Someone's Got To Do It: Jobs In The Travel Industry
Saturday 31 July 1999
What do you love about your job?
At the beginning, it was tremendously exciting knowing that my opinions and experiences would end up in print. Also, researching a book forced me to explore off the beaten track, wander down alleys I wouldn't normally wander down, and generally find places I might not otherwise visit if I were on holiday. What most people don't realise, though, is that I spend maybe a quarter of my time travelling, and the rest researching and writing.
So what are the drawbacks?
It can get really lonely sometimes. I can be travelling for three or four months on my own, and you have to cover so much ground in that time that you don't have the opportunity to hang around and forge relationships. Every time I get back, I say to myself "never again" - and that's before the writing starts. The next eight or nine months can be a pretty intense experience and I spend days in my pyjamas, putting the work off.
Doesn't it feel like you're on holiday?
When you're abroad, it's the opposite to a holiday: you get up early in the morning, and don't stop all day. Everything you see and feel may filter into the book. If you don't note everything down at the time, you'll probably never get another chance. So, it's enjoyable but exhausting and it's easy to get run down or ill. I always have two or three weeks off when I get back.
Do you try to remain "undercover" as much as possible?
Yes, but it's not always possible. I've done several books on Goa, so I'm pretty well known there. I try not to tell restaurants so that I don't get preferential treatment but being known can sometimes be advantageous; having a chat with the hoteliers can give me the sort of local details that make a guide seem less like it's written by someone passing through.
Do you ever get offered bribes in exchange for a mention in the guide?
A glowing guidebook entry can make all the difference for a business so you get a lot of people asking to be included. We'll send someone to check it out, but that's about as far as it goes. The bottom line is, you've got to be dependable or your book - and the series as a whole - is going to suffer.
Is there a danger that travellers treat guidebooks as their bible, and the places that are mentioned become ruined?
It certainly happens, though it's difficult to say to what extent guidebooks are responsible for this. Writers like to exaggerate the impact of their pieces, and I think word of mouth is just as influential. Nevertheless, I've seen tiny fishing villages turn into big resorts and I think guide books should try to encourage sustainability over exploitation.
Can't backpackers have a positive impact on the places they visit?
Generally, backpackers stay longer in a destination, and more of their money goes to the grassroots than holidaymakers on package trips. Having said that, with cheap air travel, many just dip in and out of a place, don't really engage with it and can be just as irresponsible as many package tourists.
What qualities make a good Rough Guide writer?
A prodigious appetite for new places and information - you should be a bit like a sponge, absorbing all sorts of cultural and sociological information - and you must also love language, the nuts and bolts of writing. Mainly, though, you just have to cope with being on your own, and be able to put up with being broke.
Is the pay that bad?
Yes. You get paid a portion of your royalties in advance, which just about covers your expenses on the trip but not much more. After that, it just depends on how many people buy the book.
Finally, what is the question that you invariably get asked at parties, and what is your response?
"Can you get me a copy of the Rough Guide to ... ?" wherever they happen to be going next. I tell them to buy their own because we need the royalties.
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