Robbery, power cuts, and all the things I’ve read about the places I’ve never been.

Congratulations to the Independent – typically possessed of one of the smarter travel pages in the UK – for this week’s contribution to forehead-slapping inanity. The gloom and foreboding that pervade “Zanzibar: Trouble on Paradise Island” are no doubt enough to leave most casual tourists shaking in their knickers. “Robbery and power cuts – two of the problems awaiting visitors to the isle of Zanzibar,” reads the deck. Among the other problems we learn of are verbal harassment, predatory touts, and the illegality of same-sex relations.

This is fairly stupid and lazy in its own right. But it’s further tempered by the fact that the story is entirely based on an interview with Chris McIntyre, author of the Bradt Guide to Zanzibar, and a perusal of the latest travel advisories from the U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office (which conveniently lists piracy and terrorism as potential threats to tourists). Yes, our intrepid travelers wrote their brutal exposé of The Other Side of Paradise from the comforts of their desks in Kensington.

Paradise...lost!

Now, I can understand why you might want to use your newsroom reporters to scribble travel shorts on great airfare deals, or to pen some frivolous round-up of the Ten Sexiest Retirement Communities on the Costa del Sol. Also, as a freelance hack, I appreciate the shrinking of budgets across the trans-Atlantic newspaper industries. (Never mind the fact that most UK newspapers pack their travel scribes onto gratis flights, courtesy of the tour companies they mention quid pro quo at the ends of their stories.) But wouldn’t this sort of story – something that purports to go “behind the scenes” to puncture the postcard myth of a popular holiday getaway – warrant a bit of actual, on-the-ground reporting?

I spent two months in Zanzibar in 2008; in fact, I wrote a punchy little story about it for The Washington Post. Crime, drug use, political instability, power shortages…yes, these are all part of the landscape in Zanzibar. And that’s simply because Zanzibar isn’t a postcard, but A PLACE WHERE ACTUAL PEOPLE LIVE. You have to wonder why the Independent didn’t warn against upset tummies, too. Or getting woken up at 5am by the blasting call to prayer of a nearby minaret. (Too culturally insensitive, that one.)

WARNING: Zanzibar is full of Muslims. Like many Muslims, they are known to erupt into anti-Western riots at the slightest provocation. Also, they are black.

You can’t help but conclude that lazy, stupid travel writing just perpetuates itself. For every glossy fellation of Zanzibar as an exotic honeymoon paradise of cheerfully grinning black people, you need to get this sort of insipid rebuttal. Makes you wonder why UK travel hacks aren’t digging up dirt this ski season on the “real” Cortina or Chamonix.

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3 responses to “Robbery, power cuts, and all the things I’ve read about the places I’ve never been.

  1. Haha! Great post! With the exception of my travel buddies (some I met on the boat in Antarctica, others I shared a house with in Ghana), people seem to be rather ignorant about the world outside the borders of the US. Additionally, what little they do know is the drama, the bloody headlines and the tragic stories of failed electricity and dirty water.

    I hate that question, the one that’s fueled by lazy, stupid travel writing: Aren’t you scared to go there? My answer is always the same: People live there.

    Why are we so afraid of the unknown? And why does it seem that the further away a country is, the more different, and therefor scary, it must be?

    I spent three months in Indonesia and almost all the information I could find, that wasn’t posted on an independent backpackers blog, spoke solely of terrorist attacks, murder, kidnapping, on and on. That’s why we have to help new travelers renounce the myth of the guide book!

    Best advice I could give anyone who is looking to travel anywhere: Use the internet and all its power to connect yourself to someone who has been to where you want to go! Even then, make your own choices!

    Alright, I am done ranting haha. Thank you for this post, it’s wonderful!

    Jackie Rose

  2. Mmm. Jackie, might I suggest you add the word ‘American’ to the following sentence: ‘With the exception of my travel buddies … people seem to be rather ignorant about the world outside the borders of the US.’ As a European, I probably know more about Zanzibar than I do about the US.

    That aside, however, hasn’t this been going on for years? I confess I can’t find the article I’m looking for, so I’m loath to name a travel guide for fear of libelling them, but I’m sure there was a story a few years ago about one of the biggies publishing stories by writers who’d never left the comfort of their armchair. Of course, it still doesn’t make it OK, but sadly it does set a precedent.

    The point about travel guides is that they are a *guide*. Sure, they can offer pointers, but there’s no substitute for first-hand experience. And by first-hand, I don’t mean hearing it from your mum or your best friend; I mean experiencing it *for yourself*. I have recently moved to Italy from the UK, for work. I was taking over a job from a friend of mine who was moving to Spain. He told me all about the place, describing the flat, the town and the school in minute detail, with drawings and plans in some cases. Still, when I got here, it was so utterly different from what I’d expected. Yes, all the things he’d told me were true and totally fair, but what he couldn’t – what no-one can – communicate is how you will *feel* when you arrive in a place. We are sentient beings, with independent minds. It’s what makes us great.

  3. Great post, Chris. Hit very close to home. Story for another day. Gross Kisses, Terry

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