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Obligations of a Travel Writer

5terreThe last time I was in the Cinque Terre, that divine collection of five tiny fishing villages clinging to the Ligurian cliffs, I overheard an American tour leader speaking with the owner of the Internet cafe I was in. She was with the Rick Steves group I had bumped into earlier in the day, and was reporting to the bar owner how sometimes Rick actually feels badly that he publicized the Cinque Terre so much. These little villages, which may at one time have been accurately described as “sleepy,” are now busy and overflowing with tourists (mainly Americans and Germans) almost year-round. The huge influx of tourists might have been inevitable, but it was likely encouraged by guidebook writers like Steves (and others – he’s certainly not the only one to have waxed poetic about the Cinque Terre).

Now, while I can absolutely see both sides of the argument – the “too many people have ruined the Cinque Terre” side and the “tourists bring money which raises everyone’s standard of living so you’d better not pull the rug out from under us now” side – I don’t think we’re even close to the point where all the unspoiled places on earth, let alone in Italy, are on the verge of discovery. There are still plenty of places in Italy which only the locals know about, and which tourists discover by accident if at all. Wandering Italy even notes that not far from Cinque Terre there are still places where there aren’t many tourists. Of course, he also asks Rick Steves to keep pointing people toward the already-inundated villages so those nearby places remain largely locals-only.

So all this has me thinking… What kind of obligation does a travel writer have to the places he/she writes about? Is a travel writer beholden only to his/her readers, or also to the people who live in the places the readers are being told about? Is it a travel writer’s duty to take the tourist infrastructure (or lack thereof) into account before recommending that people visit? Should some “best kept secrets” actually stay secret? Or is a good thing made better when it’s shared?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, which is why I’m asking them, I guess. Since I’ve visited the Cinque Terre twice, partly because of Steves’ books, I might be too close to the issue to even be unbiased about it. If you’ve got opinions on the subject, I’d love to hear them.