Is there really any point to the genre in the age of the internet, when you can instantly gather reliable knowledge about anywhere in the globe at the click of a mouse? Why bother with someone else’s subjective opinions, when hard information about the world is now so easily available? Why read a travel book when you can just go on Google Earth and look for yourself?
Reflecting on the deaths of a number of the great travel writers of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Norman Lewis, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Wilfred Thesiger and Eric Newby, William Dalrymple wonders whether the revival of travel writing that started in the last quarter of the twentieth century is fading.
There are few blanks left on maps. Increasing numbers of us travel to countries and remote places that fifty years ago would have been unthinkable. Travel and tourism have become an increasingly two way street with more visitors from the east travelling west.
That the era of travel is over is not a new idea. In 1964, Jan Morris noted that “the frontiers..are distinctly fading” and that “there is little in contemporary travel that is altogether unfamiliar; partly because television has taken us everywhere already.”
Is there then a point to travel writing when we have so much information about foreign places and cultures at our fingertips and when we are as likely to encounter the ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ at home as abroad?
Rather than “grumble about sameness, Americanisation and the impossibility of getting away from the tourists”, Jan Morris approached the question with her customary optimism, seeing the opening of travel as clearing the way for a “merrier kind of melange…the much happier hodgepodge of individual variety.”
Quoting Jonathan Raban, Dalrymple echoes this and sees globalisation as a veneer: “Old travellers grumpily complain that travel is now dead and that the world is a suburb. They are quite wrong. Lulled by familiar resemblances between all the unimportant things, they meet the brute differences in everything of importance.”
In this context, travel writers reporting on foreign places no longer seems seems sufficient. What can travel writing offer if it cannot adapt to an increasingly complex and globalised world?
Dalrymple urges that travel writing can and must adapt and that it still has a major role to play.
In order to explore the diversity of the world, rather than being about places, modern travel writing must focus on the people (“keep the narrator in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories centre stage”).
Morris made a similar point in her 1964 Spectator piece. With the world so open and mixed, “the interest of travel lies in the particular rather than the general, in what you do rather than where you are.”
Dalrymple argues that, as a genre which absorbs elements of other literary forms, travel books allow writers to explore other cultures in depth and to understand them in a way impossible in other literary or journalistic forms, despite the mass of information available through the internet.
Eloquent and motivating, Dalrymple therefore concludes: “there is still no substitute for a good piece of travel writing”.