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.
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.)
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.