I am standing stark naked in a lush Balinese ricefield. Warm water from a sacred hot spring is spilling over my shoulders and dripping down my sunbaked back. After the sacred waters complete their healing work, a deferential driver in a crisp uniform will whisk me back to my private villa in one of the most luxurious resorts in the world, where a trained masseuse is waiting to knead my travel-weary muscles, scour my skin with exotic grains, slather me all over with yogurt, and lead me to a warm, deep bath scented with fresh frangipangi blossoms. Later, I’ll enjoy a gourmet dinner and carefully selected wines at the hotel’s world-renowned restaurant, while gently insistent gamelan music tinkles in the background. Finally, after a refreshing dip in my villa’s private plunge pool, I’ll draw the billowing mosquito netting around my wide bed and dream of another day in paradise. And it’s not going to cost me one thin dime.
Like so many other good girls gone bad, I could try to excuse myself by arguing that everybody does it. Unbeknownst to readers, an astonishing number of travel articles are based on press junkets and complimentary travel and lodgings; although a few magazines and newspapers refuse all free travel, some of their reporters have been known to wheedle free upgrades and price reductions that might not be offered to their readers.
But, at the risk of self-justification, I’m not sure press trips are quite the crooked little racket that some journalism critics would have you believe. Obviously, an investigative reporter who regularly skimmed a cool $10,000 in goods and services from her sources would lose all her credibility – and her job. But in the world of travel journalism, the lines aren’t so clearly drawn. Almost all travel stories tend to wax lyrical about the awesome views, crisp bedlinens and piquant cuisine, no matter who’s footing the bill. Travel writers know they’re generally expected to accentuate the positive. The real ethical problems in travel junkets are murkier than they seem, because it’s never quite clear who’s giving what to whom, how much it really costs, and precisely what quid they’re expecting for their quo.
I Used to be a Nice Girl Too
Back in my spotless girlhood, I would never have considered accepting an all-expense-paid press trip. Although I’ve been a part-time travel writer for nearly 15 years, most of my work was published in a magazine that forbids its writers to accept any freebies from airlines, hotels, restaurants, or tourism boards. So I adopted a tone of haughty disdain when publicists offered to whisk me off to Scandinavia for midsummernight or tour me through romantic castles on the west coast of Ireland. “I’m not that kind of girl,” I insisted primly. And if occasionally other publications sent me off on trips that had a whiff of junket about them, I simply didn’t inquire too closely. The financial arrangements were my editor’s problem; I was just there to get the facts, write my story, and serve the public weal.
Then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. In my own defense, let me say that I was in an extremely vulnerable state. A broken heart had left me wandering under a cloud so dense I could use it for sunscreen. Nothing seemed to lighten my mood – until I came home and found a message from an editor at a new women’s magazine: “Would you like to go to Bali?”
I knew I should say no, but I could feel my principles melting. The closest I’d ever been to the tropics was the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disney World. So after about 22 seconds of intense internal debate, I picked up the phone and traded away all my journalistic integrity for a free trip to the Island of the Gods.
The trip was organized by a Los Angeles-based public relations firm, employed by a deluxe hotel chain to introduce the traveling public to its fancy new properties. Certainly, the hotel could accomplish that goal with a massive advertising blitz. However, that’s a pricey option; a single full-page ad in Cond Nast Traveler magazine reportedly costs a whopping $50,000. And an ad lacks the credibility of a seasoned travel writer swooning over a resort’s breathtaking setting and lavish amenities. So a hotel definitely gets its money’s worth when it lays out a mere $100 in actual cash per person per day to show a band of dusty scribes a good time.
When our group – seven women writers and our publicist/escort – arrived at the airport, we quickly learned that some travel whores are more equal than others. Two of the women were junior-level editors at major women’s magazines, which often dole out these excursions as no-cost perks to the small fry (who may not even be asked to write about their trips). However, the publicist’s clients don’t know that, so they’re delighted to meet representatives from such prestigious media outlets. Our publicist was so desperate to snare staffers from the big New York magazines that she paid for their flights from New York to Los Angeles. The rest of us, mostly freelance writers from lowlier magazines, had to wheedle airfare from our editors or pay for the first leg of the trip ourselves.
Once we were settled into the double-wide seats of business class, our wrangler doled out our thick itineraries. The heading read, “Schedule for FAM trip to Bali.” “What does FAM mean?” I asked the woman seated beside me. She laughed knowingly at my innocence; I felt like Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby. “FAM stands for familiarization tour, of course,” she explained. Later, I learned that most FAM trips are big (sometimes huge) group trips that haul journalists by bus or van around a destination’s best-known, best-loved sites; it’s basically the travel writer’s version of an NFL highlights video. (Other junkets are more personalized; depending on the publication and the destination, a writer can sometimes arrange a complimentary private tour.)
When we finally arrived on the island, it was as if I had walked out of the black-and-white sketch of my everyday life and landed in the Crayola Big Box. The resort itself was stunning (and I’m not just saying that because they let me stay there for free. Really.) My secluded villa, which rents out for about $500 a night, was so outrageously romantic that, back home, it would veer dangerously toward kitsch. From my airy bedroom, a glass-paned door led to an outdoor shower, enclosed by mossy walls, where water drizzled out from a wooden pipe under the watch of a carved stone idol. It was so incredibly sensual that, paradoxically, it completely suppressed any sexual fantasy. I couldn’t imagine a man worthy of the setting; if only P.J. O’Rourke were a Democrat, or Al Gore could dance .
Each of us had been scheduled to receive a few spa treatments – various exotically named massages and facials. All the treatments, which normally cost up to $80, were completely complimentary. Even when I tried to pay for something – a much-needed haircut, performed in the privacy of my walled villa while I gazed out onto the bay – I couldn’t get anyone to give me a bill. All I got were puzzled looks and a Balinese phrase that roughly translated into, “Your money’s no good here, cowgirl.”
The freebies just kept on coming. Every evening, I returned to my room to find a beautifully wrapped gift lying on my bed, left by some Indonesian hotel version of the tooth fairy. One night, I unwrapped a beautiful batik sarong. On another night, I found a handwrought sterling silver key ring. (All the gifts, of course, were accompanied by press releases about their makers.) Even though I was already accepting thousands of dollars (at retail prices) worth of free transportation, lodging, and food, I felt profoundly uneasy about receiving these expensive little baubles. I could persuade myself that the room and food were really being provided to my magazine, and ultimately, to our readers. But I couldn’t quite figure out where the magazine would wear a hand-painted silk scarf.
Show Me the Elephants, Dammit
Sure, everyone in our group went home and wrote relentlessly glowing pieces about the resort. So has every other journalist who’s been there, both those on junkets and those whose employers were footing the bills. In paradise, what’s not to like? To me, the greatest hazard of the press junket isn’t the implicit quid pro quo. It’s the controlled and sanitized travel experience it presents to the writers, with everything as perfectly planned and tidily gift-wrapped as those nightly presents left on our pillows. During our trip, we didn’t just get first-class accommodations; we got the complete visiting rock star experience. When we went out for our pre-planned whitewater rafting expedition down the Ayung river, the resort’s executive chef came along to keep us company.
Unlike some hyperactive travel publicists, our hotel hosts were too sophisticated to try to corral us all into staying on the preordained trip schedule. Instead, if we wished to venture out on our own, they assigned us hotel drivers in hotel vehicles to buffer us from any potentially unpleasant contact with the real world. In our serene boudoirs, there was no indication of the country’s political unrest, religious strife or economic turmoil. It was all perfect, in a way that real travel never is, and never should be.
I saw first-hand how easily these junkets can skew writers’ visions, turning them into passive, blas trip consumers who come to resent the inevitable miscues and unexpected adventures of real-life travel. One afternoon, we had the option of heading out into the back country for an elephant ride. I jumped at the chance, and piled into the hotel’s waiting Toyota Land Cruiser with our publicist and another woman, a seasoned FAM tripper. As we drove further into the rural areas, we seemed to be moving through a Gauguin painting; deep green hills, purplish mountains, and half-naked young girls bathing unself-consciously in the pools along the roadside.
When we reached the elephant plantation, slightly behind schedule, our publicist marched up to the thatch-roofed ticket counter and demanded our elephants, ASAP. The soft-spoken woman at the desk raised her hands helplessly and explained that she had run out of elephants. Our incensed tour guide waved her reservation sheet in the desk clerk’s face. She warned that she was a very important American businesswoman. She thundered that she represented a highly influential hotel chain. She shouted that she was a close personal friend of Dumbo himself. In short, she threw a full-scale New York fit. No elephants resulted. So she skulked around the plantation for a few minutes and then returned to our plush chauffeured Land Cruiser for the journey back through the Garden of Eden. “What a waste,” the other writer grumbled, turning away from the view. “I can’t believe we missed the shopping trip for this.”
The Brother-in-Law Upgrade
It’s still hard for me to admit that, after years of never letting my sources buy me lunch, I accepted the monetary equivalent of a good used car. And it’s no sop to my conscience that my hosts showered me with luxury in vain. (Sadly, my beloved magazine went out of business before my story ran.)
But, after my brief turn as a junketeer, I don’t think the problem is so simple as writers trading falsely fawning stories for the price of an upgrade to concierge level. While it’s true that the writers of most junket-based pieces generally sing the praises of their hosts’ accommodations, let’s face it: Travel publications celebrate travel, especially in its pricier permutations. A travel magazine that advises its readers to just stay home isn’t likely to win subscribers – or advertisers.
In some ways, you may be more likely to get the straight scoop from a writer who doesn’t have to justify her expense account to her boss when she gets home. One woman in our group told of joining a press trip to a new Florida spa. When she returned, she told her editors it wasn’t worth a story. They agreed – a decision that might have been swayed if the magazine had just plunked down $2,500 in travel expenses.
Anyway, it’s nearly impossible for a publication to keep its travel ethics completely pristine. A number of magazines don’t allow free trips, but they do accept special “editorial rates” that can amount to the price of a continental breakfast. And while a few publications do insist on paying full fare, it’s difficult to stay out of vexed ethical territory. Consider, for example, the issue of upgrades. Like most frequent travelers, when I’m on the road, I always check for any special low rates and inquire about the possibility of a free upgrade (and I’m not above mentioning the name of my brother-in-law, the airline exec). If a travel writer does the same thing, is that a normal guest request, or a blatant bid for special treatment?
Personally, I don’t mind reading magazine stories that bear some of the tell-tale signs of junket travel (such as a reference to “our gracious host, the hotel manager,” or a paragraph beginning, “As our United Airlines 747 raced with the sun towards the rosy western sky”) – at least not if the article describes a mid-price destination I can afford and might enjoy. That beats some of those lofty newspaper travel sections that refuse all freebies but won’t pay the travel expenses of contributing freelance writers. So we end up being treated to tales of impecunious post-grads backpacking from hostel to hostel, or the effusive travel journals of suburban orthodontists’ wives.
Yet, even though I can’t rev up much moral outrage over the press junket phenomenon, I don’t think I’ll be taking any more FAM trips any time soon. I can’t shake the queasy feeling that my generous hotel hosts might believe they’re buying my honor for the price of an otherwise empty villa and a few highly garnished plates of sea bass. I also think we owe our readers the unfeigned enthusiasm for new experiences and exotic locales that we, like them, can achieve only when we get out on the road and fend for ourselves. And, squeamishly, I think we owe them a line somewhere in the piece that explains precisely who was paying for the elephant ride – a line my editors swiftly deleted when I turned in my own Bali memoir.