Kelly Toughill explores the ethics and editorial impact of writing about destinations that host travel writers for free.

[[{“fid”:”3982″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“alt”:”Dawn patrol at the Paradisus Palma Real in Punta Cana.”,”style”:”width: 300px; height: 225px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]By Kelly Toughill

I spent 25 years as a journalist following very strict rules about conflict of interest. It was easy to just say no to t-shirts, hot-dogs, fancy meals, books, travel offers and gifts of every shape and flavour.

Turning down swag never hurt the story, and that was always the overriding consideration. I worked for the  big fat Toronto Star, which could always afford to send me where the story needed me to go.

That was then. Newspapers no longer have money to burn; the business model of news is—let’s use a polite term—in flux.

When a Star editor asked me last year to freelance travel pieces underwritten by the destinations, I said yes. I wanted to experiment with new business models, to see if they fit my own concept of journalism. I also knew Star readers would never get to share the kind of places I wanted to explore unless we let the destinations foot the tab. The Star and I agreed there would be full transparency on who paid what for my travels.

I told my editor that I wanted to ride a horse across the desert. He arranged for me to ride a grey mustang across the Tonto National Forest with the folks at Arizona Cowboy College.

The ranch pit bull bit me in the ass. 

I was delighted.

Here was the first great test of sponsored journalism: would the ranch try to pressure me not to write about the bite? Nope. The lead cowboy grimaced, then got me a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a bandage. The owner whispered, “Oh, fuck.”

Would the press trip co-ordinator from the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau try to discourage me from using the anecdote? Nope. When I told her about the bite, over dinner on my last day, she kept a very impressive poker face and changed the subject.

When I mentioned it to my editor, he insisted the bite be included in the story.

So far so good.

The second trip was to Switzerland, transport and accommodation funded by a boutique hotel in Zurich and a historic ski resort in Gstaad. I wrote mostly about Zurich, which surprised me with its emphasis on art and orderly sensuality. I loved the trip.

Then I went to the Dominican Republic.

My editor had offered me lots of adventure trips and exotic travel, but none of that fit my schedule. When I asked for a beach vacation in the winter, it turns out he knew me better than I knew myself. The resort was stunning, perfect in every way. 

That was the problem.

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It was my first visit to the Caribbean and my first visit to an all-inclusive resort. I always thought those electric-blue photos of the Caribbean Sea were Photoshopped, but it turns out the Caribbean really does undulate with shades of turquoise, sapphire and cerulean blue. And the sand is almost as white as snow. The weather was a dial-up-winter-fantasy: 28 C in the afternoon with a stiff ocean breeze and little humidity. I didn’t see a mosquito, cockroach or spider in six days. In fact, the one and only insect that I did see was a red dragonfly flitting over the still ponds of a Thai-themed health spa.

There were almost as many staff as guests at the hotel, and it seemed that half of them knew me by name. The food was astonishing, not just the amount of it, but the variety and quality. The fresh mango, pineapple and passion fruit were the best I’ve ever had. The hotel had its own water treatment plant. I drank straight from the tap, ate lettuce salad and didn’t have a whiff of tummy trouble. 

It was extraordinary.

And a little creepy.

I looked up at the hotel from the beach on my first day and had a fleeting sense of being in a zoo—not as a visitor, but as one of the animals on display. There was something about being penned behind walls and the way the staff came in from the outside each morning to feed and water us that amused me.

By day two, the analogy that flitted through my mind was prison. There was something about the uniforms, the extreme cleanliness and the way that every moment of the day was carefully stage-managed.

Tractors dragged the beach before dawn to clear it of seaweed. A battalion of men with rakes followed close behind, grooming every spec of sand from the water’s edge to the patios before the sun broke the horizon. Music carefully programmed to create different moods at different times of day discreetly played in every corridor, restaurant, patio and pool. And then there was the aromatherapy. Every public space was programmed by scent: white tea in the Royal Service lounge; hints of lavender and rose elsewhere.  

It was almost eerie, how none of the staff—even the ones working in the hot sun—smelled like human beings. Even the restaurants didn’t smell like food. It was the Caribbean sanitized.

By day three, I was a little desperate for a music-free zone and something that smelled real. A little sweat, some rotting seaweed, even a fart would have done the trick.

Then the food began to lose its appeal. Mid-way through a nine-course meal that included a wine pairing for each course, I began to think about hunger in the Dominican Republic and in neighbouring Haiti. It was hard to appreciate the fusion of cucumber, apple and basil gelée, scallops tartar and lightly pickled fresh vegetables when I knew people nearby didn’t have enough to eat.

The next morning, I escaped to a surf camp 20 minutes away. I spent the last three days hanging out under a thatched roof beside an empty beach with teenagers who make a living teaching tourists like me how to surf.

But how to write that piece honestly?

Do I condemn the entire all-inclusive industry because it doesn’t suit me emotionally or politically? That seemed kind of silly. I talked to lots of guests who stayed at my resort and other resorts. They were all delighted by their experience. The resort staff was genuinely friendly and open, the food good, the beach fine. I seemed to be the only one offside. 

I wrote a story about the hyper-competitive nature of the all-inclusive resort industry, specifically how the chains struggle to come up with new gimmicks, products and services to differentiate themselves from the pack.

The story was all right. It gave readers useful information. It was accurate, and even true, but was it honest? It had no emotional content because my emotions were out of sync with the expectations and desires of my readers.

And now I’m second-guessing myself. Did I save my unreserved impression for J-Source because the trip was a junket? Or did I hold back because I didn’t think my reaction was valuable for readers of the Star travel section? I hope it’s the latter. This confusion is much worse than being bitten in the ass.

 

[[{“fid”:”3318″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 100px; height: 110px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]J-Source’s Business of Journalism editor and University of King’s College professor Kelly Toughill wonders if she will be invited on any more press trips after publication of this column.