Should Travel Reviewers Be Anonymous?

male eating in restaurant
Alamy

Yesterday New York Times reporter Pete Wells published a review of the Manhattan French restaurant Daniel, removing one of its four stars in part because of the unequal treatment he received as a recognized journalist. He and a lesser-known colleague ordered the same meal, but had totally different experiences, with Wells receiving additional items, extra wine pours, and more doting service. While the other reporter still felt well taken care of, Wells wondered if “regular” guests could benefit as much from a little coddling as the critics.

Slate’s “Brow Beat” culture blog compared Wells’ experience to former Times critic Ruth Reichl, who once visited Le Cirque both as her famous self and in disguise. She surmised that the “favored patron” treatment was actually part of the draw of the restaurant: the hope that one could be given the VIP service. The blog suggests reviewers dispense with the pretense of being anonymous reviewers and go public, perhaps balancing reviews with intel from the non-famous.In the travel media world, the problem of anonymity and freebies has long been an ethical debate. “Conde Nast Traveler” magazine adheres to a “truth in travel” policy, stipulating that its writers never accept freebies and travel unannounced to try to ensure honest and equal opinions. Some guidebooks such as Fodor’s allow some comps for reviewers, but insist they will not guarantee a good review or even inclusion in a guide. Writer Chuck Thompson exposed some of the industry secrets in his book “Smile While You’re Lying,” noting that much mainstream travel writing is just PR copy, and how many reviews are simply tit for tat.

In the age of tweeting, checking in, and Instagramming our meals and trips, is anonymity even possible? More importantly, do we care? While a famous reviewer might have a richer experience than your average Joe, he can also get deeper access and a wider variety of offerings, combined with a professional’s expertise. Do you want to read a hotel review from a guy on his first trip to London, or someone who has stayed in dozens? Perhaps user-generated content such as Trip Advisor and Yelp can balance the VIP reviews, and give us a broader spectrum.

Do you care about anonymous reviews? Can freebies stay free from bias?

It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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Extra seat charges: big bias or svelte snobbery?

As airlines are scrambling for any shred of extra revenue they can find, some policies are getting more attention than others. The so-called “fat passenger policies,” which govern the accommodation of passengers who require more than one seat, have attracted the ire of the NAAFA. Never heard of it? It’s a new one on me, too: the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. On the other hand, passengers who pay for one seat and use only one seat wonder why the hell larger passengers should consume two of the airlines’ fundamental units for sale (i.e., the use of a seat on a plane) for the price of one.

Here’s the perspective that’s been lacking: revenue per available seat mile (RASM). Check “Making Sense of the Airline Industry” for a deeper look at how this measure works. Then, come back here and think about what it means for the sale of seats on planes. Cash-strapped airlines are forced to give up revenue.

United Airlines seems to have found a way to balance both sides of this argument. If there is an extra seat available on a flight, a passenger who can’t fit into one seat will be given the extra at no charge. On full flights, larger passengers can wait for a later one that has space and can occupy two seats at no extra charge.

Southwest, Alaska Airlines and Continental have policies, as well. Though the specifics vary, the armrest is pretty much the decision maker. If you can’t put it down, you can’t occupy only one seat. Southwest and Alaska Airlines require the purchase of an extra seat but will refund that part of the fare if the flight is not full. Continental, on the other hand, won’t refund the difference. In fact, the airline requires the purchase of an additional seat on each segment flown at a “hefty day-of-travel rate [read the original article, “hefty” was not my word, though I applaud the writer for being gutsy].”

JetBlue has no formal policy and claims that its larger seat size is already a step in the right direction. Delta and Northwest say that they’ll do what they can to accommodate larger passengers, but a purchase may be necessary. Virgin America asks that the big folks buy two, with one refunded if there’s an empty on the flight.

You can get my thoughts after the jump.At the end of the day, there is only one point that matters. Airlines are businesses run in the interests of their shareholders. Since most of these businesses are struggling, they need to do what they can to maximize revenue. If that means charging for two seats for passengers who can’t fit in one, so be it. If an airline feels that that’s a public relations nightmare and would rather accept the degradation RASM … it’s up to them.

It’s a numbers game – and not the numbers on the scale.

I’ve always been a believer in “pay to play.” You want a seat? Cough up. You want two? Cough up twice as much. “Buffet-style” air travel – in which you pay once and take as much as you want – simply doesn’t work.

And, I respect airlines for addressing the rights of all passengers. Everyone has a “sitting next to a fat guy” story. Yes, some are really just infantile bitching because planes are generally cramped. But, some are legitimate. A larger passenger who wants to save a few extra dollars and can’t put the armrest down is having his ticket subsidized by mine. That has an effective financial impact on me, and it’s unacceptable.

It’s not an issue of weight. However you look at it, the concern is financial. Take the word “fat” out of the equation, and it’s much easier to solve.