The Creator’s Perspective: How to produce inclusive travel content

Two creators tell us how to create responsible and inclusive travel content

Skift’s global tourism reporter Lebawit Lily Girma and BBC Travel Show presenter Rajan Datar talk about the changes and challenges to creating quality travel content that’s both representative and diverse.

For our third Unpacking Media Bias takeover, we wanted to sound out two experienced travel media professionals who are as passionate about modernising and decolonising the travel industry as they are about travelling itself.

We spoke to award-winning Ethiopian-American travel journalist, author and photographer Lebawit Lily Girma, global tourism reporter for leading travel news, insights and trends website Skift. She tells us how travel writers can make their trips more impactful, red flags to watch out for, and what to expect and ask from tours and companies.

Through a different lens, journalist and BBC Travel Show presenter Rajan Datar spoke about the similar challenges and conflicts that both travel broadcasting and travel writing face against the backdrop of the last 18 months, and how he feels the tone of the travel industry has changed as a result.

We hope it’s a good read.

Shivani & Meera
Unpacking Media Bias

“Say no to irresponsible activities” — Lebawit Lily Girma

Lebawit Lily Girma is Global Tourism Reporter at Skift and founder of Sun & Stilettos and See The Caribbean, which showcases sustainable travel to the Caribbean.

We know you today as a talented writer and photographer, but you started out as a corporate lawyer and built your travel career up from the ground. What’s the most helpful piece of advice you could give people wanting to follow your path?

Know your why because you'll need it to stay motivated. Own your voice and bring out your unique perspective, don't try to copy someone else. Build a solid professional network. Stay humble no matter your wins.

With your content creator hat on, what are the most common traps you notice people falling into when it comes to responsible travel?

It's very easy for people to fall for greenwashing, which is more prevalent now when it comes to companies claiming that they offer "sustainable" travel choices. So, for example, I find that a lot of folks fall for advertising that shows images of local or indigenous communities as part of a tour experience but they don’t really go beyond the surface to find out who will deliver the experience. Will it be run by the community itself and benefit them or is the tour company just using a cultural aspect and hired workers who aren’t native to that particular heritage to make the bulk of profits? Most people fall into that trap of not understanding the economics of tourism.

As one of the industry’s leading Caribbean travel experts, what’s the most important thing to know for writers and photographers covering the region?

Be aware of vaccine equity issues in parts of the region caused by delayed access; go fully vaccinated but don't wander into communities if the vaccination rate is low there, just wait it out. Also, the Caribbean is the most tourism dependent in the world, with one of the highest percentages of leakage when it comes to tourist dollars — pre-pandemic, at least 70% of a traveler's vacation money didn't stay in the country and went to multinationals.

So, ensure that the travel dollars that you're spending while in destination are going to a locally owned and operated business or organization as much as possible, and to entities that invest in their surrounding communities long-term. Design your trip around being as positively impactful and as locally-led as possible.

Last but not least, vet press trip itineraries and say no to irresponsible activities. The Caribbean needs conscious content creators now more than ever.

“Too often, the destination is a backdrop” — Rajan Datar

Rajan Datar is a broadcaster and journalist and a BBC Travel Show presenter.

How do you feel the pandemic, BLM, the move towards open conversations, has changed your approach towards travel content but also the way travel media approaches travelling?

I recently hosted a sustainability conference in Portugal. It struck me how the tone of discussion in the industry has moved from talking about the desirability of “high-volume tourism“ to “high-value tourism“.

It’s about respect for where you’re visiting and its community. We discussed good examples of host communities not wanting to see overtourism return and having more of a voice in tourism development. Tourists are guests in someone else’s home; it’s not a playground.

I’m also more aware of slow travel becoming the norm, not a gimmick. Diversity in the workforce — making sure women are promoted and are also business owners — and putting local culture at the heart of travel experiences are other stated aims.

Travel broadcasting shares similar challenges to travel writing when it comes to creating responsible and inclusive travel content. How do you ensure it’s entertaining and educational?

Take environmental awareness. We’ll always go for stories with an imaginative or unusual angle. We just filmed on a five-mast, 42-sail ship, the Golden Horizon, which only uses fuel as a back-up to natural wind power and for cooking and heating.

We also drove around the UK and Ireland seeking interesting stories about tourism/cultural ventures on the road to recovery — but in an electric remake of a classic Morris van. Obviously, air travel is a major source of CO2 emissions, but we do use local crews and a couple of presenters are based abroad.

In terms of inclusivity, we’re part of the BBC’s 50:50 scheme which aims for parity among male/female contributors. Four of the five presenters are people of colour but diversity is embedded in the mindset — and it makes for more interesting stories. While escapism and entertainment are guiding elements, we want to inform viewers too, through history and context.

You recently chaired a debate about what’s next for travel broadcasting at the Edinburgh TV Festival discussion. What came up that applies to travel writing?

One question was around the degree to which there’s a colonial hangover in the way travel programmes depict other people’s and cultures. Too often, the destination is a backdrop, with locals standing behind the antics of the celebrity presenters. Then there’s the exoticism and use of clichés to describe African and Asian destinations.

My colleague Ade Adepitan spoke about the dangers of not making the destination front and centre, and instead a vehicle for the presenter or writer. That applies to travel writing where we centre ourselves and not the place and people.

Do you feel there’s a significant move towards more responsible, inclusive content?

When it comes to travel TV, celebrities and ratings will always be priority, but the danger remains that stereotypes about a place are perpetuated. It does worry me that not enough tourism in the West displays Black, Asian and minority heritage.

In print, digital and quality travel writing, I feel there’s a marked improvement in attitudes, and signs that sustainability and conscious travel are a prerequisite of many commissioning editors.

This was the third in our October takeover by Meera Dattani and Shivani Ashoka from Unpacking Media Bias (UMB). Next week in their final newsletter, they will be sharing tips and resources to help make travel writing more impactful, plus thoughts on problematic travel experiences, words and phrases and alternative approaches. In November, Steph and Lottie will be back in action with a series on travel photography for writers.