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TURNING SOCIAL ISSUES INTO TRAVEL ARTICLES

On Monday I wandered into a dive shop in San Pedro, the main town on Ambergris Caye in Belize, but instead of signing up for a scuba trip I somehow dove into an animated debate with Gilbert, a tall, 30-something Belizean entrepreneur.

You see, Belize is a poor country but San Pedro has been discovered by the luxury tourism industry, which is busy building luxury condos and high-end resorts. And Gilbert moved here eight months ago from Belize City to help facilitate and accelerate the change.

Gilbert said he was annoyed that many of the local Belizeans were fighting the “inevitable” development, and by doing so, were insuring that they wouldn’t partake of the wealth that it would generate.

Me? I think he was more ticked that people were trying to stand in his way.

I told him he made an interesting point but that people had a right to fight to preserve the way of life that made the place special to begin with, and it was natural to resent outside speculators who didn’t care anything about the caye other than how much money it would put in their pockets.

I mention this because we travel writers tend to emphasize the aspect of our trade that is “escapist.” That is, exuding to readers about wonderful, colorful places to go where they can have a romantic or adventurous or relaxing vacation, filled with fabulous food, sandy beaches, and exotic nightlife.

And certainly that’s a major element. But the world is continually getting smaller and more inter-dependent, and clearly there’s also a place for “real world” issues to be addressed in your travel writing — or travel journalism, if you prefer. If you can do it, it gives you one more “arrow” in your arsenal of freelance tools.

My discussion with Gilbert touched on one such social issue. What will widespread development mean for the future of Belize — as a vacation-spot, as an opportunity for investors, for the natural beauty for which it’s known, and for the way of life of the majority of its people?

We all know once-pristine places that have been “ruined” through rampant growth. On the other hand, it does bring a higher standard of living for many.

Another relevant issue in many parts of the world is how global warming is affecting the landscape. What’s the impact on vegetation and the animal life? Are the traditional “high” and “low” seasons being altered on account of climate change? What is the country doing, if anything, to contain it?

Some other “real-world” issues to consider might include:

* The impact of religious fundamentalism on the culture. Is it growing? Creating stresses in the society?

* The influence of American culture. Do people in this country yearn to be an “American Idol?” Do they get most of their TV, music and movies — from the U.S.? Is the country in danger of losing its own unique cultural traditions and heritage on account of the constant barrage of foreign mass media? Have McDonald’s and Starbucks overrun the local eateries and changed the local diet?

* The impact of tourism. Has it overrun the culture to the point where it’s hard to find the “authentic” way of life?

* Immigration — both legal and illegal. Its impact on the culture, and whether the society is absorbing it well, or not.

* Social problems like crime, drugs, AIDS. How well a country deals with these can shift pretty dramatically, for better or worse, in a relatively short time, making this a timely thing to write about.

* For American audiences — How is the U.S. perceived there these days? This has changed quite a bit in the past few years, mostly for the worse. But why? And should Americans be concerned about their safety, on account of it?

This may sound a bit overwhelming for you as an outsider to report on. But here’s the good news…

First of all, these issues make good sidebars, meaning you don’t have to write long, in-depth analyses.

Secondly, most readers will be unfamiliar with the local issues, so you just have to get them up to snuff. In short, you don’t need to be a scholar on these topics to write about them.

And thirdly, you can get into animated discussions with locals beyond “Where you from?” Next time we’ll talk about how to become an “instant expert” on these and other subjects you want to write about.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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