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Are travel blogs a form of propaganda?

Reflections on travel, safety, and how sharing my personal experiences might promote narratives that are false or inaccurate.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is my responsibility as a travel blogger.

I don’t take it lightly that I’m a Black woman who travels and documents it for the world to see. At least once a day I get a comment or an email from a follower asking me for advice, thanking me for my recommendations, or telling me that I’ve inspired them to travel.

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In this business, word of mouth is powerful. Trust is strong. And as someone who has made a career in travel media, every day I realize that my stories and recommendations reach farther and wider than I think, and that what I say has an impact and influences others to make certain travel decisions.

But while I try to report without bias, let’s be real: this blog, my Facebook page, and my Instagram feed are filled with opinions.

 

Opinions based on my race (I’ve written loads about how travelling while Black is different), gender, age, cumulative life experience, and socio-economic status, both past and present.

Why do I bring all this up?  Well, I went to Brazil about 18 months ago, and I loved it.  Rio de Janeiro stole my heart and Salvador de Bahia tugged at my soul.  Quite honestly it was one of the best trips I’ve ever done; what made it more amazing is that I got to do it with my friends.

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And, despite damning evidence that Brazil can be unsafe, I felt completely comfortable. My girlfriends and I trolled the streets at night, brandished our cell phones and fancy DSLR cameras in broad daylight, and took local taxis without issue.

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Never at any moment during my 9 day stay did I feel my well-being to be compromised.  I returned home feeling vindicated and invincible, telling Liebling his hushed warnings of “be careful” prior to my trip were wholly unwarranted.

Bolstered by these good feelings, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

“Back in NYC after the most AMAZING, LIFE-GIVING two weeks in Colombia and Brazil. Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, and Salvador de Bahia are all beautiful and special in their own way and WELL deserving of your vacation time and dollars.

One thing I was struck by was how off-base many of the warnings I received about how dangerous/scary these three cities are were– while I took all the necessary precautions, not once did I feel unsafe. This reminded me just how important it is to go and see places for yourself– don’t let fear-mongering media reports and over-zealous, overly cautious advice from others keep you from seeing the world. Be careful, research, get travel insurance, pack your passport, a camera, and a huge memory card… Then get ready to have the time of your life.

The beautiful sights, hilarious and educational encounters with locals, and quality time spent in the company of my best friends made this one of the best trips I’ve been on in a while! Viva Colombia y Brazil!”

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The takeway: “don’t believe the hype”. I dismissed the danger of Brazil.  I wanted (and still want) to believe that it’s violent status is overblown.  I told my readers and followers that it unnecessarily gets a bad rap from seemingly classist and racist news agencies.

And then this morning, I came across this video.

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Joanna Franco, one half of the popular travel vlogging duo Damon and Jo, was shot in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro last month, during Carnaval.  Her and her family were the victims of  a failed carjacking; the bullet that struck her is still lodged in her back. Jo’s narration of events is chilling and heartwrenching. 

Her testimony also makes me reconsider my cavalier stance, as well as how us bloggers frame our travel adventures and tips on our platforms.

I never want to spread false information or alternative facts.  Ever the stickler, I always take care to specify that what I write and say is reflective of my personal experience,  and I’m well aware that my experiences are tempered by who I am and the lens through which I see the world.

After all, I don’t know everything and I can’t speak to everyone else’s experience. For example, when I tell you how I didn’t suffer any racial discrimination in Russia in one breath (Russia has a documented history of racism against Black people), in the next I’ll tell you there are many extenuating factors that don’t allow me to draw an accurate conclusion. (The fact I was only there for 10 days, or the fact that I stuck to the tourist trail in the cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg being a couple of them.)

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And even though I was mugged and harassed in Egypt, I wrote about my reluctance to paint the country with the same broad brush.  For what happened was unique to me– so many people have travelled the country without incident.  As a result, I would never want to actively dissuade someone from travelling somewhere based on my personal experience.

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But of course, it’s human nature to take advice from someone you know, like, and trust without a grain of salt; disclaimers like “Well, this is just my personal experience” all too easily get lost in translation.

And, as demonstrated in this example, sometimes it’s all to easy for travel writers to present their uninformed or biased assumptions  about a certain destination as fact (a huge pet peeve of mine).  Especially when it comes to travel, politics, warfare, and economics. (And especially when a trip is #sponsored by a tourism board or company– but more on that in a future post.)

Still, even though it’s not my intention, I worry that my thoughts and opinions on travel, as inaccurate and logically flawed as they may be, may be misconstrued as fact or gospel.  I don’t want to “spread propaganda” in my travel narratives.  

After all, I would never want someone to travel to Brazil without properly assessing the safety risks, or a fellow Black traveller to head to Russia thinking that racism will never be an issue because “Oneika the Traveller went and she was fine”.

Don’t get me wrong. I want my travel tales to inspire you to make the world oyster.   But I also want you to go forth with your eyes fully open and your mind completely informed.  

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Do your research before you travel and consult a wide variety of sources (including mine, pretty please!) But be aware that, no matter how much information or anecdotes you may arm yourself with, fate could possibly have other plans that are inconsistent with your preconceived notions. 

PIN THIS POST!

How much influence do travel blog(ger)s have on your travel decisions, if any? Which resources to do you use when you plan a trip?

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Amy
    March 11, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    Interesting read, Oneika, and it’s crazy what happened to Jo! I totally get what you’re saying — it goes for any travel writing, I think. Whether you’re writing a personal blog or a Lonely Planet guidebook, you’re doing it based off your research and your experiences.
    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently with my own writing. Having lived in Kyiv for nine months, with six more to go, I’m pretty confident in my ability to give recommendations to travelers. But when it comes to understanding this country or Ukrainians — I’m still pretty limited. I’m limited by my (lack of) language ability, I’m limited by the fact that I’ve stayed mostly in one city in the biggest country in Europe, I’m limited by the difficulty of making local friends. I’m planning a whole project on femininity in Ukraine and have been grappling with how to make sure it’s not a completely biased, outsider view on the topic. I’ve decided to interview Ukrainian women, but even still, I’m going to be limited to English-speaking women who live in Kyiv. That’s a very specific segment of the population!
    I think the best we can do, as writers, is continue to remind readers that we’re writing from our perspective and encourage additional research. And the best we can do as readers and travelers is to be well-informed and open-minded.
    Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece!

    • Reply
      Oneika
      March 12, 2017 at 8:26 pm

      Agree with you wholeheartedly! I had the same experience in Hong Kong– lived there for nearly five years but didn’t learn much of the language, which meant there was a whole aspect of the life and culture there I was unable to tap into! At any rate, there’s a slight chance I’ll be in Kiev this spring so I might see you there.. 😉

      • Reply
        Amy
        March 13, 2017 at 8:23 am

        Whhaaat?! That’s awesome! I love that Kyiv is getting some attention. Definitely let me know if you come to town. Even if we can’t meet up, I’m happy to help with suggestions. 🙂

        • Reply
          Oneika
          March 13, 2017 at 2:01 pm

          Awesome, thanks!! I will be in touch!

  • Reply
    Mystica
    March 11, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    This piece got me thinking. I love the travel blogs and take recommendations from them, but I am not naive to think that my experience will be identical to yours! I am Sri Lankan and the experience can be difficult. Especially with customs/immigration. I dont blame them. So many Sri Lankans have gone overseas, overstayed and then claimed asylum that the passport is looked at with quite a lot of distaste! But, it has not dissuaded me from travelling, though I doubt I will ever come to the United States!

  • Reply
    Elina
    March 11, 2017 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks for an interesting read! I think it’s important to acknowledge that just because you didn’t experience it, doesn’t mean it’s not real – especially only during a nine day trip! I’m currently living in Brazil, been here for a month and a half now and all the locals keep telling me how dangerous it is around here. I think the stories are slightly exaggerated – having travelled quite a bit I feel like I can trust my ability to take the necessary precautions to stay safe, and even if I have to put myself in a “dangerous” situation (like walking at night or taking a taxi alone) I’d like to think I can make myself look like someone you wouldn’t want to harass. But bad things do happen, so I don’t really know. What I think, though, is that I can’t confine myself in my apartment for fear that I might get hurt. Hope for the best, expect the worst, right? I agree with you that you can’t stay at home and not travel to these amazing places just because something might happen. During five-ish years of on-and-off travel the only bad situation that’s happened to me was when my car got broken into and my purse got stolen from there… in a tiny village in England. Bad things happen everywhere, all you can do is try your best to stay safe.

    • Reply
      Oneika
      March 12, 2017 at 8:20 pm

      “I think it’s important to acknowledge that just because you didn’t experience it, doesn’t mean it’s not real”. YES TO THIS COMMENT! As you say, it’s important to be aware of the inherent dangers, and to protect yourself against them. However, we can’t let these dangers impact our movements to the extent that we’re afraid to leave the house! The world is too big and interesting not to explore!

  • Reply
    Stephanie (@Vaycarious)
    March 11, 2017 at 4:44 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this from both sides. I come from a really violent city, and it’s totally common for me to feel safer when I travel abroad.

    The bias that we write with as travelers is there definitely. We come and go from a place wearing our “on a holiday” privilege the whole time. As people who get to go to places with negative labels and see the counterbalance for ourselves, I think we sometimes feel like we have to stress the positives and throw out the negatives. That is propaganda, I guess.

    But we can and do rein this in by admitting our limited view and giving a space for people to tell their stories as well.

    On the other hand, I recently wrote about about travel scams I’ve fallen for in SE Asia, and some comments basically saying “that’s why I’ll never go there” made me wonder if I’d done more damage than the good of alerting people to what’s out there.

    Very good post, Oneika.

    • Reply
      Oneika
      March 12, 2017 at 8:19 pm

      This——> “The bias that we write with as travelers is there definitely. We come and go from a place wearing our “on a holiday” privilege the whole time.”

      That’s exactly the point I was trying to make with my blog post about Russia. As a Black tourist who is distinctly “American-looking” I perhaps benefit from a privilege not accorded to my African brothers and sisters living in Russia on a longer-term basis. So it’s difficult for me to make sweeping statements about race relations in situations like these.

      To your other point regarding calling out travel scams– I agree with you wholeheartedly. I felt the same way with Egypt– I was afraid to share my mixed feelings about the place for fear of turning people off to the country completely.

  • Reply
    Ele
    March 12, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Oneika,

    I think that when one writes a blog, one must never preach. Preaching is the worst type of writing and makes very bad reading. It is important to let people know that this article is your own experience and theirs can be different. There must be a n opinion in every text but never preaching.

    For example: “Top 10 places to see In X”. This is very subjective type of a text and readers can say “But who you think you are to teach me what is worth seeing in X? Yeah, you write a blog, but I create cancer medicine, so guess what is better.” We never know really who the recipient of our texts is.

    At the same time, a blog is one place to talk about things important for them, but I repeat-personal opinion is a yea, teaching and preaching others is a no.

    • Reply
      Oneika
      March 12, 2017 at 8:15 pm

      Thanks for chiming in Ele! I agree with you. I think that travel blogs could (and should) impart lessons but also with the understanding that they aren’t all-knowing.

  • Reply
    Adalia
    March 12, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    THIS is why I read your blog and respect your opinion. The fact that you will take time and analyze the reasons, motives and feelings behind your experiences. Thank you for continuing to look at the world (and yourself) with a critical eye.

    • Reply
      Oneika
      March 12, 2017 at 8:14 pm

      Thank you Adalia!! I’m so glad you appreciate that!

  • Reply
    Omo and Eulanda
    March 12, 2017 at 2:59 pm

    Travel bloggers need to be conscious of the lens (and inherent bias) through which they see the world. If we want to be taken seriously, we have a responsibility to present a balanced view and apply some journalistic rigour to our story telling. The best travel blogs out there (like yours) are those that KEEP IT REAL. Jo’s recount of her experience of getting shot in Brazil sent a chill down our spines. The world is a beautiful place but there is some ugliness out there too. We must not fear it or let it paralyse us and neither should we ignore it. However we must know about it to be able to make informed decisions about our travel

    • Reply
      Oneika
      March 12, 2017 at 8:14 pm

      Absolutely my point! Sometimes it’s difficult to toe the line– so easy to let our own personal feelings and experiences cloud our assessments of a place. This is why I’m always quick to put a disclaimer saying my writing, in the end, reflects my personal views and experiences only.

  • Reply
    Caroline Achieng Otieno
    March 13, 2017 at 7:09 am

    I think that many times travel bloggers just whizz through countries and likely don’t stay long enough to properly ‘feel’ the destination in all it’s nuances.
    For people, *especially people of colour* their experiences will vastly differ in many countries depending on how long they are in the said destination.
    As an example, I’ve lived in the Netherlands for a decade or so; while I get followed about in stores, when I’m in public transportation or on the streets, I feel invisible. When I stayed in Amsterdam Bijlmer (the ghetto of Amsterdam), I was attacked in the lift by a guy who wanted to rape me..I managed to fight him off. There were so many activities in Amsterdam Bijlmer, some dangerous enough to have police patrols, body pat-downs, stings and so forth when their were ‘drug disputes’ between warring gangs..yikes.
    I attended church every Sunday in Amstelveen, a swanky upper-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Amsterdam. One city..different experiences.
    My brother spent years in Russia, I mentioned his experience in your post.
    I managed to go to Ukraine this past summer, with my child. I got alot of stares, but alot of help..and so many people stopped us for selfies. While researching before my trip, I heard so many things about Ukraine..and that it’s one of those countries not quite friendly to blacks. My short experience there, told a different story.
    So what can we do as travelers on a shoestring budget, as we ‘touch’ destinations with a blink of an eye? We can admit that our experiences are personal, are subjective, and likely in all honesty offer disclaimers.

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Monica Puccetti
    March 31, 2017 at 2:54 am

    You are the first travel blogger I’ve seen write anything about this subject yet, and I just have to say thank you! I feel like the travel blogging world can get so biased, yet muted at the same time, that we need to be honest about the fact that we are writing about personal experiences, not objective fact. I lived in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala for six months at the beginning of 2016 and I feel like my writing often paints Guatemala in a far different light than other bloggers who pass through quickly or live in a more touristy city like Antigua, but your post has given me a much needed remind to qualify my posts, that a city or even a whole country can be entirely different for different people at different times.

  • Reply
    chewy
    April 2, 2017 at 1:49 pm

    This is an interesting topic, and I hope that Jo and her family recovers. 🙁

    I do agree that the “this is just my personal experience” gets lost in whatever communication is happening. It gets drowned out, just as disclaimers in radio or TV ads get drowned out.

    I did have a recent conversation with a friend who read a blogger who said her experience in Sri Lanka was terrible, a country I had just come from. I didn’t have any issues in Sri Lanka, and felt it was safe and that I was given fair prices, etc. My friend was feeling wary about going to Sri Lanka from this one post, and I wanted to tell her to give a chance because I personally had a good experience.

    Maybe I shouldn’t have been quick to try to explain away this other blogger’s bad experience. She probably had very valid reasons why she didn’t like it there. I think I’ll think more about this the next time I come across a similar situation.

  • Reply
    Wibi
    April 5, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Yes to everything in this post and extra yes to mentioning Jo! I came across that video on my twitter feed and was so shocked at how something like that could happen to someone I actually follow and respect in the travel blog/vlogsphere. Made me realize that tragedies can happen to anyone! Famous or not, local or not, etc.

    It’s like an uneven dice, most will get a good experience but there are times when things don’t go your way, and sometimes swayed even further to your disadvantage because of your skin, socioeconomic background etc.

  • Reply
    Mishele Morgan
    May 14, 2017 at 1:11 am

    This was a thoughtful post. I’ve never taken into consideration this aspect of my traveling blogging. I’ve always written just to share my experience, without a second thought on how my opinion can shape those of other people. I generally write unapologetically: if I like a place you’ll know and if I don’t like it, you’ll really know. When travelling I do heed the advice of those who’ve gone before, for example not going to certain regions due to conflicts. But sometimes like your example with Brazil and Russia, you’ve heard it’s not the greatest but went anyway and realized it’s not that bad. However, that was your personal experience. I think this is difficult path we have set ourselves on, as travel writers. But again great post, it got me thinking.
    It is unfortunate to hear about Joana Franco, and I wish the best to her and her family.

  • Reply
    Ariam Alula
    May 14, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Hello Oneika,

    My blogger friend Mishele Morgan (her comment is above mine) linked me to this article. I heard of your work and previously saw your name written on Women in Travel Summit’s website. Thank you for sharing your insights. What is your most favorite and trusted source when researching countries?

  • Reply
    Linzi Clark
    May 18, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Thought-provoking post…..I have similar feelings about a recent trip to South Africa. Before I went I was met with looks of horror and incredulity from family members but went anyway and had a fantastic time. Perhaps I was lucky but I do know the experience felt expansive and certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone.

  • Reply
    Nate
    July 1, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Really love that you write so many thoughtful pieces like this. One thing I’m starting to hate about the travel blogging world is how much of it is bubble-gum — tasty for about a second, but entirely devoid of any nutritional value. Great to see a more in-depth exploration of the more human side of travel.

  • Reply
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