Yesterday the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) reminded me just how different travel writing was from that I’ve practiced during my career. They meant nothing personal, of course, but after reading their Oct. 26 press release on its big 2016 “Mahalo Month” promotion for travel professionals and writers, I couldn’t help but sigh.
“Mahalo Month is an annual industry-wide opportunity that allows us to attract travel trade professionals and media from around the world to our Hawaiian Islands during the traditionally slower spring shoulder season,” states the Oct. 26 HTA press release. “Through special industry rates and offers, we are able to target industry partners and provide first-hand experiences of Hawaii’s people, place and culture that help to better sell our destination to potential visitors.”
That’s right–the spring slow season is coming, and the HTA wants Hawaii’s resorts, airlines, restaurants and activities to hand over a bunch of good deals and offers that the HTA would, in turn, give to writers as incentives for them to fly here and write nice things about said resorts, airlines, restaurants and activities. “We are requesting special offers from airline, hotel, activity, attraction, retail, restaurant, ground transportation and tour operators,” states the HTA press release. “In 2015, more than 100 special offers were included in this program.”
They’re decent deals, too. “Island Air is offering a special 20 percent off fare for flights booked during the month of April to hospitality and service industry professionals as part of the airline’s participation in the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Mahalo Month,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported on April 8 of this year.
Of course, giving “special industry rates and offers” to members of the media is controversial. In fact, many journalistic organizations consider it outright unethical for the media to accept any special treatment that isn’t available to the general public.
“Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility,” states the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.
The writer Bryant Urstadt put it brilliantly in his longform 1999 essay “Dipping Extremely Low in the Lap of Corporate Luxury” for The Baffler, which details a Volvo-sponsored junket he attended with a crew of auto and travel writers:
It’s not hard to figure out why publications like these forbid their writers to go on press trips: How seriously would you take my opinion on the Volvo XC All-Wheel-Drive wagon if you knew that last summer I had been flown out to Alaska, served salmon on top of a glacier reached by cable car, given a fishing rod, shooting lessons, and an all-weather reversible jacket with detachable liner, among other things? If you were feeling principled, you might think it didn’t matter what I said about that car, or about anything else.
Granted, the junket Urstadt describes in his essay includes a lot more freebies than discounted airfare and hotel rooms, but the principle is the same. But at the same time, organizations like the HTA also understand that for many writers around the world, the SPJ code is just words. Travel is expensive, and payment for writing is a mere fraction of what it was even a decade ago.
The truth is, industry organizations like the HTA give out freebies and special offers to travel writers and bloggers because huge numbers of them accept them with open arms. Tell a room full of writers that you have a few discounted rooms, free meals and swag bags, and you’ll have to beat them off with a club.
It was that realization–not the HTA’s request for special offers–that made me sigh.
1950 Dole map of Hawaii by Joseph Feher: Geographicus/Wikimedia Commons