Africa is one of the most important stories in business, politics, and tourism. But you wouldn’t know it when reading most of the way the travel media covers the continent. Instead of nuance, you’re getting the same formulaic, cookie-cutter types of stories pegged to the same news hooks, written by the same voices, month in and month out. There’s a closed aperture that needs to change.
As Africa grows as a recurring, dynamic destination, and not just somewhere people visit once in their lives for a splurge safari on their honeymoon, there’s a need for the travel journalism ecosystem to be smarter. Travel is the first window into the nuances of the global economy, and an important proxy into all aspects of business. So there’s an opportunity for everyone to evolve their coverage, especially publications that command a disproportionate share of eyeballs.
Some problems and opportunities:
An Emphasis on Glitz, Without Underlying Substance
If you pick up most glossy travel magazines, you’ll find that a majority of news pegs in terms of Africa coverage are tied to new lodge openings, replete with glossy photos and breathless coverage. This continues to play into the idea that travelers are going to Africa once in a lifetime and need to find the most opulent way to spend their days on the continent.
It’s an odd, colonial vibe that conjures up affluent travelers in safari suits (or the modern version, a spending spree at REI.) This is a recurring theme and misses some of the broader stories, as well as the deepening relationship between conservation and some of these developments beyond just the obligatory sentence or two from the press tear sheet. What’s more, there is nothing wrong with luxury and exceptionally crafted experiences, but they aren’t the only game in town. Who are the new upstarts creating experiences for a wider swath of travelers and who will help build a larger base for African tourism? These stories need to be told as the entrepreneurs who create these experiences continue to grow.
The Mix of Politics and Tourism
The two subjects are intertwined, and stories that tell the broader story about the evolution of a destination, while also understanding the policy decisions and approach that got to that evolved state are important. Instead of writing about gorillas in Rwanda, what are the steps that the government got right on every level to attract more tourists, and how are they are preserving these types of experiences as crowds and demand grow? Moving beyond just binary travel reportage into something that shows how the entire tapestry comes together is needed.
Because of proximity, a lot of U.S., Europe, and Asia-based travel journalists are not putting boots on the ground with enough frequency. And if they do, due to slashed publication travel budgets, the stories in the wrong hands can be compromised by being on the PR dole, with fawning coverage expected as a result of being afforded access.
There’s also a lot of Africa-based reporters whose voices need to be heard, who bring a lifetime of nuance and depth to writing and coverage. Writing about the creative surges in new pockets of Johannesburg is going to read differently from a journalist that grew up there and has witnessed cycles of history, as opposed to someone who had three days on the ground, and a hot “Styles” story to file based on a few cursory interviews. In addition, there’s a lack of subject matter expertise at some publications. For example, an unnamed, large-scale consumer travel magazine has an Africa editor that hasn’t set foot in Africa. True story.
The Sickness of the (Travel) Media Industry at Large
People are incentivized to run splashy slideshows and sensational headlines to generate page view clicks in lieu of thoughtful pieces. This is a problem in every area of media but is also quite acute in terms of how Africa is covered on the web. There’s no easy solution for this other than for readers to vote with their attention and reward thoughtful outlets. Also, if a publication covers Tanzania in one issue, many writers are told they can’t cover a Kenya story the next month despite being two separate countries.
Diversity of Voices
There needs to be a wider range of voices covering Africa. There’s an entitled class of doyennes and khaki-clad old Africa hands and that has held the white-knuckled monopoly on lots of coverage and are slightly boring and predictable as a result. They are often only writing for a class of the affluent that is detached from the entire picture. In addition, these writers are so deep in the cozy and insular confines of the industry, that they are caught in their own bubble to the detriment of the readership. One well-known doyenne requests a helicopter transfer with her coverage, a rock star demand that illustrates the oversized ego involved. African writing, for every publication, needs to be more diverse in terms of voices and backgrounds, and will be more exciting and readable as a result. And it will serve the growing economies in a more beneficial way.
Talking About the Nuances of Conservation
Conservation is evolving quickly and some of the old approaches are gone. The rise of smart, public-private partnerships have been able to fill in the capital where governments can’t. While the world might look at a place like Zimbabwe and see political turmoil and currency concerns, when you look at a project like the Malilangawe trust, a Zimbabwean, non-profit organization focused on biodiversity conservation, community and commercial tourism, that has the success that any country regardless of GDP would be proud of in terms of animals and land protected. There’s a lifetime of nuance and execution in terms of approach to animal conservation, as well as the economic and community development initiatives, even the thought that goes into training anti-poaching teams. It is a rich story that often is relegated to a few notes about saving Rhinos, but there are countless examples in many countries begging for further examination and broader, thoughtful coverage.