escape, a kind of turn on, tune in and a bloody long bus ride to somewhere less conservative. For tourists Dahab is a breeze.
Dahab existed before tourism. It has grown chaotically but organically. It’s still small – though no one is quite sure how small, maybe fewer than 10,000 people. It’s relatively resilient style of tourism has helped it endure the worst of the Egypt’s downturn. Visitors today are either domestic weekenders or summer holiday families, foreign residents or independent foreign travellers. Perhaps most surprising is the number of young Israelis now choosing to venture across the border to Dahab. Some estimates bandied around suggested 50,000 have journeyed to Sinai this year. This influx in the face of government travel advice at least as negative as our own.
I’ll write about my travels for the Indy, but in the meantime I thoroughly recommend Sinai. For adventurous hikers, have a look at sinaitrail.org – something I tackled last year – and for an alternative Red Sea break (see indirect flights from the UK with Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air to Sharm – then a taxi) Dahab for tourists is engagingly earthy crunchy.
Last month I travelled to Benghazi, the de facto capital of ‘Free Libya’, in a manner that would make Simon Calder proud. Over two days, a succession of coaches, buses, minibuses, share taxis and otherwise incentivised hotel porters helped me cover the 791 miles (according to the RAC’s trip planner…) from Cairo to Benghazi. En route, even by the high standards of Arab hospitality, I met some of the kindest, most generous and most helpful people I’ve come across for some time. An experience that made me think such a journey should be a mandatory refresher for politicians, lawyers and policemen the world over, highlighting the essential goodness of humanity.
Pasted below are a couple of short reportage pieces I wrote in Benghazi and filed by satellite link on the dates indicated. Both were then silently sat upon by the commissioning paper until well past their sell-by-dates. Some tosh regarding Ryan Giggs apparently took presidence.
Though Libya’s situation has certainly evolved I thought there may remain some vestigial non-monetary value in posting the copy here. I suppose that’s for you to judge…
Benghazi 12th May
Benghazi – May – 2011
‘Here in Benghazi people are dying every day but this news is not given out. I hear it on the street, from the families, but I do not hear it on the radio.’ Mohammed’s father had given me a bed for my first night in an outer suburb of the city. Last night he’d told a story of fear, for the present and for the future – one that we in the West probably don’t want to hear. ‘Even in one house, half with Gaddafi, half with the revolution. Not just the old against the young – it’s a mix, both, you can’t say. When Gaddafi forces entered Benghazi everyone waved the green flag. Now if you ask on the street everyone is with the revolution. People are not free to express their opinions – there is fear. I see Libya as a new Iraq.’
On the Benghazi corniche Mohammed’s bleak outlook is at odds with the new day. Looking out over the Mediterranean, blue sky melds seamlessly with the sea, waves roll in, and canvas tents are driven to wild flapping by the freshening sea breeze. Between the tents two well-used tanks are parked – one careful owner, M Gaddafi. For them the war is over. Children clamber over turrets and gun barrels. Elsewhere, parts of missiles, aircraft, heavy machine guns and RPGs are corralled into an enclosure – weapons used by Gaddafi’s forces to kill Libyans, I’m told. Covering the walls of the buildings opposite, and studied by a reflective crowd, are hundreds of photographs. For the most part young men without fatigues or weapons whose expressions do not foretell death as sombre hand-coloured images of WW1 seemed to – but annotated dates reveal the brutal truth.
Corniche – Benghazi – May – 2011
Following a trail of heady odours through the covered souk I make my way to the bright sunshine and fresh air of the corniche, and Benghazi’s revolutionary encampment – if you’ve seen Al Jazeera’s shots you’d recognise the scene. Beyond moneychangers, glittering jewellery shops and stalls of revolutionary flags, banners and badges a scene of semi-normality is fractured by the uncompromising crack of a nearby gunshot – its reverberations sending shopkeepers and customers into a crouch. Three youths loiter at the end of an alley, one in the process of shouldering an assault rifle – the smell or cordite wafts towards me.
‘How are you?’ Bashir, a former flight engineer with Libyan Arab Airlines, smiles across the crowd. ’42 years, can you believe it? Look at this place, the broken streets, the rubbish. You are asking us to be in good shape after just three months – it’s too much.’ I ask whether enough is being done to assist the Libyan people. Bashir is quick to respond, ‘Some people here they think we don’t like the foreigners, they’ll invade our country. They’re thinking like this because Colonel Gaddafi is saying it to them. We need advice on how to run this country, and the British they are already doing it – it’s not a shame to ask. I have no problem at all to ask British or Americans “Can you help me?” because one day, God knows, maybe we will help them – this is life.’ Bashir continues in a hopeful vein: ‘Now people are free to say what they like – this is freedom. I remember one American guy, I never forget it, he said if you want to say you are Libyan and live in a free country you must have the courage to shout: “Fuck you Colonel Gaddafi! Only then you are right.” Now we are achieving this.’
Benghazi 13th May
Najib – Benghazi – May – 2011
The volley of shots ended, traders relaxed into a relieved collective chuckle. A prospective customer was trying before buying, letting fly a few rounds over waste ground in front of the burned out Internal Security headquarters – he seemed satisfied. ‘Hey’ it’s like Harlem. You can buy anything here’, offered a smiling young man. Certainly automatic pistols, revolvers, AK47s and M16s, bayonets and bullets were on display, juxtaposed with mobile phones and copy CDs. He was surprised when I suggested that Harlem had changed a little in recent times.
Ears still ringing, I needed a coffee and fortunately in Benghazi’s old city, crumbling though it may be, echoes of Italy are never far away. Espresso, macchiato and brioche start the day, along with that inseparable Libyan male appendage – a cigarette. ‘ “mangeria”, “cucina”, “via” we use all these words from Italian’ says Najib, a 58 year old former soldier, ‘and if someone talks too much we say “musica maestro”’ His friend Fatti, joins in the conversation outside the Bou Ashreen (Father of Twenty!) café. ‘You know I wasn’t surprised that Italy wasn’t the first to help us because they have good relations with Gaddafi, many economic links. What has surprised me is how quickly they changed to the opposite side.’
Fatti continues, ‘But it was the UN Mandate and the British after the war that shaped Libya and we were very grateful for this – it was amazing, I remember it. The UN wanted to make a showcase of Libya. People came from all over the Arab world, everybody expressed themselves, it was free.’ I ask why, if it was so good did Gaddafi’s revolution succeed? ‘That’s a good question’ says Fatti. ‘Many reasons. King Idris was a very old man and the prince was not qualified to take over. There were other factors, other families trying to exert influence and there was the charisma of Nasser in Egypt. I think Gaddafi took advantage of these others forces and the atmosphere using them for his own purposes – he was the wrong man at the right time.’
‘Gadaffi ruined my life’ complains Najib. ‘I was conscripted into the army, at first he said for three years – I was there for 25 years. Can you believe it? Three times I ran away, once staying in a house in Chad for two years, but there were many Chadians in the Libyan army and most of them were spies, so I was caught.’ Najib takes a sip of his machiato and a draw on his cigarette. ‘I wish Israelis and Palestinians would stop fighting, you live here you live here, it would solve so many problems. You see this area, it was Jewish, there was the synagogue – no problem. Then after the Israel Egypt war the Jewish they go out. Now it’s Egyptian Christian church – I know the priest, a friend, very nice man.’
What about the future I ask? Fatti responds quickly, ‘It’s true there are still “Taboor Hamsa” Fifth Columnists in the city, so we must be careful but Gaddafi cannot come back, he is finished here. Today this is, how the Americans call it… our Independence Day.’