What happens when travel journalists don't toe the PR line?

On a recent press trip to the Maldives our group - three journos and one PR - was treated to an evening in the 'Wine Tower' of a five-star resort.

Trouble in paradise? Tom Chesshyre investigates
Trouble in paradise? Tom Chesshyre investigates
Fine wines with "hints of asparagus" were delivered one after the other – and, to keep warm in the chilly a/c, we were provided with fleeces and hot-water bottles, placed beneath our feet.

It was typical press trip stuff, and we had a very jolly time. 

During research for my book I saw two sides of this famous honeymoon destination. 

My 'Wine Tower' days were an excursion, while the mainstay of my trip was spent travelling around the outskirts of the watery "holiday dream" nation, paying my own way.

Until 2009 foreigners were banned from staying at ‘inhabited’ islands within the 1,200 that make up the Indian Ocean archipelago, for fear that Westerners might sully Islamic ways of life. 

I journeyed by ferries and cargo ships around the edges of the 100-odd tourist resorts, discovering a parallel existence to the luxury world usually depicted in the press.

Here was a country with many issues: a rise in Islamic fundamentalism, human trafficking, dodgy politics (a democratically elected leader ousted), human rights abuses and corruption. 

Then there was the small matter that much of the nation may soon be uninhabitable due to the rising sea.

Travel journalism is – quite rightly – full of handy consumer tips: advice on how best to spend hard-earned cash. 

But it's a great pity that, so often, the bigger picture is missed out. 

Yes "troublesome matters" are occasionally touched upon, yet this is usually fleeting. 

Censorship in China, exploited workers in Dubai, tricky politics in Africa... they rarely get a look in.

There seems to be an unspoken dividing line between 'travel writing' and 'foreign news'. 

In the latter, foreign correspondents tackle the less savoury sides, but it doesn't happen often in many travel sections, although it's not unheard of.
The travel PR industry is quick to complain if a journalist crosses this line. Certain writers sometimes take on stickier issues. 

If they do, the phone is more than likely to ring with accusations that the journalist went with an agenda. 

He or she will be marked out, and not just by that PR; word will get out at networking events.

Travel journalism acts against this background. 

And with so many PRs pitted against many fewer travel journalists – a decline brought about by reduced budgets caused by falling advertising – the PR machine is stronger than ever. 

Many travel hacks I know have switched to work as teachers, councillors or (in one instance) landscape gardening.

The book is about the Maldives, but it also reflects the sadly increasingly delicate (and difficult) PR/travel journalist balance.

Tom Chesshyre is the author of Gatecrashing Paradise: Misadventures in the Real Maldives and a travel writer for The Times.

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