Travel Journalism in the Age of Lockdowns

What do you do when a magazine’s reason to exist disappears overnight?

It was still possible to dream of travel at the beginning of the pandemic when it seemed like it might be over in a few months. But as lockdowns dragged on and those bright futures seemed increasingly distant, travel junkies lost even the relief of daydreams. And the publications that cover travel were left to figure out how to serve readers who could scarcely imagine the fantasies they typically sell. When the entirety of your coverage area is suddenly culturally shunned and abolished by governments, where do you turn? The editors at the travel-focused publications that have survived are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but the traumas and challenges of the last year and a half will not be soon forgotten. When the travel industry ground to a halt last spring — the industry shrunk by more than 4.5 trillion dollars and lost 62 million jobs — shrinking advertising budgets hit travel magazines especially hard. Condé Nast Traveller laid off part of its staff, and Departures gave up its print publication to focus on digital.

On the last day before travel magazine Afar went remote on March 13, 2020, the editorial staff met with a tourism group in the New York office, congregating ten people in a conference room. “I remember us having hand sanitizer everywhere, and we Lysoled all the tables, but we weren’t wearing masks yet because we didn’t really know,” said digital content director Laura Dannen Redman. As the reality of the pandemic set in and they realized they were facing the end of travel as they knew it, the editors had to rethink their content. “We had an entire lineup set for the year — we always do a month-to-month thematic lineup, as fleshed out as any print lineup would be,” Redman recalled, still sounding a little shell shocked. “We basically scrapped the whole thing and started over.”

It was not, of course, the first time that travel journalism had been interrupted by world events. In 1918, Travel magazine (which had been launched in 1901 by the New York Central Railroad as Four-Track News) took more note of the disruptions of World War I than the influenza pandemic. Its May 1918 issue carried an editorial bemoaning, “Congestion and delay characterize the present state of travel. There is scarcely a country of the world where the road nerves are not partially or completely upset because of the heavy war burdens imposed upon them. Travel for pleasure has long since been curtailed.” A year later, in May 1919, an ad was taken out by the federal Director General of Railroads to victoriously announce, “Now the war necessity is passed and it is the settled policy of the Railroad Administration to do everything reasonably in its power to facilitate passenger travel. … The vacation season is approaching, and the time is at hand to plan for a change of scene, for rest and recreation.”

At Afar, the team’s initial focus narrowed to only immediately relevant things. “In March, we were full-on all news, all the time. The entire team, basically,” Redman said. “People presume they should be telling people what to do and where to go, but we had as much intel as anyone else. We were stuck at home. So we had to talk to locals, we had to find their perspectives.” And because of concerns about contractions in the advertising industry, Afar froze its freelance budget so that break-neck news-gathering fell on in-house writers and editors. “It just felt like it wasn’t the time to be dreamy. I mean, we all certainly needed an escape, especially in April, and we did pivot to some armchair travel then,” Redman said, but “every time we did it, we had to ask ourselves, do people want to hear this? Are we being sensitive to the tenor of the time? People were dying, right? You don’t want to publish something at a time when the world isn’t ready to read it. But at the same time, you want to find ways to inspire hope and optimism.”

Travel + Leisure, by contrast, gambled on maintaining a sense of continuity. Editor-in-chief Jacqui Gifford hit the road at least once most months pre-pandemic. In May of 2019, she told Off the Record, “I went to Tennessee to report a story, I went to Singapore for a trade show, I went to London and Paris for sales calls, and then I went to Charleston one night to film a video. That was by far my craziest month.” But then the world fell apart, and it all stopped. Gifford chose to stick with the dreamy sensibility that had always been her magazine’s stock and trade. “Our audience, they believe in travel, right? They’re passionate travelers. And the situation on the ground was changing so fast that it was impossible for anybody to keep up with it. So we weren’t going to turn Travel + Leisure into your daily Covid update. It just wasn’t possible,” she said. “I thought about it those first couple weeks, and I was like, ‘They’re not going to expect that of us.’ It was a bet that I made. It’s like, they’re coming to us to dream, and they’ve always come to us to dream.”

It’s a bet that seems to have paid off. Travel + Leisure’s readership increased by 13 percent from the fall of 2020 to 2021, and this past September, its website saw 34.6 percent more unique visitors than the previous year. But there’s no knowing whether other strategies would have worked out just as well or better. In a year of relentless news-gathering, Redman said Afar’s subscriptions and web traffic boomed, too. And Gifford’s strategy has presented her and her team with all sorts of additional challenges. For the first half-year of the pandemic, they were able to refresh and repurpose stories that had already been reported and photographed before the lockdowns, but then that well ran dry. “We couldn’t send anybody anywhere,” Gifford said. “It became easier to use local reporters.” Even that wasn’t a panacea. “The biggest challenge with assigning anything during Covid is the situation could change tomorrow,” she said. “Like our February cover story, we used this wonderful photographer Melissa Alcena in the Bahamas. The Bahamas shut down, and the local population was under lockdown multiple times, so the shoot just took a while because she would be like, ‘Guys, guess what, they’re closing things down again. I can’t get to this beach in time.’”

Travel journalists, along with many others, began to tentatively venture away from home again in the summer of 2020. “I didn’t start sending people out into the field until June, which, even still, when you think back on it, that’s actually pretty early,” Gifford said, “but we had to create new content, and travel was restarting in some ways.” She checked into her first hotel of the pandemic that July, and from there, started modest excursions outside New York. Redman used a similar strategy. “We kept our radius to three hours or less, in part because of the border controls that were set up state by state,” she said. The stories she published on the Afar site at the time reflected that cautious optimism. “We were seeing a lot of traffic to a ’40 Socially Distanced Vacations’ package that we did in the summer of ’20,” she said. “That was the kind of inspo that people wanted. It had to be relevant inspo. It couldn’t be future looking. Everything had to have some kind of practical element to it. So we were doing that through summer and fall.”

Because they were traveling by car and numbers were down, everything seemed to go smoothly over the summer. “We all wore masks indoors and outdoors, and it felt fine,” Redman said. “It felt manageable until, I’d say, around Thanksgiving time. Then it felt like lockdown again.” As Covid numbers shot back up in the fall of 2020, Afar pivoted back to the news. “We probably leaned back into more news through like the dark days until mid-January, when we started to get some hope that a vaccine was on the way,” she said. “That’s when it felt like we could start tiptoeing back out and offering people bigger, bolder inspiration.”

Gifford’s feeling that travel was returning to normal also preceded the widespread distribution of vaccines. In December, she and her family flew to Anguilla in the Caribbean and stayed three weeks. “That was the first flight I’d taken,” she said. “I was definitely nervous getting on the plane, but then it was like ripping a Band-Aid off, right? I did it once, and I was like, okay, I can do this. And that really normalized travel, meaning it reminded me of what I had been missing and what’s so powerful and amazing about our industry, just seeing new places and meeting people.” Since then, she’s returned to a schedule more akin to her pre-pandemic life, including trips to Kenya, California, and Mexico.

The contents of her magazine bear the mark of that new confidence. “I remember making the call to send our first reporters from the United States into Europe,” Gifford said. For the September issue, she sent an American reporter to Istria, Croatia. “Europe was finally kind of coming out of things, and it was opening again, and I was like, You know what, now the story and what’s going to be beneficial for our brand, in some ways, is sending people from the US because we need to know what that experience is like. We need to know how this all works, right?” she said. “Our audience is primarily American, so they need to know how you navigate these new steps.”

Redman was itching to get back abroad, too, after receiving the vaccine. That impulse had been latent in all habitual travelers, but it also felt like a professional obligation for her. “Our readers, we know from research, are among the first to get back out there,” she said. “If we can’t lead by example, then what are we doing?” So, soon after she was vaccinated, she flew to Iceland. Standing on the border between metaphor and moment, she watched volcanoes erupt and felt like she’d been shot free of her northeastern silo. “Of all the first experiences to have after the year we had,” she said, “it was top five of a lifetime.” Since then, she’s gone to Todos Santos, Mexico, and Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean, but she’s still traveling within a limited radius. “I don’t want to go anywhere too far from my kids in case I can’t come back,” she said. “If I get a false positive Covid test or if I get Covid, God forbid, I want to be within a six-hour flight of my kids.”

As unfamiliar as it has been for veteran travel journalists, it has also been a disorienting time for editors to enter the genre. Leading up to the election and through the pandemic, Allie Yang had shouldered a great deal of stress as a producer across news shows at ABC, including 20/20, Nightline, and The View. The evacuation of Afghanistan was the last straw for her. “Afghanistan happened, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I need to get out of this shit,’” she said. “I think one of the last days before I was like ‘I need to get out’ was when there was a bombing on the wall, and a bunch of Marines died. That was after people were trying to get on planes and trying to hang on to the wings of a plane. Oh, it was just awful.” So, in September, she started a job as a travel editor at National Geographic. “I took a sabbatical from news when I got this new job. I needed a detox,” she said.

When Yang took the National Geographic job, she was caught up in last summer’s optimism. “I’ll be honest with you, I thought we were going to be in a better place by now,” she said, “I think we all did.” She still hasn’t been fully able to put herself in the shoes of readers who are ready to travel as if the pandemic is over. “I haven’t been on a plane since 2019, and I still would feel really weird about it,” she said. “When I write stories about Europe, I’m kind of thinking about people within Europe traveling within Europe, maybe driving, instead of gearing it to an international audience who would be flying overseas.” Coming up with ideas for stories has forced her to make an empathetic perspectival leap. “I’m kind of thinking about ideas that other people would have if they were comfortable with flying,” she said, “because it’s all over my feeds, people in Europe and South America and stuff, which is crazy to me, personally. I wouldn’t be doing it right now.”

She’s hopeful that she’ll be able to see the world as a travel editor for the first time next year. In July, she’s planning to take a trip to Japan that she’s been trying to organize since 2019, and she’s going on a long-planned cruise. “It’s the same freakin’ cruise, the Diamond Princess, that was trapped and like everyone died on it,” she said. “What that speaks to my intelligence, I don’t know, but I still really want to do it.”

That hope abounds at other publications. On September 26, The New York Times Magazine published its “Voyages Issue,” The New Yorker published its travel issue this week, and Granta’s Issue 157, published this autumn, is a collection of traveling meditations titled “Should We Have Stayed at Home?” Though Afar is still focussing more on domestic travel and less on countries like Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and Japan, which have only recently begun to ease their stringent travel restrictions, Redman is looking for a return to normal. “Our 2022 lineup has the same energy to it that our 2019 lineup did when we were growing like gangbusters and having a record year,” she said. “It feels like we can start having conversations that were more like the before times.”