Pity the poor “travel expert.” Just about everyone wants to be one—or at least drink cocktails on a beach for a living (and do let me know if you find that job description out there). Yet which “title” gets air-quoted more often?
This probably happens because, unlike a field like neuroparasitology, a lot of people travel a lot. (In 2013, a billion international trips were taken.) And more travelers are going DIY, opting to—as the buzzy phrase goes—“travel like a local.” This usually means skipping expert advice and typical attractions, and following recommendations found on crowdsourced review sites.
The results of going that route are often great. But the trend begs some questions. Do travel experts have a future? Are they even necessary anymore?
Can I say, Yes?
This might come off a bit self-serving—after all, my career revolves around giving travel advice—but I’m saying it just the same: Without travel expertise shared in some form (be it a guidebook, a string of tweets, or handwritten notes), I can see it taking a toll on tourism, creating a world in which fewer false perceptions are put to the test and, ultimately, creating a bottleneck at popular spots. Naturally, great trips can still happen in this world, but within a somewhat diminished context.
The notion of and need for travel expertise has centuries of precedent.
Read through the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus, an illuminated French guidebook on Spain’s still-epic Camino de Santiago, and you’ll find the basic elements of a modern travel story: There’s practical advice (Navarre “has plenty of bread, wine, milk and cattle”); inspiration (on the Cize pass “you’ll feel you could push the sky with your hand”); and even warnings (Burgos is “lacking in firewood and the people are evil and vicious.” Ouch.).
Times have obviously changed, even in Burgos. One of the biggest game changers in travel is the rise of user-generated content (UGC), with sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp revolutionizing how people plan trips.
I use these sites all the time. They can be helpful when you’re looking for a nearby café, or already know where you’re going.
They’re less helpful, I find, when you’re trying to suss out which city or country or region to visit in the first place—or how to find out what’s supposedly “real” or “authentic” there. This is partly because popularity—as these sites tend to order things—isn’t always the most rewarding signpost by which to travel.
Take Bulgaria, for example. Half of TripAdvisor’s top 20 destinations in the country, all ranked by popularity, are resort destinations offering cheap package tours. No. 3, for example, is Sunny Beach, which is an overdeveloped strip of cheap condos that the Guardian mockedthat the Guardian mockedthat the Guardian mocked for its “ever-deepening layer of teenage vomit.”
I spent five months researching articles and guidebooks on Bulgaria. I drove over the Shipka Pass in a ’72 Moskvitch, walked isolated Black Sea beaches alone, stayed with a family who slaughtered a goat on my behalf, and had Dunkin’ Donuts with an ousted prime minister. These experiences, if I may say so, beat out anything in their top 10.
Instead of going to the relatively well-trodden capital city of Sofia, consider the low-key (and former capital of Bulgaria) Veliko Târnovo—and its day-trips to waterfall swimming holes, wood-cutter villages, and ancient Roman roads. Or Tolkienesque Belogradchik Fortress, which wraps around giant pinnacle rocks so lifelike they’re named for people.
Some people think travel experts merely get paid to travel. When they’re at their most useful, they don’t; they get paid to work, and travel is a big part of that. Unlike most travelers, they don’t tend to go to one place and write about it; they go to 37 and write about three or four of them.
Expert advice is as much defined by what’s included as it is by what isn’t—i.e., the stuff on the editorial cutting floor you’ll never see. Perspective and context are the chief offerings, with experts providing road-tested shortcuts others can follow in pursuit of great travel experiences.
But what about locals?
I love locals. Meeting them is frequently the highlight of a trip. Travel writers have long leaned on locals for practical advice, “secrets,” and hole-in-the-wall noodle stands. But never exclusively. It’s the outside perspective—the curation, you could say—that makes what a travel writer gleans useful to fellow travelers.
In the end, it’s ultimately better to “travel in the company of locals” than like one. An added, and perhaps unintended, benefit? I find again and again that being exposed to an outside perspective allows locals themselves to see their hometowns with new eyes.