Susan Glaser, travel editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, still wistfully recalls her final pre-COVID trip before the world went into lockdown and tanked her livelihood.
“I went to northern Kentucky to visit a bourbon trail right before everything shut down,” Glaser said. “It was the last trip I took, and I never even got to write about it.”
But now, two years later, Glaser is slowly getting back on the road again, reporting stories in person instead of via Zoom call. She may even take another crack at that bourbon trail story.
“It was a great, fun trip,” she said. “But I feel like the experience is probably different than what I had two years ago, so I need to get back there.”
To the relief of writers such as Glaser, the demand for travel journalism has shown signs of reviving along with the greater tourism industry. Across the country, people who spent the last two years cooling their heels at home are filling airports and returning to vacation hotspots both foreign and domestic. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, U.S. domestic travel and tourism spending is forecast to reach more than $1.1 trillion this year, surpassing 2021 by 11.3%. The travel data and analytics company ForwardKeys has this year seen a 58% year-on-year increase in U.S. travel bookings over 2021, with summer inbound international travel bookings to the U.S. increasing 87% over last year.
Accordingly, travel writers are dusting off their suitcases and taking national and (to a lesser degree) international trips — and their editors seem willing to return to robust travel coverage. It’s still too early to declare that things are back to “normal”: If COVID-19 truly abates, then perhaps the travel writing lifestyle of 2023 will mirror that of 2019. But if periodic pandemics become a regular part of life, there’s no telling what the travel industry and travel journalism could look like in a few years.
“I think it’s too soon to say whether any changes will be permanent,” said Amy Virshup, travel editor at The New York Times.
Virshup said that even prior to the pandemic, The Times was trying to pay closer attention to things like sustainability in its travel coverage, including supporting local communities and merchants and examining travel’s contributions to climate change.
“There is a lot of discussion both in the travel industry itself and in travel journalism of focusing on more intentional travel or sustainable travel, trying to combat overtourism in places like Venice, for example,” she said. “But whether that will really hold as travel comes back is very hard to predict, so I wouldn’t place any bets.”
Travel coverage during the pandemic, out of necessity, shifted from traditional “destination” pieces to newsier and more service-oriented articles. In the earliest days of the pandemic there was a lot of “how to stay safe” coverage, and pieces on how to get refunds. As travel restrictions loosened, The Times focused more on domestic destinations and driving trips.
“Now, as things seem to be ebbing (the pandemic is not over), I am saying ‘yes’ to more destination coverage,” Virshup said. “But a lot of it is focused on what has changed during the last two years. How travelers can safely go to places and what they can expect. We want to answer the question of ‘What’s new?’ for people who may not have been on a big trip in the last two years and counting.”
During the height of the lockdowns, uncertainty about exactly what to cover and how to cover it plagued publishers and editors.
“At the time, the situation was so fluid that we were constantly fine tuning what we covered,” said Elizabeth Harryman Lasley, president of the Society of American Travel Writers. “Do we cover faraway destinations or close-in destinations? And in almost every issue we’d include a proviso about checking current situations and so forth.”
Lasley’s view of the situation is far more holistic than that of most writers and editors. Before she joined SATW, she was an editor at Westways, a regional travel magazine produced by the Automobile Club of Southern California. She retired in the midst of the pandemic. Travel writers, she said, have proven quite resilient during the pandemic, and the two main pillars of pre- COVID travel writing — travel news and personal narratives about particular locations — remain firmly in place.
What’s changed, she believes, is the attitude both travelers and writers take toward their journeys.
“In my own personal view, during the pandemic we—writers and editors as well as the general public—have learned to appreciate travel more than ever,” Lasley said.
Todd Wessel, president of the Midwest Travel Journalist Association and editor, publisher and travel editor of the Journal & Topics Media Group, a chain of suburban Chicago newspapers and online outlets, agrees that it’s too early to say if there will be any long-term, pandemic-inspired changes in the travel writing industry. A lot hinges on whether the COVID outbreak was a one-off situation or becomes a recurring issue.
“Right now, I don’t see a lot of massive changes coming out of this,” Wessel said. “The biggest change is in the way things are published. More stuff online and in blogs. But that was happening well before the pandemic. As far as long-lasting pandemic related effects, I haven’t seen any. But that could change if this keeps happening.”
Like a lot of other editors, over the last couple of years he’s seen events conspire to constrict international destination coverage, with new COVID rules making long distance travel exponentially more difficult. In its place he’s seen more stories about domestic travel — especially travel that can be accomplished via car or RV. Writers were equally game for such topics, and Wessel filled a lot of column inches with pieces about places like Fayetteville, North Carolina, instead of, say, Bali.
“Overseas travel really dried up, but we were still getting pitches for travel in the United States,” Wessel recalled. “I still had a way to get those stories, because freelance writers would make their own arrangements. They got in their cars and visited the places and submitted a story.”
One thing he hasn’t seen is a drop-off in the pool of available writers. Wessel, in his position as head of the Midwest Travel Journalists Association, has been on a recruitment tear of late, recently doubling the group’s membership.
“Our members are extremely passionate about what they do,” he said, “and there are lots of new ways to get your work published. So there are plenty of opportunities.”
Lasley at SATW has also seen a bump in membership as more people return to the field.
“I think a lot of travel writers used the time to attend writing workshops and webinars and to try to improve their skills and think of creative ways to stay in business,” Lasley said. “For instance, they couldn’t travel, so they wrote memory pieces about places they’d visited, or they wrote about travel tips.”
The great thing about being a travel writer (as opposed to, say, working in hotel management or on the staff of a major tourist attraction) is that it was fairly simple to pivot to other forms of writing during the pandemic, then return to their first love when conditions improved.
“In a funny way, it ended up being a positive, because people found more creative ways to do what they were doing,” Lasley said. “And if they did lose a particular job, they created their own blog or website. People tapped into their resources and became more creative.”
One pandemic trend that’s showing legs is stories built around travel by car and RV, rather than aircraft, because it appeals to readers still worried about COVID.
“There’s been a great interest in going places that are a little closer to home, and don’t involve getting on a plane with 400 strangers,” said Linda Ruth, chief executive officer of PSCS – Publishing Management and Consulting, which helps publishers with magazine sales and strategies. “Maybe doing national locations instead of international travel, just because it takes an entire level of complexity out of the trip.”
She’s also seen travel publications become ever more adept at turning on a dime, to accommodate sudden changes in travel difficulty — be it another COVID bout, high gas prices or a desired destination suddenly finding itself in or next to an active war zone.
“It’s important to have the ability to be flexible, react quickly and pivot,” Ruth said. “Some had a lot of stuff in the pipeline when the pandemic hit, and they were able to fine-tune their product by couching a destination story as a ‘fantasy getaway’ or a framework for planning ‘next year’s trip.’ They fared a little better than the ones who were so locked in and slow moving that they couldn’t turn the ship.”
One bit of fallout from the pandemic that all publishers, and not just travel publications, are still contending with is supply chain issues. If you’re publishing a traditional print newspaper or magazine, sourcing paper and getting time on a press can be very difficult. Or expensive. Or most likely, both.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, where a printer will reach out to its customers and say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be able to get our product to market on time and we’re not going to be able to print all your copies, and if you want to go to a different printer, we understand,’” Ruth said.
“It’s astonishing.” One way travel magazines have dealt with the issue is by combining a couple of issues. “It just makes sense with what’s going on right now,” Ruth added.
For many journalists, it hasn’t just meant travel or don’t travel. Adapting meant pivoting to different kinds of stories. Susan R. Pollack, a 36-year Detroit News veteran went from visiting Florida and booking a trip to Berlin to, a few weeks later, staying clear of public gatherings and ordering groceries online, which she then sprayed with bleach and left on her porch overnight.
In the first year of the pandemic, she published only a handful of stories, most of them travel “how-tos” rather than destinations. Perhaps her most creative was a piece for the Detroit News about the cuisine of southwest Germany. Pollack had already visited the area for a similar story a couple of years earlier and used the images she shot back then to illustrate the second story, which didn’t involve travel. Instead, she took a Zoom cooking class overseen by actual chefs.
“That was a good example of how to turn the pandemic into a travel story,” she said.
Lately she’s done pieces for a couple of close-to-home Michigan publications, plus parlayed a driving trip to Louisville into two freelance articles. But she feels a bit uncomfortable saying things are back to normal. On a personal level, she still masks in public and greatly prefers covering outdoor locations over confined spaces packed with tourists. And she’s not entirely sure things are getting “back to normal.”
“I’m not totally optimistic,” Pollack said. “My fingers are crossed that we can get through this and go back to normal. But I think it’s probably going to be some kind of new normal. I feel like this virus is still with us, and I’m nervous that people and the government are letting down their guard too soon.”
Yet that hasn’t stopped her from booking a cruise trip to Croatia for next September.
“We’re still planning on doing that, but I don’t want to get too excited, because it (COVID- 19) might flare up again,” she said. “You just don’t know. But maybe that’s the longterm lesson from all of this. Everything is fraught with uncertainty. Know that even when you have a plan, that plan might not be cast in stone anymore. You have to be able to pivot.”
Since it’s still too early to tell what the next year, or the next few months, will hold, staying flexible sounds like solid advice for both writers and editors. That, and to perhaps see traveling not as a right, but as a privilege — and one that, as we’ve already seen, might slip beyond our means at any time, and for who knows how long.
“I don’t think we’ll take travel for granted again,” Lasley said. “I think travel writers will cover places with a little more depth, a little more understanding and a little more compassion.
Sam Stall has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles, including an interview with Les Zaitz for the Fall 2020 issue of Quill.