Trust me, I'm an honest hack
Sunday 20 April 1997
I'll grant that a trip to a beach paradise in the Indian Ocean might not seem like a particularly tough assignment, though whether paradise will really involve being cooped up with five journalists and a PR rep for a week is slightly doubtful.
This is, basically, what press trips are all about: PR reps trying to sell a place to journalists by showing them as many good things about that place in as short a time as possible.
Naturally, the good things about a country from a touristic point of view tend to involve aperetifs at sunset, fine wines, fresh lobster, exclusive hotels, luxury swimming pools etc. They would not normally involve the soothing attention of the rep and thrill of being on a blind date with strangers (the other journalists) in an exotic climate.
In theory journalists are supposed to inspect what is on offer with the spirit of journalistic inquiry. They lug their notepads around, assessing the sandiness of the beaches, the picturesque qualities of the palm trees, the tallness of the Pina Coladas and wearily jot down the details as they go.
In case you were wondering whether they insist on wearing trilbys and dirty raincoats as they sip their cocktails on the beach, however, the answer is no. Personally I was wearing a silly sombrero and embroidered sandals for most of this particular trip, and my luggage comprised more sun tan lotion and insect repellent than pens and notepads.
Not that this need have interfered with my spirit of journalistic inquiry. In fact, being able to talk with besuited hotel executives while in my beachwear struck me as highly liberating.
What was much more worrying of course was the sinister possibility that the PR representative was giving me free lobster, not merely to enable me to assess the qualities of, say, Seychellois lobster as opposed to Mauritian lobster, but, in fact, to hoodwink me into putting into print the idea that lobsters grow on trees in the Seychelles.
Or even worse (assuming that journalists are not really that naive), to tempt me into writing nice things about the Seychelles with the subliminal threat that my lobster supply would be withdrawn unless I did so.
dodgy brown envelopes in exchange for good reports? Nice, cosy relationships between the trade and the press at the expense of ordinary holiday consumers? The unspoken promise of future trips if everything works out "nicely" with the write-up? As far as my trip to the Seychelles went, the evidence was inconclusive. I observed the curious phenomenon of people from trade magazines taking notes and conducting serious interviews while in their swimsuits. They did not look like fat cats. I personally found it hard to dispute that the Seychelles seemed a nice place to spend a holiday, and found it odd that the Seychelles Tourist Board were so anxious to prove this obvious fact.
Far from wallowing in the hospitality though, we were oppressed by the obligation of having to meet so many hoteliers and eat so many banquets in so short a space of time. We were also distracted by our own fascinating group dynamics, to the point where the Seychelles themselves became something of a sideline.
Perhaps more interestingly though, conversations - as always in the travel trade - revolved around the "product". We were presented with the islands of the Seychelles as a commodity to be consumed by tourists. The fact that this was actually a country with real people living in it was almost overlooked.
Instead of free lobster, what would have seduced me would have been the chance to blunder around the country on my own, running into the local bureaucracy, having altercations with town drunks, standing up on crowded buses (if there had been any crowded buses on the Seychelles).
I realise that there are worse jobs in life than eating banquets in the Seychelles and I'm not going to fall in with those irritating people who complain about having to do them. But I don't think press trips are going to corrupt me.
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