When the pandemic hit last spring, Atlas Obscura had just received a $ 20 million investment from a group of investors led by Airbnb. Atlas Obscura, at the time, was focused on building the ‘experience’ side of his business – tours and classes – which he expected to incorporate into the giant home rental platform. (The New York Times is also an investor in Atlas Obscura.) But Airbnb backed off the initiative as it scrambled to weather the crisis. And like the rest of the travel media, Atlas Obscura has spent a year primarily fulfilling the fantasies of homebound travelers. This has led, according to the company, to seeing traffic and ad revenue, as well as new activity in online courses.
Now the travel media and the travel industry are gearing up – and hoping for – a surge in tourism. While not many travel media have set out to re-release their product like Atlas Obscura, they are also trying to adjust to a changed political situation, seeking to find non-white writers who live in the places they write about, or have more diverse American writers telling the stories of destinations. Jacqueline Gifford, editor-in-chief of Travel and Leisure, said the travel media try to ask themselves, “Who can tell travel stories, why they tell them and how can we be more representative of this country?” of the world we live in today?
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But there are also inherent limits to how you can revolutionize travel writing, said Rafat Ali, the founder of travel business site Skift.
“It will always be foreigners who will be looking,” he said.
The challenge for editors and writers of all media is how to make journalism inclusive, compelling and provocative, rather than just an exercise in corporate media verification. (A leading newspaper editor described this genre to me last week as “conscientious DCI,” referring to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.)
It shouldn’t be that hard. Complicated and surprising stories are often the best, as illustrated in the superb issue “Reckoning With a Reckoning” which Adrienne Green, editor-in-chief of New York magazine, produced last week. He sought, as magazine editor David Haskell wrote in an email, “to clarify the issues and also to complicate them, to tell moral stories but to avoid easy manners.”
Atlas Obscura, who also publishes magazine articles like the disturbing story of how the remains of a black woman were exhibited in a Philadelphia museum and the queer secret story of Colonial Williamsburg, is another good example of how an editor can live the moment by digging deeper into an investigation into, in particular, the violence that Americans often choose to forget.
Indeed, Mr. Patel told me that he was not sure that “decolonize” was the right word for the project. “Decolonization suggests elimination, and that’s not what we are doing,” he said Wednesday morning as we began our tour of New York’s quirky sites on the edge of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. “Adding that kind of perspective to travel and travel writing makes it less boring.”