Travel: Would you believe it? Well, would you?

Having sampled the drug it was only a matter of time. I was soon on the hard stuff, first trains, then planes
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The Independent Travel
That nasty little subject of travel writers accepting free holidays and then pretending to provide impartial information about them has cropped up again. At the end of January, BBC's Watchdog programme revealed that certain guide-book publishers accept payments of up to pounds 3,000 from hotels wanting their names to be included. In some cases hotels have even been asked to write their own entries (and not, presumably, because the researchers were too worn out to write them themselves). Some hoteliers have come forward to expose this practise; others cheerfully comply.

However, before I start getting high and mighty about this scam, I have something to confess. I, too, have taken freebies.

It started off in an innocent way, as these things do. The first time was when I once refrained from insisting to pay for a glass of sweet, flat beer that a sad cafe owner without customers offered me in a small town in Turkey. He didn't quite understand why the neighbouring cafe, overhung with straw awnings, was heaving with backpackers whereas his own, scorched by sunshine, was empty. I took a beer and told him why. I didn't sleep for a week afterwards.

But having sampled the drug, it was only a matter of time... A year or two later, in a smokey cafe in Beirut, I accepted a Turkish coffee and one thing quickly led to another. A couple of hours later I was feasting blindly on kebabs and whisky. For weeks afterwards I hated myself, but it was no use. Within months I was graduating to the hard stuff - first of all trains and then, inevitably, planes. Naturally, I didn't talk about it but the truth was that airlines and tour operators were taking over my life. I would stop at nothing to get on to aeroplanes - I even wrote for national newspapers.

Of course what this is all building up to is the main confession - the really big, evil confession. Which is as follows: that some of the material in the pages of this very travel section may have been written by people who have taken freebies.

There it is then. My travel agent told me that getting it off my chest was what I needed to pull through. The only question you should now be asking yourselves is whether you can trust a travel junkie to make it clear which writers have taken which freebies. Fortunately I think you can. If you spot the words "guest" or "courtesy of" at the end of the travel article you will - quite rightly - smell a freebie.

Should this worry you? If guidebooks praise hotels in exchange for money, then are there not unscrupulous people in newspapers who will enter into pacts with dodgy tour operators, promising to say misleadingly nice things about them in exchange for champagne breakfasts?

The opportunity is certainly there. If, for example, too many holidays written about in these pages had been taken with too few tour operators, the stench of corruption would be horrible indeed. If, on the other hand, you were seeing a normal range of destinations and operators you would just be smelling a plain old freebie. This smell should be likened to beer on a poet's breath. It is altogether more fragrant than the guide books whichwere investigated by Watchdog, none of which ever put the words "courtesy of pounds 3,000" at the end of hotel reviews.

In an ideal world, freebies would be done away with altogether. Like researchers for the Michelin Guide, lurking discreetly in the corners of restaurants, travel writers would slip unnoticed in and out of resorts and on and off planes. Travel writing would be wholly above suspicion, as is indeed the case with the travel pages of the Saturday Independent, which operates an admirable "no freebies" policy.

In the imperfect world of impoverished writers and expensive beers where I live, however, we just have to be on our toes. We allow freebies on a discretionary basis, to enable travel writers to do their travelling at all. Which is not to say that my interest is not with the consumer.

If I had written about those backpackers' cafes in Turkey, I would gladly have described one of them as an infernal sun-trap, free beer or no free beer. Anyone wanting to pay for publicity had better contact the advertising department.

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