5 Insensitive Things to Avoid When Writing a Travel Essay4 min read

In the age of backpackers, widespread internet access and the ever-increasing number of travel blogs, many of us have tried our hand at writing a travel essay. And let me be clear; for the most part, I consider this to be an extremely exciting development. The world of travel writing has become much more accessible and it has become much easier to share your experience with an audience, no matter how big or small. But there is a downside to this lower threshold. While you’re learning and growing as a writer, your inevitable mistakes aren’t confined to your notebook and postcards. They’re on the web for everyone to see, and that means you have to be fully responsible for whatever you send into the world. And trust me, there are definitely things to avoid when writing a travel essay.

A paper notebook and a pen on a table, next to a window and a potted plant.
Photo by Toa Heftiba

Things to Avoid when Writing a Travel Essay

By now, we’ve probably all gotten used to the almost weekly news reports of disrespectful tourists spraying graffiti on a sacred wall in Thailand or bloggers implying that Indians are too poor to buy an Iphone X. Now, I’m going to assume that these are very extreme cases and most travellers generally feel a little less entitled. But cultural sensitivity is important on all levels; the use of language in travelogues can be very inconsiderate in a less obvious ways. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when writing a travel essay.

1. Take off those rose-tinted glasses

When you fall in love with a new place, it’s tempting to see everything through rose-tinted glasses. It’s easy to voice your experience one-sidedly and superficially, describing a dreamy utopia or ‘exotic paradise’. Although it may feel like you’ve escaped to a place where the sun shines every hour of the day and people are never not smiling, this kind of description can come across as lacking a level of depth.

No matter where you go, people are never leading oversimplified lives where there’s never a cloud on the horizon. Look beyond the stereotypes and caricatures that might have seeped into your mind and steer clear of a belittling tone.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to delve into every political issue or document the tragic life stories of those living in the underbelly of society, but try to nurture a more multidimensional awareness of a place and its culture. Realise that the travel industry has close links to political and economic privileges, like having the freedom to travel somewhere and leave whenever you want to.

2. Don’t be too cynical about the clichés

I’ve read plenty of cynical essays about popular destinations where writers expected to find a unique and ‘authentic’ travel experience and got hugely disappointed by the crowds and souvenir shops. But don’t blame local entrepreneurs for ‘buying into’ the cliché narratives to sell their products and services.

You yourself contribute to this process; without all those tourists selectively crowding certain destinations, the sector would never exist. It’s essentially a question of supply and demand. Don’t resent the local people for being business-savvy and making their living within the tourism sector. They are not the ones who ‘ruined’ your beloved bucket list item.

A crowd of tourists taking photos of a cityscape panorama
Photo by Elizeu Dias

3. Don’t fall into the trap of cultural superiority

Don’t make assumptions about how ‘developed’ a country is compared to yours. Keep in mind that cultural differences are allowed to exist; a practice in your culture may seem equally strange or problematic to the local people. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be aware of obvious topics like disparities in average national income, access to health care, racial discrimination and gender inequality. Having a critical mind and being able to identify social problems is extremely important.

What I mean is that you shouldn’t indulge in a false sense of superiority or ‘being culturally ahead’ just because you were born in a wealthier nation. Especially since these economic differences between nations tie into colonial pasts and ongoing capitalist structures of labour and land exploitation. Again, it’s a matter of awareness and attitude.

4. Pay attention to religious and political nuances

This might seem obvious to some, but before you travel to a country and decide to write an essay about it, make sure you are at least informed about the basics. Let’s be honest: if you’re able to travel to faraway places and write about it online, there is absolutely no excuse for lazy ignorance. Do a little research before you go and educate yourself: what are the main religions, everyday customs and basic laws?

I’m not arguing that you should completely adjust your behaviour to fit the local practices, but remember that you are essentially a guest in a foreign country. Be aware of sacred sites and legislation around topics like alcohol use, smoking, traffic codes and photography.

This too comes down to attitude. Sure, you might be treating yourself with a much-needed vacation or backpacking adventure. But that doesn’t mean the world is your playground and locals need to willingly accept with your shitty behaviour.

Bird's-eye view of a relatively busy street
Photo by Fancycrave

5. Don’t overgeneralise

Don’t use your personal experiences in one single city or on a typical touristy island to speak about cultural practices in reference to the entire country. One country or region, no matter where you are, usually consists of several micro-cultures and multiple dialects or even languages. This is especially true for more populous countries like Indonesia, India and China, but basically applies to every situation.

You have every right to share your observations, but be mindful about factors like religious divides and minorities. Even if you’ve lived abroad for a year, that doesn’t automatically make you an expert. Avoid making sweeping statements in a factual tone and acknowledge your subjectivity.

In short: always aim to be open-minded. Let go of your expectations and let the places you travel to tell their own story. Use your own voice to share your story, but don’t forget to listen to the voices of those you encounter along the way. Everyone makes mistakes and personal growth is a never-ending process in any type of writing. Just make sure to be self-aware.

Are there any other things to avoid when writing a travel essay that I missed in this overview? Do let me know by leaving a comment below. I’d love to hear your opinion and exchange ideas.

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