Travel and the Illusion of Choice

My favourite Canary Island is probably La Palma. I say probably because all the islands have something special to offer. La Palma, known as La Isla Bonita because of its beauty, is small enough to feel intimately rural and big enough to have a sophisticated side.

Los Balcones La Palma

But where most other Canary Islands welcome visitors by the plane and boat load, La Palma is ignored.

October 2013 saw it register the lowest number of visitors since 1996.

La Palma and its lack of visitors might not mean anything to you. But it should.

La Palma is a shining example of how travellers’ choices are still being moulded by the big boys of the tourism industry and those affiliated with it.

Package Holidays
Alarm bells about my image of the world being created by the tourist industry started ringing during  trips to the Greek Islands in the late 1980s. Like many people, I’d traipse down to my local travel agent, pick up a load of brochures and pour through what was on offer. The choice was overwhelming… or seemed to be. But the more I travelled to the islands, the more I wondered why Brits favoured one resort or island and Germans another, whilst others I’d never heard of would be immensely popular with Americans. Why was that?

The answer was obvious. Travel agents pointed customers in the direction they wanted them to take, where they had deals with hotels etc. They also segregated nationalities. They created destinations that were ‘popular’ with German holidaymakers or British ones. That choice we had was only a choice of where the tour operators travel agents worked with/for operated.

Mainstream travellers’ image of the world they could enjoy during their two week’s break from work was, and to a certain extent still is, fashioned by the main operators in the tourist industry.

At the airport

Newspapers and Magazines
I was always bothered by the rigidity of travel sections in the quality newspapers in Britain. The pattern was most obvious during winter months when travel sections were dominated by articles on ski resorts or hotels in winter sun destinations that cost £300 a night to stay in. Both Andy and I had good occupations in the UK and earned a lot of money. We didn’t go skiing in winter and we didn’t stay in £300 a night hotels. Neither did our friends. The newspapers who should have been writing travel articles for us were writing for someone else – they were writing for a niche, who probably lived in or around London.
Increasingly it seems that many travel article destinations are influenced by the main players in the travel industry. Airlines, holiday companies and destinations with a decent marketing budget can, to a certain extent, call the shots. Top travel editor jobs now can require incumbents to be able to bring in advertising. There goes objectivity and real choice.

Same old, same old.

Rail Station

Travel Guidebooks
I like travel guidebooks and don’t believe them to be as flawed as some people in the travel blogging world suggest. Sure, bits can be out of date as soon as they’re published. But so can blogs – the second a blogger leaves any destination. I live on a popular holiday island, Tenerife, and can write about a restaurant one day to discover that a week later it’s closed down. It’s impossible to keep up to date.
The only way around that problem is to only include establishments that have been around forever. Subsequently, many guidebooks include exactly the same places. It’s an illusion of choice and variety.

The situation with the island of La Palma reveals the main problem with the most popular guidebooks. The big names won’t publish a La Palma guidebook because it wouldn’t make economic sense, there’s no market for it. You’d have to be mad to invest in a product that will lose money. The upshot of that is guidebooks are generally only available for places that are popular in the first place. It’s a Catch 22 situation.

Budget Airlines and Independent Travel
The world of travel has changed and increasingly we are masters of choosing where we want to go… as long as there’s a budget airline to take us there. Which brings me back to La Palma again.
La Palma’s biggest enemy is that there are limited international flights to the island – no Ryanairs or Easyjets to make it easy to get there.

How many La Palmas are there around the globe?

On a Fixed Path, Metro

And that brings us to the objective saviours of the travel industry.

Travel bloggers
Three years ago, on a blog trip, I had a conversation along the lines of what I’ve said above. I felt passionate that the travel industry and travel writing had let us down. By us, I meant mainstream travellers and tourists who have limited time on their hands, not nomadic travellers who do have the time to fully explore the world

Travel bloggers were independent and even edgy, with their own strong voices. Voices that weren’t an outlet for tour operators, PR agencies and the destinations with the most coffers. They could speak of places that were ignored by the industry.

As the voices got louder, more and more ‘players’ within the tourism industry sat up and took notice… and then embraced bloggers into the fold.

WTM Social Travel Market

Before long, as travel bloggers were assimilated to receive the same, if not better treatment as conventional travel writers and travel agents, some voices suddenly weren’t quite as edgy as they once were.
There are still plenty of travel bloggers out there with a strong voice championing places that deserve it and criticising those that don’t. But there are also plenty whose motivations have shifted. Mainstream acceptance comes with a pull to the middle of the road and different obligations. It is impossible to avoid this.

Put another way, there’s an old saying in Scotland that fits perfectly: He who pays the piper calls the tune.

This isn’t a judgement, it’s an observation.

There’s no doubt the explosion of social media and the rise of travel blogging has shaken up a cart that needed some serious rocking. Ultimately though, people taking a two week break from the workplace to travel to different shores are still being treated like sheep. Maybe a tad more subtly and subliminally than when package holidays were at their peak, but they’re being herded all the same.

Meanwhile, locations like La Palma remain largely off the map.

Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+




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