Planning a trip to an exotic destination that has yet to be tainted by tourism? Good luck in finding one. The widespread use of blogs, social-networking sites, webcams and cell phones places just about every corner of the planet at our fingertips. Suddenly, anyone with a computer can be a travel writer and any day spent far from home can be instantly shared with “friends” you’ll never see.
Does all this imply the end of literary travel writing? Hopefully not, but in the age of globalization, the world has be-come more accessible and undeniably more “connected,” at least in technological terms. Travel has shifted in style and scope while tourism—that market-driven substitute for a voyage of discovery—runs the gamut from “packaged” to pretentious. In the 21st century, the well-crafted travel essay has begun to look as nostalgic as a dusty khaki safari jacket sans logo.
But what is more satisfying than a literate ramble around a beautiful city or a seemingly empty beach with a lively, articulate mind? The hook need not be as dramatic as a great escape from warring tribes or some life-threatening meteorological event. Travel is internal as well as external, and so the “story” is free to focus on subtle shifts of inner awareness. In the words of Norman Douglas, writing in the 1920s, good travel writing “invites the reader to undertake three tours simultaneously: abroad, into the author’s brain, and into his own.”
As long as wanderlust exists, an engaging travel essay will appeal to readers who expect more than mere information. (Leave that task to the travel guides.) And while there is no foolproof formula, there are a few “rules of the road.” Your travel essay will be a success when it leaves readers with a fresh, vivid memory of a place they’ve never seen.
Because a good travel essay should be readable in one sitting, it takes an artful approach to focus your lens, calibrate your timing, build your structure, and discover colorful threads to weave through the fabric of your essay. As the writer, your task is to use your imagination to “omit and compress,” as Alain de Botton describes it, in order to steer your reader to “critical moments” and, I would add, unforgettable images.
Here are some steps to get you there; the first two deal mostly with prewriting preparation.
1. Learn the backstory in order to take your reader behind the scenes. Your essay should give your reader an inside perspective that is real, reflective and accurate. This will probably require some good, old-fashioned research. Reading before and after a trip—history, biography, anthropology, literature, newspapers, magazines and/or other travel writing—will help shake off false assumptions and open windows in your creative mind. But do be careful about how you work facts into your essay. As Patrick LoBrutto said in these pages (April 2008) with reference to fiction, “The trick is to rub the information into the grain” and avoid an “information dump.”
In my essay “Alone in Amsterdam,” in the literary journal Fourth Genre, I set out to write a “cityscape” anchored by famous works of art, but it was reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo and the poignant Diary of Anne Frank that helped me catch the thread of meaning I was after. In the end, my essay turned out to be about the many dimensions of aloneness, including my own, that had been lived on those streets. Planning a trip? Start reading now.
2. As you travel, be alert to details that will allow you to establish the essential identity of the place on the opening page. If you’ve just arrived in unknown territory, walk around, talk to the locals, smell the coffee, and get a feel for what this place is about. A.A. Gill refers to this as seeking “the key, an image that unlocks everything else.” In my essay about Tahiti, “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” I opened with the late-18th-century voyage of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe. In a similar fashion, I tracked 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of an untainted paradise. As I began to realize that Gauguin never found what he was looking for, I played all of my images and experiences in Tahiti against my core metaphor of an elusive quest.
To test the waters, try describing the essence of the street you live on in one vivid paragraph, and remain open to where your own description leads.
3. Begin with two levels of information. The “collage effect” appropriate to travel writing requires artful transitions from one theme or scene to another in order to create a sense of wholeness. It also calls for two distinct levels of information that might be summed up as background and foreground. Remember, your readers need a sense of place and a sense of who is taking them on this journey. Descriptive prose provides the larger context while you, the writer, bring a strong sense of your personal motives, state of mind, and situation as we embark on the trip together.
The “hinge” of these two levels allows you to pivot and shift your point of view as you move through the pages. Remember, your goal is to come full circle, so always take time to check and see if your last few paragraphs relate to the beginning. You can get a sense of this full circle by “checking the echo” of beginnings and endings in the travel essays you’re reading now.
Think of your essay as a flight into the unknown, which it should be for the reader (even if you know the place inside out). There are many techniques for starting, ranging from a short, punchy statement to a patch of dialogue with locals. In “Alone in Amsterdam,” I began with an imaginary dialogue between myself and the “Dutch Masters” in Rembrandt’s iconic painting “The Draper’s Guild.”
Other writers, like Jan Morris in her introductory chapter to Venice or Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul: Memories and the City, plunge in with sensuous word paintings of cityscapes. Simon Winchester’s The River at the Center of the World begins by explaining the circumstances that motivated his 4,000-mile exploration of China’s Yangtze River, then he is free to take the reader along with him on his tour.
Remember, at the start readers need a “big picture” sense of location, preferably visual, combined with a sense of who is telling this story. Their two key questions might be reduced to: Where am I going, and who am I going with? Let’s put you to work.
First paragraph: As an exercise in answering the first question, create a “landscape in words” of the place that is going to be the focus of your essay. This may only be the point of departure, but that’s OK. The important thing, as a writer, is that you bring this to life with descriptive detail that sets the mood and weaves imagery, color, texture, sound, light, architecture and nature into a believable background. Resist the urge to overwrite this paragraph, but build it out to paint a picture that will serve as a point of reference for all that follows. Limit yourself to six to eight sentences.
Second paragraph: Now, practice the art of shifting focus to the travel guide and companion—you—with a much shorter paragraph of three or four sentences. In this paragraph, your reader should feel jolted out of a dream as the focus shifts to a particular human dilemma, goal, conscious sensation, or problem that co-exists with the lyrical quality of your opening paragraph. You might, for example, shift from the description of a winter landscape to a wounded bird on your windowsill and the dilemma of how to help this tiny animal, or from a “perfect” day in a lively city to the realization that your wallet has been stolen.
Use this technique of shifting from descriptive prose to the here and now to drive your narrative forward. These two paragraphs—taken together—will create a sense of anticipation about the story and the place we barely know. What we must know early on is that a voyage of discovery awaits, as soon as we turn the page.
4. Use the toolbox of fiction to bring it all to life. “Travel writers actually face the same problem of plausibility that confronts so-called novelists; the actual must be made to appear believable.” Paul Fussell hits the nail on the head with this observation. The arts of fiction—color, rhythm, imagery, narrative tension, dialogue, scenes—all belong to travel essays and books, which are often collections of related essays.
In her masterful, genre-defying book The Emperor’s Last Island , Julia Blackburn deploys a variety of techniques to create a stirring portrait of Napoleon’s remote island exile on St. Helena (1815 to 1821), where howling winds, a damp climate, isolation and astonishing dullness become the strangest “house arrest” of all time. During Blackburn’s time at sea, she observes rainstorms in the distance as she catches “the scent of hot earth” rising off the coast of Africa:
As we watched and the sun began to set, the clouds became saturated with wild luminous colors; purple, yellow, grey and red, boiling in the distance.
Similarly, Rolf Potts’ essays gathered throughout a decade of travels in Asia often startle the reader with a well-placed image, like the “rocky yawn of cool air, clean water, and darkness” that describes his first experience of the Heup cave in Laos. Potts is also adept at dialogue that “places” the action, as in this passage from “My Beirut Hostage Crisis,” which refers to Fijian soldiers stationed in Lebanon as part of the United Nations Interim Force.
After I chatted with the blue-bereted soldiers for a couple of minutes, a loud explosion rang out, and a plume of smoke rose up from a hill on the horizon.
“Israelis?” I asked the Fijians nervously. “No,” Vasco laughed. “Arock quarry.” “How can you tell the difference?”
“Well, the Israelis usually call on the radio before they start shelling us.”
Inspired by Blackburn’s quality of visual reflection and Potts’ gift for mingling down-to-earth dialogue with strong imagery, why not challenge yourself to work the arts of fiction into your prose? Listen for the sound of a tale unfolding by reading your work aloud, to yourself.
5. Don’t intrude in your own essay. Your voice, thoughts, predicaments and discoveries are what will make your reader eager to follow you. But don’t turn your travel essay into a diary. It is your mind, not your personal life and quirky tastes, that serves as the filter for the essay. As one editor once bluntly asked of an essay of mine: “Who cares what she ate for dinner?” Well, I cared. I even thought that my luxurious, herb-encrusted salmon with creamed asparagus served in a clam-shaped “pastry shell” worked beautifully as a contrast to the theme of Irish-famine immigrants arriving in Canada. But in the end, that digression into a gourmet restaurant came off as smug, self-referential and off-point. I had intruded in my own essay. Next time you think you have achieved a final draft, go back and interrogate the relevance of every “I” in your essay.
Travel writing inevitably includes the author’s presence. But when is personal experience irrelevant or intrusive? Here is an early draft of a passage from my essay “Lost in a dream with Gauguin,” which is about elusive quests and the 19th-century Impressionist painter’s pursuit of an untainted Eden.
In the final draft, I’ve related my feelings of anxiety and fear to the larger themes of the essay.
Patti M. Marxsen is an American writer based in Switzerland. She is the author of Island Journeys, Exploring the Legacy of France, Beyond the Village: Essays Out of Switzerland and a short-story collection, Tales From the Heart of Haiti. Her travel essay “Alone in Amsterdam” earned a special mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prizes. Web: pattimarxsen.net.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.
Looking for an agent?
Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.
Meet the essay analysis by our essay writing service.
In the recent literature of tourism, it is widely understood the roles and the responsibilities of managers as well as their contribution and through their understanding of the importance of travel in shaping identity. Most studies of pleasure travel have for a long time explored the attitude towards a place; the general preference developed for visiting the place frequently (Hibbert et al., 2013).
Scholars have since time immemorial identified that attitudes are the only variables used in consumer behavior and in many cases, managers use their understanding of hoe travel shapes identities to predict consumer behavior alignments and patterns (Hibbert et al., 2013). It is argued that tourists use the infused changes to shape their own identities. Understanding the influence of changes, new things and interpersonal relationship that develop between the tourists, the places and people they meet provides a blueprint in discovering the manner in which travel shapes their own identities (White & White, 2004). Therefore, recognition of the significance of travel in shaping identity by managers and markets can serve a great boost in the marketing of tourism destination as well as winning customer’s willingness to visit such places.
According to White & White (2004), travel locations that tourists prefer most are well created through awareness that managers and marketers create effectively from their understanding of travel tastes of their potential clients.
Effective and productive marketing and management in the field of tourism is perceived to be the cornerstone of the success realized in different spheres of product promotions and as well applies in the same manner in the tourism and hospitality sector. Most importantly, marketing and promotion is actually critical for managerial success in the tourism quarter although it is often overlooked (O’Reilly, 2005). As a matter of fact, conventional and effective marketing strategies in this area are driven by the managerial desire to monitor the intentions of tourists and other travelers rather than the employment of persuasion approaches (White & White, 2004). The approaches realistic in tourism marketing are not only associated with conveying the image of a place, but also linked with selling the experience of a place as well as through relating it to the identity of the destination and the lifestyles of the consumers.
Read more Types of essays articles:
The argument of the essay is “recognition of the significance of travel in shaping identity by managers and markets can serve a great boost in the marketing of tourism destination as well as winning customer’s willingness to visit such places.” In other words, managers and marketers must use data on tourist behavior and preferences to increase business. The essay is divided into several paragraphs. Each paragraph repeats the idea managers must understand the correlation between travel and changing identities. The final point is marketers not only use persuasion tactics to attract tourists. They also “monitor the intentions of tourists”
The title of the essay requires the writer to explore the relationship between travel and identity. Moreover, the essay should show why these links are important to tourism managers and marketers. Areas to investigate include:
How can the people, culture, and social norms of a travel destination affect tourists? -- what can they learn, and how can their attitudes and personalities be affected by foreign cultures?
How can managers use this knowledge to promote a destination and attract more business? What are relevant examples of how they can achieve their goals?
The first paragraph acts as the introduction and contains mostly background information on the link between travel and identity development. There is no thesis statement to indicate the points of focus.
Body paragraph 1
The first paragraph provides more background on scholars’ research into travel and identity. It ends with the statement “Therefore, recognition of the significance of travel in shaping identity by managers and markets can serve a great boost in the marketing of tourism destination as well as winning customer’s willingness to visit such places.”
Argument - The argument is marketers use an understanding of how travel affects identities to win customers. This is, in fact, an appropriate thesis statement for this essay. The paragraph should rather explore which parts of travel can affect tourist preferences. What is the impact of culture, politics, religion, and social acceptance on tourists?
Reasoning - The writer shows no solid reasoning because he or she mostly repeats the same concept multiple times.
Body paragraph 2
The short paragraph states destinations become popular because managers understand traveler tastes and use this data to create awareness of places.
Argument - This is a valid essay topic to investigate. The writer needs to give solid examples of how managers do this -- how do they learn tourist preferences, and how do they incorporate this into marketing strategies?
Reasoning - Since the writer does not expand on the topic of this paragraph, and it is only one sentence, no clear reasoning is apparent.
The writer concludes by paraphrasing the key point of the essay -- an important characteristic of academic essays. However, the essay lacked strong support and topic sentences, so the conclusion only restates the main idea.
The essay suffers from a lack of structure - The introduction and body paragraphs are vague, and they aren’t distinct enough. The writer must pay attention to editing academic essay format:
Introduction with a clear thesis statement
Body paragraphs with distinct topic sentences to support the thesis statement
A conclusion with the main points restated
For a stronger argument, the writer must include relevant examples, details, facts, and statistics. Without this vital supporting information, the writer merely repeats the same idea throughout the essay and renders most of the content redundant.